When J.R.R. Tolkien’s son accused Peter Jackson of missing the point of the Middle-earth books two years ago, he was far from alone in his distaste for the director’s emphasis on spectacle above all else. If such disapproval bothers Jackson, the action auteur doesn’t let it show. In fact, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” which caps the trilogy, finds Jackson doubling down against his detractors by inserting a 45-minute battle sequence into his adaptation of the anti-war children’s book.
Growing tension between the Tolkien estate and Warner Brothers has all but guaranteed that “Five Armies” will be Jackson’s last time in Middle-earth, so this prequel to the “Lord of the Rings” is the filmmaker’s final opportunity to vindicate his thrill-seeking, special effects-heavy, more-female-friendly vision.
But the lumbering and overstuffed “Five Armies” only proves Christopher Tolkien right. The 144-minute running time showcases Jackson’s worst tendencies: eons-long battle scenes, sloppy and abrupt resolutions, portentous romances, off-rhythm comic timing, and, newly in this case, patience-testing fan service.
Nonstop motion and a sense of fist-clenched urgency propel the buildup to and the melée of an interspecies conflict between dwarves, elves, goblins, and plain old humans. (A fifth contingent arrives much later.) The early defeat of the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) leads to a war over the hills of jewels and coins (“gold beyond grief and sorrow”) the creature had been hoarding, with each side (except the goblins) thumping its chest about its legitimate claims to the fortune.
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the titular hobbit, is sidelined for more conventional swashbuckling heroes like the quick-witted human leader Bard (Luke Evans), who hopes to use some of Smaug’s treasures to rebuild his town after it was set ablaze by the dragon, and the archer-elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who doesn’t appear in Tolkien’s text but has been recruited for feats of acrobatic derring-do (and raising the film’s prettiness quotient) by Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro.
Adding to the film’s already considerable bloat are plot-irrelevant scenes starring franchise favorites that amount to little more than shout-outs to fans. The elf Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and the wizards Gandalf and Saruman (Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee) pontificate and whip their magic sticks at Art Nouveau-esque demon-ghosts atop a mountain. It’s beautiful to witness their pale, impractical robes and paler, even more impractical manes swirling around them in Ren Faire perfection, but it also has almost nothing at all to do with the turmoil going on below.
The strains in stretching out the last third of a 384-page book to epic proportions are most apparent in the cramped emotional arcs of the would-be dwarf-king Thorin (Richard Armitage), whose refusal to share Smaug’s riches with the human refugees incites the war, and the elf-warrior Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), whose forbidden love for the handsome dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) retreads territory already covered by Arwen (Liv Tyler) in the “Lord of the Ring” movies.
Tolkien’s rather simple anti-greed message is taken to grandiose extremes in a hallucination scene starring Thorin (whose avarice is never afforded complications or resonance). Likewise, Tauriel and Kili’s romance, which sparked some fleet flirting in “The Desolation of Smaug,” is sunk by overwrought bombast in the numbing and interminable epilogue.
As usual, the splendor is in the details — in Tauriel’s byzantine braids, the careful sizing of the characters’ eyebrows (more hair means more evil), and the elaborate ugliness of the goblins, with scars and metal staples dispersed across their heads in surprising locations. It’s curious, then, that Jackson’s grand vision includes some rather egregious oversights. (Very minor spoiler for the ending: We never learn, for example, what happens to the gold over which the war was fought.)
“Five Armies” is a carefully controlled circus of freaks, marvels, grotesqueries, and high-flying pageantry. And like any circus, we’re there to gasp and to laugh, but not to feel. “The Hobbit” movies have taken us there and back again, and I’m mostly just relieved the journey is now over.