Picking up right where the last film left us in cliffhanger, Bard (Luke Evans) must confront the evil dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) in an attempt to save his children and his town. Following a moving fiery battle, the resulting power vacuum gives Thorin (Richard Armitage) tenuous control of the ancient dwarf mountain fortress while armies ready outside to try to take it by force. Meanwhile, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) plays both sides in an attempt to diplomatically prevent the inevitable carnage. The battle of the five armies threatens to release an unspeakable evil on Middle Earth and warriors both big and small must find a way to cooperate or all will be lost.
There is a lot going on in this overly busy, often silly final chapter. And while the action comes at a dizzying pace, sadly, the overly exuberant momentum does not do the Tolkien series justice as the uneven tone ranges from serious pathos to outright cheese. The narrative is routinely marred by schlocky comic relief and action sequences that will have viewers shaking their collective heads in disbelief. One annoying character in particular named Alfrid (Ryan Gage) should have been cut altogether as his ridiculous slapstick adds nothing to the story and produces many of the film’s wince-inducing moments. At a certain point, I wondered whether the reason for his character’s constant reappearance in the film was to pad the running time which tops out at 144 long minutes. Since this character is human and acts as a comic foil to Bard, I suppose the idea was also to humanize the narrative with Bard standing in for added sex appeal a la Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn from the original trilogy.
But there are moments that make you remember why the source material and director Jackson’s versions of it are held in such high regard. The opening sequence is just about perfect as Bard takes on the fire-breathing Smaug putting himself and his family at great risk in the process. After such a promising introduction, viewers are given ever-diminishing story threads that make a hackneyed attempt to tie up loose ends and loop back to the “Lord of the Rings” sequels that follow. Characters float in an out with reckless abandon making the story frustratingly complicated where it ought to be more narrowly focused. Jackson is the director who seems to live by the motto that “more is more” where here “less” would have served him well.
“Sherlock’s” Freeman makes a strong Bilbo. But without an appearance by Gollum, whose presence was also sorely missing from the second installment, Bilbo is forced to play off of Thorin, who just doesn’t make a very charismatic lead in this film. Armitage does his best with the tormented and deeply flawed Thorin, who spends much of his time obsessing over gold and the Arkenstone that has to be one of of the most pointless mythological objects in recent movie history. Ultimately, the stone doesn’t seem to have any real power other than to confuse the mind of the poor Thorin, who makes the wrong decision repeatedly.
Other characters come off better with Ian McKellen giving us another fine Gandalf performance. And Christopher Lee who, through the magic of a body double, seems to pull a Yoda as his grey bearded sorcerer Saruman wages acrobatic pitched battle with some ghostly warriors. Such cheesy dalliances would have been fine had there not been so much of them scattered throughout the film. Out of balance are the utterly serious and credible performances by Lee Pace and Cate Blanchett that are instantly forgotten and undercut by action sequences and comic relief so contrived that you all suspension of disbelief is shredded.
Jackson has built up so much good will for the Tolkien universe over the years that this final helping is necessary viewing. And since “The Interview” has imploded under the pressure of dark hacking forces, I suspect that “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” will be the willing recipient of hoards of holiday viewers. And that’s an army that Hollywood desperately needs as the year draws to a possibly unprofitable close.
Editor Note: This review first appeared in print in the Times-Herald.