Well, the third Hobbit movie has finally arrived and with it the end of Peter Jackson’s controversial trilogy. All complaints about his over-reliance on computer effects and the merciless stretching of Tolkien’s book into three movies can now only be framed in the past tense. Smaug has been slain, the Battle of the Five Armies fought and won, the stage set for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and catastrophic spoilers spilt all over Twitter, Buzzfeed, and Facebook. The movie does not disappoint. The titular battle is one that can proudly stand alongside the Battle of Helm’s Deep and the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in terms of its scale, intensity, and focus on military tactics. Fans of both film trilogies finally get to have one of their greatest dreams fulfilled: a battle involving an army of dwarves. In fact, one of the best moments of the film involves Thranduil’s army of elves leaping over a carapaced dwarf phalanx to surprise attack a contingent of orcs.
If the first two Hobbit films seemed to embody the more deliberately childlike tone of the novel – what with scenes of Radagast the Brown nursing a CGI hedgehog as birds crapped in his hair and a barrel-bound Bombur bashing baddies as he careened down a river – The Battle of the Five Armies sees the introduction of the more dramatic, literal-end-of-the-world intensity that gave the Rings trilogy its oomph. Jackson isn’t just presenting the audience with the standard fare of whiz-bang fantasy violence and excitement. There is a palpable atmosphere of foreboding doom and gloom as the forces of evil assemble and a certain necromancer begins to strengthen himself. The main theme of the Rings Trilogy, the corrupting lure of power, is presented as powerfully as it ever has been in Jackson’s films. The most fascinating character in the film this time around is Thorin Oakenshield, that leader of Bilbo’s party who was derided by many audiences as a wet blanket during the first two movies. With the Lonely Mountain reclaimed from Smaug, he is twisted and corrupted by his lust for the missing Arkenstone (pocketed by Bilbo in the last movie). It is no coincidence that his later dialogue is distorted and deepened like those crazed by lust for the One Ring in the Rings Trilogy.
So now we come to the big question: was this film worth it? Was it worth lengthening the novel into three movies? I would answer: no. The Hobbit trilogy is overburdened by narrative padding, cheap special effects, and fight scenes that go on too long. Case in point: a climactic series of duels take place between Thorin and Legolas and the leaders of the orc host on the top of a snow-covered mountain. I found my eyes beginning to glaze over after a while because it got to the point where I was essentially watching an animated stag reel of physically impossible stunt-work.
It’s no secret that Jackson interspersed the Rings trilogy with CGI, especially during big, complicated fight scenes. But compare these duels with the cave troll fight in The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). CGI was used judiciously with the more blatant instances (such as Legolas jumping on top of the troll to shoot it in the head) being framed in long shots so that the artifice wasn’t immediately apparent to viewers who weren’t actively looking for it. The vast majority of the scene saw real-life actors fighting with an admittedly computer generated monster. But the fight scenes on the mountain lack any kind of dramatic weight because they almost all look computer generated, even one-on-one fights that could have easily been pulled off with costumed stuntmen. Here’s the rule of thumb: audiences should never feel like they’re watching animation in a live-action film. CGI should enhance, not replace.
If anything, The Hobbit should have a) been adapted as a 5-7 part television miniseries, and b) been directed by someone who wasn’t forced to do it. An Unexpected Journey (2012) felt like Jackson was on auto-pilot. The Desolation of Smaug (2013) saw a brief flickering of Jackson’s brilliance in the creative sequences of slapstick violence that helped break up the tedious padding and the outrageously absurd set-pieces like Thorin & Co. rafting down a river of melted gold. Watching The Battle of the Five Armies, I felt for the first time that I was again being transported to Middle-Earth by the same genius who delivered the definitive fantasy film series of the new millennium. This is easily the best film of the trilogy. Unfortunately, that also means that it’s almost as good as The Fellowship of the Ring.