Back when director Peter Jackson announced that he would turn J.R.R. Tolkien's slim, swift children's novel The Hobbit into not one, not two but three movies, I and a lot of other Tolkien fans wondered whether the classic fantasy story would bear that much padding.
Turns out we were right to wonder. The first film based on The Hobbit was charming fun, the second pretty good, too. But The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is one film too far, tedious and overlong and short on most of the elements that made the first two work.
Battle begins exactly where the cliffhanger of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug left off. (If you haven't watched the first two movies or read the book, don't start with this one — you'll have no clue what's going on.) That nifty dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, but this time don't blink or you'll miss it), who practically slunk away with the last movie, explodes out of his lair under the Lonely Mountain to incinerate hapless Lake-town, then be taken down by Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans, looking startlingly like Erroll Flynn) in the movie's most thrilling sequence. Unfortunately, it takes place in the first 15 minutes.
Back under the mountain, the company of dwarves who hired Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman as the titular hobbit) to burgle the dragon's hoard of stolen gold have reclaimed their treasure. Their leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), resumes his royal role and instantly descends into madness, a.k.a. dragon sickness, obsessed with the gold and paranoid about betrayal by his loyal comrades and relatives.
Meanwhile, armies are massing on his doorstep. The people of Lake-town and a host of Elves both have bones to pick with Thorin, but he dismisses their claims. Far worse trouble is brewing, though, as swarms of orcs and other uncomely creatures descend upon all and sundry, sent by the evil wizard Sauron and led by Azog (Manu Bennett), orc chieftain of Moria, who's still holding a grudge against Thorin for chopping his arm off.
In Tolkien's book, the battle of the five armies takes up but one chapter. In Jackson's movie, it seems to go on forever — and in fact it does go on for more than 45 minutes, about a third of the movie's length. There are a few cool effects (loved the dwarf general's battle pig), but mostly it's a bunch of hacking and clanging and grunting by faceless extras. And some bits are just inexplicable, like the momentary appearance of "earth eaters" commanded by Azog, which look like Jackson got a fire-sale price on the sandworms from Dune. They show up for a few seconds, leading Bilbo to exclaim, "Oh, come on!" Then they disappear, never to be seen or heard of again.
Besides too much battle, the movie has too much of some of Jackson's concocted material, like the silly romantic triangle involving the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) and Elven warriors Legolas (Orlando Bloom), whom Tolkien never mentions in The Hobbit, and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), who doesn't appear in the books at all.
Worse, the movie has way too little of Bilbo and the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who are the story's heart. The short sequences during which Freeman and McKellen are on screen only made me long for more. Battle is also short on the humor that leavened the first two films, and it has nothing resembling the gripping scenes in which Bilbo faces off in a battle of wits with Gollum in the first film and Smaug in the second.
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There are also weird character inconsistencies. Legolas' father, elf king Thranduil (Lee Pace), is his usual snotty, superior self throughout most of the movie, then turns up near the end dispensing gems of comforting wisdom like some elven dalai lama. Maybe he's just disoriented by all that clanging.
Contact Colette Bancroft at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.