Marketing materials for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies have proudly termed it ‘The Defining Chapter’. If that’s so, it offers a definition that many will find apt for Peter Jackson’s second Middle-earth trilogy: a visually spectacular epic propped up by paper-thin characters and a story stretched so thin that it’s a wonder it doesn’t snap entirely.
This third Hobbit film wastes no time in bringing viewers up to speed, dropping us straight in where The Desolation of Smaug left off: with the Cumberbatchian dragon soaring towards Laketown while muttering to himself about how great he is. Once Smaug is rather swiftly dealt with, the plot races towards Jackson’s real concern: the epic five-way battle that lies at the heart of the film, by brief way of a subplot which sees Christopher Lee’s Saruman break out his wizard-fu to save Gandalf from Sauron, who everyone then proceeds to ignore for the rest of the film.
The strongest character arc in the film belongs to Richard Armitage’s Thorin, who has found himself the owner of a mountain full of gold and a nasty case of ‘dragon sickness’ (which, to their credit, cast members continue to say with a straight face), the symptoms of which include really, really liking gold and sometimes being a bit mean to his friends. As Thorin locks himself inside the mountain, armies of elves, men, dwarves, orcs and more gather outside and duke it out.
The battle itself is perhaps the finest realisation yet of Jackson’s natural sense for epic fantasy warfare, as we see cave trolls used as siege weapons, dwarven shield walls and Orlando Bloom’s Legolas just being generally ridiculous. For the most part Jackson succeeds in keeping the audience abreast not only of the overall state of the battle at large, but also the way that each significant fight within it is going, which is an impressive feat when there are five armies and a sprawling cast in play.
Unfortunately, and despite his best efforts, even Jackson can’t keep the action compelling for as long as he tries to. By the time you’re half an hour into the main battle, it’s no longer a question of set pieces so much as one sprawling, interminable set piece without any pauses for breath. If you thought that the second film’s barrel escape lasted a bit too long, you haven’t seen anything yet.
Fight scenes and spectacle aside, this third entry in the series is clearly feeling the consequences of the decision to drag three films out of the one, rather small, book. While the first two films left themselves with a variety of locations and plot points to play with, the final film finds itself with all of the pieces in position by about ten minutes in, with nothing left to do but let them all pile in on each other.
Character arcs suffer similarly, especially poor Bilbo, who’s left on the sidelines for much of the film, and even rather pointedly shoved out of the way for the climax. Martin Freeman continues to do a great job with what he’s given, but it would be all too easy to forget that the film’s title does still start with ‘The Hobbit’ – until we hit the sixth or seventh ending and see his admittedly poignant return to the Shire, that is.
Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films attracted criticism for their limited female roles, a problem inherited from the source material, and in that respect he faced an even bigger challenge adapting The Hobbit, which doesn’t feature a single prominent female character. To that end, the second film introduced the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who could hold her own in a fight, stood up to authority and was a welcome addition to the series.
Unfortunately, the romantic subplot introduced there explodes into a full-blown love triangle here, one which swallows Tauriel’s character entirely. Here’s a tip, Peter: if you’re going to introduce a single major female character into a franchise, don’t reduce her primary motivations to romantic ones, and don’t turn her into a damsel in distress just to give one of your male heroes some extra motivation in the finale. Please.
At the end of the day, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies does exactly what you’d expect it to. It contains a giant battle with fantasy mayhem on a grand scale, it’s stuffed with a great cast who are let down by often clunky lines (special mention must go to Legolas’ astonishing exclamation that “these bats were bred for one purpose… battle!”, a line clearly written with memes in mind), it sacrifices plot and emotion for big special effects shots, and then tries to lather emotion on through heartfelt ending after ending after ending.
If you’ve watched all five of Jackson’s Middle-earth films so far and enjoyed them, you’ll no doubt enjoy this one too. If you find them a bit of a bore, this is unlikely to change your mind. There’s a comforting consistency here that will please fans, but anyone hoping to see Jackson reach loftier heights for ‘The Defining Chapter’ will be left disappointed.
The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies is out in UK cinemas on December 12th