Dir: Peter Jackson. US-New Zealand. 2014. 144mins

The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

The final chapter of The Hobbit proves to be very much of a piece with the trilogy’s first two instalments: It’s robustly entertaining, occasionally affecting, sometimes thrilling, not exactly groundbreaking. From the start, the challenge facing director Peter Jackson when he signed on to this franchise four years ago would be trying to live up to the legacy of The Lord Of The Rings and, as The Battle Of The Five Armies makes plain, his Hobbit films never fully escaped the large shadow cast by his previous trilogy. That said, managed expectations are all that’s really necessary: This satisfying Battle showcases Jackson’s still-potent skill for sculpting large-scale action scenes, even if the freshness of his vision has faded.

The conclusion of The Hobbit doesn’t stir the soul as much as it rocks the senses and quickens the pulse. The Battle Of The Five Armies delivers marvellously on the promise of its title — but not much more than that. 

Opening across most of Earth by the middle of December, The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies will be shooting for a $1b worldwide gross, which was achieved by 2003’s The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King and 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. (Last year’s The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug made “merely” $960m.) Although this Warner Bros. offering doesn’t have the holiday season to itself, awareness of the J.R.R. Tolkien series is high. Add to that the fact that this is the final instalment, and Battle seems all but certain to garner major returns.

Immediately picking up where The Desolation Of Smaug left off, The Battle Of The Five Armies consists mostly of two significant battle sequences, one much longer than the other. In the first, the citizens of Lake-town must contend with the rampaging, fire-breathing dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). In the second, which comprises most of the final half of the film, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his companions, including the valiant Dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), square off with a collection of rival armies for control of Erebor and its vast treasures.

Despite featuring different central characters — with the notable exception of the popular Gandalf (played, as always, with regal grandeur by Ian McKellen), who appears in all six instalments — The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit have been filmed by Jackson with considerable tonal and visual continuity. Relying on sweeping vistas (often bolstered by CGI) of the varied lands of Middle-earth, the filmmaker has opted for a grand, almost mythic canvas in which character nuance takes a backseat to timeless themes such as honour, love and self-sacrifice.

Jackson’s return to Tolkien’s world for The Hobbit provides a natural bridge back to the original trilogy, especially as Battle’s final moments become an intro into the events that kicked off the first Lord Of The Rings film. But by signing up for another three-film go-round through Middle-earth, Jackson inevitably pitted himself against his own past success. Just as with the first two Hobbit movies, The Battle Of The Five Armies offers plenty of expert action sequences and solemn grappling between good and evil, but it doesn’t do any of it in a way that’s appreciably more stunning than what occurred in The Lord Of The Rings. That fatigue of familiarity provokes an unusual phenomenon in which a viewer can be suitably roused by what’s on screen in The Battle Of The Five Armies and yet still feel slightly underwhelmed.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that The Hobbit’s new characters lacked the snap and gravitas of the original trilogy’s. Whereas Elijah Wood’s Frodo and Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn were a nifty juxtaposition of impressionable naïf and rugged warrior, Bilbo and Thorin’s similar interplay is less dynamic. Though they’re both good actors with a gift for subtlety and pathos, Freeman and Armitage are a bit swallowed up by the action surrounding them, only really allowed to shine near Battle’s end once the warring ceases and their characters’ bond is finally allowed to be addressed.

In truth, Thorin is Battle’s main character with the greater arc: Early on in Battle, the noble Dwarf succumbs to madness, his lust to keep all of Erebor’s gold prompting him to declare war on Middle-earth’s other tribes, even those who are the Dwarves’ comrades. Thorin’s eventual change of heart may be simplistically dramatised, but Armitage gives it a punch, showing us how a good Dwarf can let greed temporarily blind him.

Still, even though the Hobbit films have had an array of personalities — including Lee Pace’s haughty Elf Thranduil and Luke Evans’s courageous, modest human Bard — there haven’t been the same emotional anchors that helped guide The Lord Of The Rings. As a result, The Battle Of The Five Armies — as well as The Hobbit in general — is only sporadically heartrending, its stakes mostly of the superficial life-or-death kind as Bilbo and his friends confront the reliably terrifying Orcs.

Thankfully, Jackson succeeds in continually upping the wow factor of the climactic battle, unleashing plenty of CGI for the acres-wide combat scenes and then increasing the intensity when the all-out war shifts to one-on-one bouts. (Orlando Bloom is both one of Battle’s highlights and one of this trilogy’s nagging limitations: His performance as Legolas remains commanding, and he’s crucial to the film’s finale, but he also feels shoehorned into the story to ensure that some of the more beloved Lord Of The Rings characters appear in The Hobbit.) For as much as Battle’s characters talk about bravery, loyalty and integrity, the script’s on-the-nose dialogue doesn’t have the resonance or crackle of the action scenes, in which Jackson’s rugged heroes communicate much more articulately through swords, grunts and anguished wails. Because the filmmaker prefers over-the-top spectacle, the hum of nonstop battle is this movie’s most riveting, expressive component.

Of course, those who loved Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy will complain that he used to do more than just provide spectacle, finding the heart and childlike thrill of adventure in the midst of an epic fantasy tale. He still can somewhat in Battle, which is most deeply felt when it focuses on characters who are suddenly separated by death. But the conclusion of The Hobbit doesn’t stir the soul as much as it rocks the senses and quickens the pulse. The Battle Of The Five Armies delivers marvellously on the promise of its title — but not much more than that. 

Production companies: New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Wingnut Films

US distribution: Warner Bros. Pictures, www.warnerbros.com

Producers: Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson

Executive producers: Alan Horn, Toby Emmerich, Ken Kamins, Carolyn Blackwood

Screenplay: Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro; based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien

Cinematography: Andrew Lesnie

Editor: Jabez Olssen

Production designer: Dan Hennah

Music: Howard Shore

Website: www.thehobbit.com

Main cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom