Fattening Fantasy Action in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

We all knew this Hobbit trilogy was a bad idea for padding out such a short story.

Director Peter Jackson managed to produce some favorable content in his first two films of this series, but with The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, he has run out of steam. He’s all but abandoned that sense of wonder and fantastical adventure he was aiming for in the previous installments. He even forgets about his central protagonist in this grand finale—Bilbo Baggins mostly just kicks his feet up to stay invisible for this elongated fight scene Jackson has ballooned to two hours.

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As if to tease the audience with a better film, Battle of the Five Armies begins with the massive dragon Smaug laying waste to a seaside town. He breathes fire and cackles with smug laughter as the citizens flee in terror. If this were the entire movie, as one poster seems to suggest, this entry could have stood just as strong as the previous two films. However, as if this were some cruel joke, Smaug is promptly killed off before the title of the film appears. Did you think you were going to see a movie about charismatic adventurers slaying a dragon? Too bad; this movie is now one long string of fantasy combat.

The rest of the film turns is cross between a reunion and “greatest fights” compilation for the Middle Earth collective. All your favorites from the franchise pop up to get in on the action: Orlando Bloom returns with a bow and seemingly endless quiver of arrows. Hugo Weaving takes the fight to some orcs once more. Even Christopher Lee wields his staff to cast some of his most trippy spells yet. But much like any reunion or cameo-riddled special, the film becomes bogged down trying to juggle all these characters and drops a few of them in the shuffle. In particular, Martin Freeman as Bilbo is kicked to the curb, despite being the titular hero of this trilogy. The plucky hobbit spends the majority of the film on the sidelines in his cloak of invisibility.

There is more action than adventure in this fantasy, and it has a thick coating of abundant computer graphics. To keep all the Hobbit movies over two hours apiece, Battle of the Five Armies fattens up its running time by making the majority of its story one long, drawn-out fight scene for the mountain. Orc armies sneer and roar toward the hill to spill blood for piles of gold. Dwarves arrange and stack their pikes and shields to becomes the most crafty warriors on the battlefield. Large bats descend from the sky, mammoth worms emerge from the ground, and giants swing their clubs towards their enemies.

All this makes for a very showy and busy battle that is visually impressive and engaging . . . for about 15 minutes. After 20 minutes, I grew tired of watching orc after orc stabbed and decapitated. After 30 minutes, I was sighing every time the battle slowed down to feature an orc kill some character we’ve only been invested in for a short time. After 40 minutes, I was facepalming at how many one-on-one duels were being staged among the hordes of armies fighting around. These scenes are not exactly terrible and are actually pretty well choreographed individually, with the usual round of top-notch computer graphics. But when strung together with nothing to break them up, the cliché of the scenes becomes so obvious and they distract from the rest of the picture.

It’s no surprise that the third film happens to be the most bloated of the trilogy and the one with the shortest running time. There just isn’t enough left in the story for the finale. So instead of crafting more clever, unique moments of wonder and danger, Jackson retreats to a fattening helping of epic wars. I can’t help but compare it to Michael Bay’s treatment of the Transformers franchise, which seems to emphasize carnage over character for an extended period of time. There’s little to be invested in when most of the time we spend with these players is on the battlefield, where the majority of dialogue consists of screams and grunts. Some characters are even reduced to very brief cameos that, if you blink, you’ll miss.

There are a few glimmering moments around all the blood and amputations. Thorin’s vision of melting into a pool of gold as he descends into madness is a very striking point in the picture. Bilbo and Gandalf are always a lovable pair, and their exchanges are wonderful to listen to. Even the ending is rather amusing and touching, as it beautifully caps off the series. But all of these scenes serve as mere bookends—to the point where they are more window dressing for the special effects than the actual elements of the story.

Fantasy films should take the viewer on a true adventure of a hero’s journey across a wondrous world of beautiful surprises and great danger. The Battle of the Five Armies never reaches that level of entertainment with the way it beats the viewer over the head with special effects harder than a giant’s club. If it doesn’t show from the pace that this film didn’t need to be made, it at least begs for a shorter running time. It seems Jackson was determined to make this series go out on a big bang, and he more or less achieves that goal by presenting the grand battle that supposedly many wanted to see. But for being as drawn out as it is, it leaves the viewer with more of a bitter hangover than a touching farewell.

In the immortal words of a high-school graduate’s yearbook quote, I’m glad it’s over.

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