Much like the dwarves who, one by one, arrive at Bilbo Baggins' door at the beginning of The Hobbit, director Peter Jackson's extended stay in Middle Earth has become unwelcome and exhausting. It has been a gradual, drip-by-drip process, and it does not in any way diminish the triumph of not simply adapting The Lord of the Rings for the big screen, but turning it in to an international sensation and a Best Picture winner. But after three Hobbit movies, it is unquestionably where we have arrived. I might be interested in going back to Middle Earth someday, but not with this director.
Jackson himself might not care what I think -- and why would he as he wins another weekend box office? -- but this particular series mercifully completed, I can at least feel comfortable ignoring whatever he might do there next without worrying about not finishing something I have already started.
Because Jackson has no apparent interest in making Hobbit movies that stand on their own, The Battle of the Five Armies picks up immediately where its predecessor, The Desolation of Smaug, left off -- with that film's titular character bearing down on Lake Town after being outsmarted by ring-toting "burglar" Bilbo Baggins in Mount Doom. There is no chance to catch your breath and apparently no room to be reminded of how we got to this point. Hope you've done your homework (either in the form of rereading the books or rewatching the two prior films), kids.
Smaug finally delivers on the promise of the second film's title, laying fiery waste to Lake Town before Bard (Luke Evans) slays the dragon. The damage is complete, and so the people of Lake Town are off to Dale and Mount Doom in an attempt to collect on the debt owed them by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and the rest of his small dwarf brood, now the unlikely masters of an incredible treasure.
The refugees of Lake Town find an inflexible, non-compliant King Thorin upon their arrival, his fruitless search for the most prized jewel of the treasure, the Arkenstone, fueling boundless greed, or as it is referred to in Middle Earth “dragon sickness.” No one knows that the Arkenstone is in Bilbo’s reluctant hands — another secret, corrupting jewel for him to protect in addition to his curious ring. No one in Dale seems to know that an army of woodland elves is also pursuing the dwarves or that two Orc armies are on their way as well. And only Thorin and company know that his cousin, with a full army at his back, is also making an approach. Mount Doom might as well be Mount Chaos with all the revelations that are uncovered in its shadow during the first half of the film.
Some films can feed off this kind of disorder with an energetic glee. Typically they have well-drawn, ever-present protagonists and simple clarity about the stakes for all involved. Five Armies might even have been one of them had Jackson simply trained his camera more (like, a lot more) on Martin Freeman, the man who somehow managed to make Bilbo his own through these three films despite a myriad of distracting side plots, ancillary characters, slapstick physical comedy and an unending, seizure-inducing cavalcade of CGI.
Freeman is the soul of the story after all, and not just because he’s been such a great Bilbo Baggins, but because the character he is portraying is the lens through which we all get to gaze in wonder at these powerful forces converging. He’s just a little hobbit (the normal guys of Middle Earth) who has been unwittingly sucked in to something so big that he can barely comprehend it. This awe — at dwarves and orcs, goblins and elves, wizards and magic rings — gives Tolkien’s original work its power.
Jackson, for his part, seems to have forgotten that or willfully ignored it in an attempt to replicate the success of the original Lord of the Rings. The fatal flaw here is of course that, though there are some of the same characters operating within the same universe, the stories are fundamentally different. The Hobbit is not an existential battle between good and evil. It is not about resisting temptation or the corrupting effect of power. It is much more quaint and much more charming. Well, the book is at least.
Jackson’s version, spread out over an egregious three installments, quite literally mutes its heart and soul (Freeman’s Bilbo) for long stretches. It makes two-plus hour feature films out of the three parts in a simple three-act tale. It reduces its finale to a barrage of fight sequences punctuated by cringeworthy, trailer-ready melodramatic dialogue, bewilderingly delivered by its glut of characters, always at a just-so offset angle.
I’ll miss Freeman and Ian McKellen’s portrayal of Gandalf and Howard Shore’s whimsical scores. As for the rest of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth, I’ve had enough for a lifetime.