Is the third part of a trilogy “the defining chapter” simply because it’s the last one or because it actually does define things? The promotional material for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies certainly wants you to believe that this is that defining chapter, perhaps of the whole Middle-earth saga as depicted on film by Peter Jackson and crew. Certainly, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King felt like we were nearing the end of something major, but could the third part of a 300-page book really have that kind of oomph or impact? I’m going to say “not really.” But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an enjoyable ride and a good farewell for what it is.
At a certain point in production, the third part of The Hobbit trilogy was changed from being called There and Back Again into the much more evocative The Battle of the Five Armies, because largely that’s what it’s about. It’s not about Bilbo Baggins returning home after a very long and unexpected journey; rather, it is about several factions of creatures battling over treasure, and then eventually for supremacy. It’s the most, for lack of a better word, focused of the trilogy. It is easily the shortest and has, without a doubt, the fewest locations of any of Jackson’s Middle-earth movies, barely ever leaving the line-of-sight from Erebor to Dale to Laketown. However, a surprising amount of things happen in that small area, and a lot of characters are present.
The film picks up right where The Desolation of Smaug ended, with the giant dragon who was death flying over to torch Laketown just to be a jerk basically. Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the Dwarves can do nothing about this, so the fate of the people of Laketown falls to Bard (Luke Evans) while Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) attempts to get everybody out. Not to spoil too much, but after the ashes are put out, the people of Laketown have nowhere to go and so they march to the ransacked city of Dale to attempt to get the gold they were promised from Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) for the help his party received. Meanwhile, the elves of Mirkwood led by Thranduil (Lee Pace) also wants some repayment from the newly-crowned Dwarf king, who is falling ever-further into the destructive path of greed sickness. He will let a whole war happen before he gives anyone a single cent. But, to complicate things even more, two huge armies of Orcs are marching toward Erebor to destroy all of the races once and for all.
Now, by their own account, they’re trying to thematically link The Battle of the Five Armies with The Return of the King and, frankly, they shouldn’t have. There was so much material in The Return of the King that it had to be over three hours long, and pushing four in the director’s cut. This, meanwhile, is only two hours and twenty-four minutes and it feels like the end of a book, not a whole story unto itself. Sort of the way the last Harry Potter film was just the big battle, so too is this final Hobbit movie. It covers roughly 50 pages of The Hobbit book and adds things both from Tolkien’s other works and from the writers’ own brains to pad the movie out to what it is. The pacing is way off.
That being said, I was very impressed with how much resonance they were actually able to mine from such a small amount of source material. Bilbo, who had sort of taken a backseat in the last movie, comes to the forefront once again here and it’s really quite something. Thorin’s descent into madness and subsequent battle with the orcs is a little rocky but ultimately narratively satisfying, and other characters like Bard, Fili (Dean O’Gorman), Kili (Aidan Turner), and Thranduil also get their opportunities to shine. Gandalf’s journey away from Bilbo finishes out too, but it’s only when he rejoins the main story that he’s integral.
There are undoubtedly some silly things in the movie, the most notable of which is Legolas (Orlando Bloom), who was included in the last film simply because he was one of the few main characters from LOTR who could have been involved. They give him a whole lot to do and it’s mostly so he can be the OTHER hero fighting a particular orc baddie. His inclusion in this series is here simply for the fans of the other three movies.
While The Desolation of Smaug is still the best of the three films and has the most iconic moments — that whole Smaug sequence being chief among them — The Battle of the Five Armies succeeded in a way I didn’t expect it to. Despite its pacing problems and the stretching of events, it did more with its characters, all of them, then either of the last two films. While some of the Dwarves are left out, the overall effect is that each important character is served properly, even if its outcome is much sadder than in The Return of the King.
It’s not “the definitive chapter” but it’s definitely a satisfying farewell.