I think most of us can agree that some of the best moments of Peter Jackson's films based on J.R.R. Tolkien's novel, "The Hobbit," thus far have involved the malevolent dragon, Smaug. A spectacular blend of state of the art movie effects magic and pitch-perfect voice acting from Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug was the true star of the previous film, "The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug," and a character for the ages. So it's all the more disappointing to find that the character ends up being dispatched 10 minutes into the new film, before even the subtitle comes up.
The final installment in Jackson's bloated trilogy, "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" begins where we left off, with the band of dwarves led by ThorinOakenshield (Richard Armitage) and including our titular hero Bilbo Baggins (still played with dependable charm by Martin Freeman) having awoken the fire-breathing beast. In a spectacularly terrifying scene, Smaug proceeds to lay siege to the village of Laketown before being single-handedly brought down by heroic archer Bard (Luke Evans). It's an impressive sequence, and it's no surprise that it ends up being far more exciting than anything that follows.
With Smaug out of the picture, the displaced citizens of Laketown head to the mountain for refuge, where they're drawn into battle as various factions of dwarves, orcs, elves, and humans fight for control of the Lonely Mountain and the treasures therein. And so, the adventures of Bilbo Baggins are brought to a predictably epic conclusion. But if you've seen one epic scene of Middle Earth warriors clashing against one another, you've seen them all, and without any breakout character like Smaug or Gollum, or a standout action set piece à la the last film's whitewater barrel chase, there's little to latch onto.
I can't help but find it interesting that the series' most arresting characters have been entirely of the CGI variety. Perhaps it's because for the moments those characters are on screen, all of the film's effects work is being focused on making that fantastical character come to life as seamlessly and naturally as possible, instead of creating spectacle for the sake of spectacle.
For much of the film, Dwarf leader Thorin acts as the film's villain as his mind becomes clouded by greed, determined to protect the riches he now possesses, no matter what the cost. The irony of turning a tale with a built-in message about the dangers of greed into such a blatantly cash-grabby series of films is apparently lost on Jackson. As Gandalf himself warns, "Never underestimate the evil of gold."
Through it all, "Five Armies" remains entirely uninvolving, and it can't escape the feeling of familiarity that has plagued each of the "Hobbit" films: We've seen this all before, and done much better. Here, the lengthy war scenes pale in comparison to anything seen in "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers."
The closest the film comes to a memorable action scene is during a nicely staged sequence where Legolas (Orlando Bloom) battles atop a collapsing bridge.
"Five Armies" is still undeniably beautiful to look at, Jackson is still capable of conjuring up images of uniquely majestic power. The final confrontation between Thorin and orc leader, Azog, concludes with a beautifully eerie image, but then gets extended through the use of the hokiest of horror movie clichés. It's characteristic of Jackson's need to pile on more and more, never knowing when enough is enough.
Martin Freeman still does fine work, though the film forgets about poor Bilbo for endless scenes at a time. Richard Armitage gets a few brief moments to shine, portraying Thorin's descent into paranoia and madness, as well as the climb back out. Evangeline Lilly and Aidan Turner also fair decently as the film resolves the love story between elf warrior Tauriel and handsome dwarf Kili, but their performances are mostly lost among the effects.
Though shortest of all six of the Middle Earth films, clocking in at just under 2 and a half hours, it doesn't nearly feel that way. Through all its battles, tragic loves, heroics, and flat attempts at humor, by the time the credits finally rolled, the only emotion I could muster up was relief.