There are few things in cinema that grate like an overindulgent Peter Jackson set piece, so consider Smaug the dragon lucky: He’s out after a mere 18 minutes of The Battle of the Five Armies, the final chapter in Jackson’s distended adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The digitally animated monster, voiced with supervillainous glee by Benedict Cumberbatch, spoke more words during a recent Colbert Report appearance than he gets here, where his job is limited to lighting up Lake-town with dragon fire and growling things like, “You cannot save him! He will burn!” Obviously, Jackson’s story needs to move on to weightier, more exciting things.
Which are what, exactly? All together, these films, which began in 2012 with the bloated An Unexpected Journey and continued last year with the fleeter, more fun The Desolation of Smaug, spend seven hours and 54 minutes adapting Tolkien’s brisk 300-page book, the chipper prequel to his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. Having already told much of The Hobbit in the first two movies—you know, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and dwarves and wizards and orcs and elves and goblins and Gollum and rings and wraiths and at last Smaug, the dragon who likes to talk to his food—Jackson hasn’t left himself much to do. Of course he must deliver the melee promised in the film’s title, which rivals, in screen minutes if not majesty, the two great clashes of his Lord of the Rings movies—the Battle of Helm’s Deep from The Two Towers and the Battle of the Pelennor Fields from The Return of the King. And he must leave each character where continuity requires, connecting this film’s events to those in 2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring, which is set about 60 years after The Hobbit.
In between all that, well: Do you like Orlando Bloom doing stunts? In 2003’s The Return of the King, it was a wee bit much when his Legolas scaled an oliphaunt, dispatched a dozen or so enemy combatants riding it, popped three arrows in the mammoth’s skull, and finally surfed down its trunk as it flailed and died. Here, Legolas goes hang-gliding on a massive bat that yells like a human, plunges a dagger into a troll’s head and uses it as a steering device, and successfully runs up the stones of a bridge as it collapses. (I’m fairly sure Jackson swiped that from a level in Super Mario 64.) When giant worms dig tunnels through a mountain so that an invading orc horde can enter the titular battle by surprise, you don’t even have to say, “Oh, come on,” because Jackson has a character recite those exact words.
I’ll cop to liking the middle chapter of Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, and will spare you another diatribe against Hollywood’s regrettable habit of stretching its franchises into multiple films, the better to make an extra $1 billion or so. That instinct may be responsible for why, overall, these films translate into such a bummer, but the bookends of Jackson’s Hobbit films fail for different reasons: An Unexpected Journey was so weighted by exposition that even someone who’s read The Silmarillion twice (guilty) left the theater feeling colder than the Witch-king of Angmar’s tit. The Battle of the Five Armies has the opposite problem. Rather than having too much pure Tolkien, it offers too much pure Jackson. It may occasionally seem to be aware of its undiluted preposterousness, but that hardly eases the experience of sitting through its endless cartoonish action sequences and overwrought emotional payoffs.
The aesthetics of Jackson’s Middle-Earth remain stunning, at least, thanks to Andrew Lesnie’s whooshing cinematography, battle scenes that look as frenzied and detailed as a Bosch painting, and a small handful of new locales like the orc stronghold Gundabad, where for some reason the architecture has a Southwestern modernist bent. The performances mostly remain humane, especially Freeman as Bilbo and Ian McKellen as Gandalf. And while I would watch a whole movie of Cumberbatch-as-Smaug nattering on about the gold standard, Lee Pace proves you don’t need teeth like swords to chew up scenery. As Thranduil, elven king of the Woodland Realm, the actor manages to land operatic lines like “You started this—you will forgive me if I finish it!” After seeing him in this role and as the space zealot Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy this summer, I suspect that if Warner Bros. ever green-lights a film about Harry Potter’s dad and his fellow Hogwarts marauders, Pace would make for a decent Young Voldemort.
I doubt anyone, child or adult, will take much from The Battle of the Five Armies’ facile musings on avarice. Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), the dwarves’ leader and the King under the Mountain, is nearly driven mad by gold and his search for the Arkenstone, a dwarvish gem possessing corruptive powers similar to those of the One Ring, which Bilbo pocketed in the first Hobbit film. Thranduil, too, initiates war with the dwarves over “gems of pure starlight” that remain nestled inside their mountain. As far as motivations go, even the orcs’ Manichean villainy—orcs gonna orc, right?—feels more interesting.
What Jackson’s The Hobbit ought to have delivered was a sense of wonder, the same one that’s enticed generations of middle-school readers (and which even Rankin/Bass’ slight 1977 cartoon adaptation managed to capture). But in turning a little story about a little dude who goes on a big quest into a huge story about a little dude who goes on an Awesome Chase—and then freighting it with enough continuity to choke a dragon—Jackson never manages to convey the sensation that Tolkien did. In Tolkien’s story, a small, comfortable world slowly opened into a bigger, wilder, and stranger one, where the payoff is exploration itself. In The Hobbit movies, it starts out big, only gets bigger, but the only payoff is a series of increasingly frenzied run-ins with orcs. “You are really just a little fellow, in a wide world,” Gandalf tells Bilbo as he inevitably returns to the Shire toward the end of The Battle of the Five Armies. After nearly eight hours in Jackson’s Middle-Earth, I’m ready to retire to a Hobbit-hole, too.