'The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies' has a familiar ring
Bilbo bows out as the last of Peter Jackson's Middle-earth movies delivers on the battle, not so much on the hobbit.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Do you like "The Lord of the Rings"? Then you'll love "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies", which delivers exactly what the title promises but no surprises. Six films and countless hours in, familiarity is the name of the game as "Five Armies" loops back to the beginning of the story while closing the book on Peter Jackson's epic saga.
"The Battle of the Five Armies" is the final entry to Jackson's "Hobbit" trilogy, which started with "An Unexpected Journey". It follows directly on from the devastating cliffhanger of "The Desolation of Smaug". It's our hero Bilbo's fault that the dreaded dragon Smaug -- he loves goooolllld! -- has set off to massacre the inhabitants of Laketown, leading to an eye-popping opening as Smaug descends upon the village with raging fire.
The first thing to burn is any trace of subtlety, and Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" hallmarks are present throughout: sumptuous scenery, dizzying camerawork, bombastic music and eye-melting CGI melded with the real-life familiar faces. The stage is duly set for a spectacular meeting of dwarf, elf and orc hosts in the shadow of the Lonely Mountain, with our reluctant hero Bilbo Baggins and his dwarf buddies stuck in the middle.
Playing Bilbo for the third and final time, Martin Freeman's scenes with Richard Armitage's dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield are the best thing in the film. It's the most affecting relationship in the whole affair, with Bilbo watching in despair as his friend succumbs to greed and corruption, paralleling the hapless hobbit's own experiences with the one ring that will cause so much trouble down the line.
This is a smaller story than the Middle-earth-spanning tales of the older films, and there's something bleakly relevant about the plot as rulers send their people to die over grudges and trinkets.
It's a shame that for a series called "The Hobbit", there's precious little of the hobbit himself in this closing instalment. Because there are so many characters and subplots, Bilbo vanishes for long stretches of time and even the dwarves we're supposed to be following on their quest disappear almost entirely into the background.
Most of the time we're busy elsewhere, to the film's detriment: there was already too much of Laketown's local politics in the previous film. Again, there's also way too much time spent on the tacked-on love triangle between Orlando Bloom's Legolas, Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel and Aidan Turner as the one dwarf who's lack of a silly rubber nose qualifies him as romantic material.
Not only are those tangents less interesting than the main story, but they're often downright baffling. Legolas frowning into the distance and saying, "We must journey beyond the Cornershop of Birkenhead and summon... (music swells) the Bogof of Samallardyce!" may be pant-wettingly exciting for fans, but it doesn't do anything to advance the story. And even after watching all six films I've still got no idea what's going on with Sauron.
Basically, if you know that your future will never involve elf-eared cosplay or an extended edition box set, any time the action shifts away from Bilbo you're good to nip to the bathroom.
Yet despite this range of characters, there's a strange lack of compelling villains. The bad guys are a swirly thing in the sky, a couple of interchangeable video game sprites and a painfully unfunny lickspittle who just keeps turning up again and again long after his cowardly schtick wore off precisely one film ago. Incidentally, his name actually is Lickspittle, proving along with Grima Wormtongue that nominative determinism is alive and well in Middle-earth. However, if that were strictly true, Bard's name would be Board -- Luke Evans does his best but Aragorn he ain't.
Still, compared to the interminable false endings of "The Return of the King", "Five Armies" is relatively compact. Yet you can't claim to feel short-changed: we're promised a battle, and battles we get. There's barely any dialogue for the last third of the film, just steel on steel, garnished with more elfen parkour than you could shake a wizard's staff at. From armies crunching together to individual characters settling their differences, closure is satisfyingly noisy.
Ultimately, it feels churlish to pick holes. Jackson's vision of J. R. R. Tolkien's world is as grand and entertaining as any fantasy world you could hope to escape to. If "Five Armies" feels familiar then it's thoroughly, comfortably familiar, like wrapping yourself up in a duvet on a Sunday afternoon and watching any of the "Lord of the Rings" flicks for the 20th time. With Jackson deftly weaving in references to the still-to-come trilogy he began 13 years ago, the end loops back to the beginning. Like a circle. Like something round.
Like a... well, you know.
Farewell to Middle-earth: celebrate 'The Lord of the Rings' and 'The Hobbit' (pictures)