As far as truth in advertising is concerned, I can’t think of another instance where the title of the franchise and the subtitle of the particular film within it are so far apart. Let’s start with "The Hobbit": Was there a reason why the last two installments in Peter Jackson’s bloated Middle-Earth prequel trilogy hung onto to that title besides brand recognition? Remember when The Lord of The Rings trilogy began unrolling, some Tolkien fans objected to the films’ action-heavy approach while sacrificing the books’ more innocent and whimsical focus on Shirefolk? Well, compared to The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, any episode of The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a whimsy-lubed Hobbit orgy held at The Hairy Foot, The Shire’s premium swingers bar.
Yes, there’s only one Hobbit in The Hobbit, hence the title. At this point, we know that these films aim to present the best in epic action fare rather than folksy tales full of playful riddles and songs, and I’m not even complaining that the Hobbit of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), is not the protagonist in his own trilogy, but shouldn’t he at least get more screen time than a glorified extra?
After the cliffhanger ending of The Desolation of Smaug, we’re treated to an excellent set piece full of tension and bravado as the heroic Bard (Luke Evans) squares off against the mighty dragon Smaug (Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). Even though anyone who read the book or even heard of the book should know the outcome, I won’t spoil it here.
What follows this admittedly breathtaking opener is a fight between different factions of Middle-Earth to either take control of the strategically essential Kingdom Under The Lonely Mountain or to at least grab a share of its vast treasure. The aggravatingly stoic dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) becomes consumed by greed after taking his rightful place as king and refuses to share his riches.
Thus he invites the wrath of humans, who are looking for fair compensation after their town is decimated by Smaug, as well as a massive Elven army who seek a treasure of silver tiaras and necklaces for, I’m guessing, the upcoming Rivendell High prom. Before these armies can partake in their interracial stab-a-thon, Gandalf (Ian McKellan) warns them of a giant Orc army that’s hell-bent to kill everyone and take over the kingdom as a nifty "Welcome Back" present for Sauron. The Dwarves, Elves and humans eventually have to figure out a way to band together if they hope to defeat this mighty evil.
While all of that is going on, Bilbo is relegated to not much more than a passive spectator as Jackson occasionally reminds us that he still exists in this world. There’s a sub-plot about Bilbo hiding the precious Arkenstone from Thorin so the newly-minted king doesn’t go full Jordan Belfort on everyone, but even that doesn’t really affect the already flimsily constructed story. Perhaps the more honest approach would have been to name the first film The Hobbit, without a subtitle, since it actually is about Bilbo’s struggles to adapt to an adventurer’s lifestyle, then the second and third films simply The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies, without using The Hobbit anywhere in the title.
Which brings us to “The Battle of the Five Armies”, a title so perfectly in tune with the film that it can also work as a logline. Any audience member walking in expecting to see The Hobbit will be disappointed, but if all you want to see is The Battle of the Five Armies, you’ve come to the right place. Pretty much all we get with the thankfully final nail in the Middle-Earth Cinematic Saga coffin is a two-and-a-half-hour battle sequence with short intermissions for shameless padding and quick expository scenes full of unpronounceable names.
When boiled down to its essence, The Battle of the Five Armies is a hyper-violent cartoon mixed with a real-time strategy game. In between extreme long shots of massive CGI armies charging against one another until they explode in a potpourri of 1s and 0s, we get overlong fight scenes between underdeveloped characters begging us to care for their fate.
Jackson and his Weta pals are immensely innovative and smart people, they won’t allow themselves to create work that’s altogether bland and forgettable, therefore there are some fantastic one-on-one battle choreography and visual gags here (My favorite is an Elf who uses his giant elk’s antlers as a handy tool for express decapitations). However, a conclusion that offered a bit more of a compelling story and interesting characters could have helped.
The finale of The Hobbit trilogy offers pretty much the same beats as the end of The Return of the King, albeit much faster-paced (Eleven years of jokes and parodies about the many endings of The Return of the King must have gotten to Jackson’s head). Yet because of the underwhelming execution of the prequel trilogy, similar scenes that were supposed to tug at the fans’ heartstrings fall flat.
Thousands bowing to the Hobbits at the end of The Return of the King created an emotionally impactful scene, because we cared deeply about the characters and the sacrifices they made along the way. On the other hand, the dwarves bidding farewell to Bilbo is one notch above summer camp buddies saying “See ya later, bruh!"