The Battle of the
You can't say that The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies doesn't deliver exactly what the title promises. Though if you want to nitpick, you could probably argue that one or two extra armies show up.
As a final button on Peter Jackson's Middle Earth Saga (not necessarily to be confused with that of J.R.R. Tolkien), this movie highlights the best and the worst of his filmmaking instincts.
If not for all the horrific supernatural creatures, Middle Earth does seem like a place you'd want to visit. The cinematography continues highlighting sweeping plains, beautiful mountains, and oh, how those shimmering lakes reflect the dragon fire.
Somehow Jackson finds new ways to make the battle choreography interesting, even though each movie has featured at least one such huge setpiece. Each time, the fights have gotten more and more deliriously unrealistic, especially where Legolas (Orlando Bloom) has been concerned, and this time around raises the bar. The difference between elves and Wile E. Coyote is clearly that elves mostly win their fights.
But still, the fights scenes do maintain the narrative, making The Battle of the Five Armies the most popcorn-worthy of the films. Jackson even does a decent -- though again occasionally ridiculous -- job with drawing out the confrontation with Smaug, allowing his actors to make an impression amidst the chaos and justifying Benedict Cumberbatch's participation this time around.
The performances remain sincere, none more so than Martin Freeman anchoring everything as Bilbo. If his friendship toward Thorin (Richard Armitage) carries any weight, it's because Freeman does know that Bilbo isn't only a little fellow, after all. And both actors find moments of warmth that play better than the script really sets up.
As a filmmaker, Jackson isn't just indulging himself. It does seem that one of the things that has bloated this saga is that he really does love these characters and this world. Despite the original book being an actually much simpler action story for children, Jackson wants to give his heroes what he feels is their due. They get spotlights that tend to distract rather than enhance what could be a tight run towards the end.
And yet he has such good actors. It's hard to fault him.
Who doesn't think that Aidan Turner and Evangeline Lilly make a good-looking couple? But ultimately, their doomed love story -- concocted by Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Phillippa Boyens -- adds nothing to the plot. It just pushes buttons on old cinematic tropes. Lilly might have been more interestingly served just as the bad-ass elfin warrior she appears to be, fighting for her own independence from an increasingly cold king (Lee Pace).
Instead, she is reduced to Maria in Middle Side Story, to fade back into Jackson's mind until he digitally places her into Return of the King The Expanded Expanded Edition, right next to a glowing Hayden Christiansen.
Even Bilbo has to be made more pro-active, fighting nobly against the orcs before suffering his head injury. And Thorin himself has to be given a scene to regain his noble nature rather than just descend into madness until it's too late -- but still, due to the nature of the story, it is too late.
A few additions do work. If you needed the connection to The Lord of the Rings, there's still something satisfying about seeing Christopher Lee and hearing his powerful voice ring out once more. But I fear that Jackson will be tempted to make another connecting movie, since he seems determined here to make sure audiences connect the dots back to the first (later) trilogy.
And that's the biggest flaw, though it probably won't get in the way of your enjoyment. When The Battle of the Five Armies follows (at least loosely) what Tolkien originally included in The Hobbit, it works well enough. But Jackson also adds in backstory to a a trilogy that didn't need it.
At least (sorry -- not a spoiler), he didn't crowbar Gollum into it.
Is it the final chapter in the Middle Earth Saga? I hope so, not because it's bad, but because it's time to let the story end and move on to other things. For now, enjoy it. With all that's going on, it's not a bad thing to want to retreat to the Shire.