Peter Jackson’s “Just Give the People What They Want,” a.k.a. “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” sends this not-really-a-trilogy off in style. That means stuffing in everything the fans want, or that Jackson thinks the fans want out of these films made from the novel that came before “The Lord of the Rings.”
So “Battle” is bookended by two epic fights – the duel to the death with the dragon Smaug, and the “Five Armies” finale, with its pikes and pickaxes, fluttering flags and phalanxes.
There is death and destruction, forbidden love and treasure, honor and slaughter.
And Jackson, who has messed with this adaptation even more than he did “Lord of the Rings,” hedges his bets. His invented love story between the elvish Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) still doesn’t work. So he brings in Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom and Christopher Lee, reprising their characters from “Rings” as a way to anticipate – in the most heavy-handed way – the Middle Earth epic that followed this one.
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We get sentimental moments with most characters, often in the middle of the pitched battle that is the climax of this film, curtain calls to engender warm memories from the faithful.
And we’re treated to a trio of stunning special effects set pieces. The first is Smaug’s fire-breathing assault on Lake-town, torched to the water-line before the hero Bard (Luke Evans) can fell the beast. Then, there’s a struggle to save the ever-imprisoned Gandalf (Ian McKellen), one that involves a battle with the ghosts of warriors past. Blanchett, as the Elf Queen Galadriel, has an eye-popping moment.
And finally there’s a sword fight on the ice, a grim and drawn-out clash between monstrous orc and the Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the greedy and increasingly paranoid King under the Lonely Mountain. For Thorin, it isn’t enough that his rule is ensured when the humans slay the dragon who stood between Thorin and his band of dwarfs and their burglar, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), and the dwarves’ treasure-stuffed ancestral home.
The “Battle” of the story’s title is joined when Thorin proves too small to keep his bargain with the full-sized men of Lake-town, when the elves led by Thranduil (Lee Pace) come to collect another debt and the grotesque orcs converge on the ruins of the former stronghold to catch all their enemies in one place and wipe them out.
Gandalf is full of warnings about “if that fell kingdom should rise again,” and builds an impromptu alliance.
“Summon our friends, bird and beast!”
And Bilbo, the little furry-footed man with the secret magic ring, tries to make peace and save the day with a little hobbit ingenuity and negotiating.
“Five Armies” is funnier than the other Hobbit movies, with zingers from the cowardly ruler of Lake-town (Stephen Fry) and his more-cowardly aide (Ryan Gage), and sight gags that often involve some hapless orc being killed in a creative way.
Jackson’s camera, which is all digital crane shots covering a sea of digital soldiers in hand-to-hand combat, moves in for close-ups for the deaths here. Not that this adds impact. A lot of the digital riding stock – rams, elk, trolls – have the jerky movement of critters from the stop-motion animated “Jason and the Argonauts” 50 years ago.
“The Hobbit” has never overcome the handicaps of its plot and casting. Jackson made some of the dwarfs characters Snow White would adore, and others look like hunky, hirsute alumni of heavy metal bands, and none of them popped off the screen the way the players did in “Lord of the Rings.” The one classic hero here is Bard, the dragon slayer, and he has too little to do.
Freeman, a marvelous Dr. Watson on TV’s “Sherlock,” never seems proportionally right as a “halfling,” not the way Elijah Wood, Billy Boyd and Dominic Monaghan did in the “Rings” cycle.
He’s also got that TV actor’s disease – doing all his acting with his head, bobbing it about, animating everything but the rest of his body.
It’s the best film of this trilogy, but truthfully, none of the “Hobbit” thirds have been any better than middling “Hunger Games” or “Harry Potter” installments. Considering the vaunted reputation J.R.R. Tolkien enjoys, this overdone “There and Back Again” never quite got us there.
THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee
Director: Peter Jackson
Rated PG-13 (extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images)