As a book-to-screen adaptation, J.R.R. Tolkien's 300-page novel of "The Hobbit" never needed to be broken into three epic-length movies. This was the first (but far from last) miscalculation on the parts of director Peter Jackson and studios New Line Cinema and MGM, a purely fiscal decision that acted time and again as a creative detriment to the source material. If 2012's 169-minute "The Hobbit: An Unforgettable Journey
" and 2013's 161-minute "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
" were stretched and padded to the point of patience-testing monotonythe middle chapter, especially, could have been all but excised up until the third act when the fire-breathing dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) is introducedclosing installment "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" finally, at long last, gets to the goods. This prequel series has never been any match for the fresher, more involving "The Lord of the Rings
" trilogy from a decade ago, but here is a picture that at least feels as if it is approaching the same stratosphere of quality and control. At a strapping, fleet, to-the-point 144 minutes, "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" jumps into the action from frame one and delivers the rousing, high-stakes payoff it has taken far too long to get to.
With his dwarf companions by his side, hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) has traveled far and wide to reach the Lonely Mountains of Erebor, where he hopes to help his friends claim the piles of richesand one very powerful Arkenstonestolen from dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield's (Richard Armitage) family years ago. Sadly, things did not go off without a hitch, and the malevolent guardian of the treasure, Smaug, was awoken just in time to seek thunderous retribution on the neighboring Lake Town village. As "The Battle of the Five Armies" gets underway, the face-off against this intimidating flying creature proves to be a prologue and anticlimax all at once. With this deceptively indomitable threat quickly dispatched, the true showdown begins when Thorin, surrounded once more by promises of wealth beyond is imagination, is corrupted into choosing power and greed over honor. As Bilbo & Co. desperately try to break through to the good man inside of Thorin, a grave darkness approaches in the form of a vast Orc army led by Azog (Manu Bennett) and Bolg (Lawrence Makoare) who plan to lay siege on the Lonely Mountains by any means necessary.
If the overall three-picture narrative arc of "The Hobbit" hasn't been spun as well as the one in Peter Jackson's previous 2001-2003 excursion to Middle Earth, "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" gives 2003's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
" a run for its money in terms of the enormity of scope and spectacle on display. The mere thought of mounting such a ginormous production is unthinkable, but by now Jackson ought to be an old pro at it. By getting to the heart of the initial missionone that, let's be serious, could have been achieved in a matter of minutes if only those damn Great Eagles had shown up right from the start to transport Bilbo, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellan) and the dwarves to their destinationJackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo Del Toro no longer have to drag anything out. They know they have reached the end, and now get the chance to play with their characters and explore the alliances and oppositions between them as our heroes approach their own life-or-death fates. Suspense is weakened when participants of "The Lord of the Rings" are put into peril because it is a foregone conclusion that they will be living to see another day, but the taut handling of pacing and action set-pieces nonetheless prove consistently riveting. Because there is newfound urgency in where the story is leading, the interminability that cursed the last two films has vanished.
Martin Freeman (2013's "The World's End
") is a trusty, resourceful, sympathetic Bilbo Baggins, having grown to own the role alongside elder counterpart Ian Holm (who briefly appears at the end, bringing these two connected series full circle). With that said, Freeman and even more so Ian McKellen (2014's "X-Men: Days of Future Past
"), as wizard Gandalf the Grey, take secondary roles to the internal war inside Thorin and the external combat taking place around the Lonely Mountains. Richard Armitage (2014's "Into the Storm
") has consistently been an intense and commanding presence as dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield, but he is arguably the true star of the show in this final entry. Losing his mind to the gold in his possession, Thorin is so entranced that he doesn't notice or care that his heart and soul are blackening with each passing minute. His dismayed friends do, however, and they are not about to let Thorin destroy himself. Armitage is an actor equally adept at portraying the subtleties and the heightened aspects of his characters' struggles, and he gets to do both here in a way that grabs the viewer and holds him or her in rapt curiosity. As warrior elves Tauriel and Legolas, Evangeline Lilly (2011's "Real Steel
") and Orlando Bloom (2007's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
") physically get more to do, leading the charge on respective crowd-pleasing one-on-one fights to the death. Tauriel was not in the Tolkien book and her subplot has not played a crucial part in the plot at hand, but the creation of this strong, take-charge woman is welcome in a tale where female role models (or females of any kind) are in precious short supply.
A sensation of déjà vu is unavoidable while watching "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies." The extended battle sequences. The onslaught of creatures arriving en masse, ready to make the ultimate sacrifice. A protagonist overtaken by forces beyond his control. All of these components were on view and accounted for in "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
," and meant more the first time around. Where Peter Jackson succeeds despite the familiarity is in the detailsthe creative ingenuity of his setting and the grandeur he brings to it; the technical artistry of his art direction, design work and effects, and the layers of swirling, vital fervor that turn the umpteenth skirmish into a new chance to bring genuine tension to the proceedings. The snowy lair where the Orc King resides is magnificent to behold, while a shot where Thorin stands on a cliff overlooking the destructive crusade below is as sad and breathtaking as it was intended to be. Meanwhile, Howard Shore's (2011's "Hugo
") music finds the usual just-right balance between the rousing and the ethereal. "The Hobbit" is a simple story that needn't have been broken into more than two films at the most, and the choice to stretch it like taffy has been this franchise's Achilles' heel. It is better to start middling and finish strong than the inverse, and this is where "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" has arrived in the nick of time to turn things around. It may not completely redeem the errors in judgment that came before it, but this superior second sequel certainly makes all of the preceding hemming and hawing easier to swallow.