Where Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) — the end to his original fantasy trilogy based on J.R.R Tolkien’s popular books — was met with critical acclaim, Oscars and unending fanfare, the conclusion to his prequel trilogy, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, has limped home. I wouldn’t consider myself a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings films (I saw them all, enjoyed them and that’s all I need from them), but there was something special about them, even if it’s solely their standing popularity inside of pop culture. That a bunch of movies about elves, dwarves and various wizards could make this much money and be seen by this many people is in itself an astonishing outcome when you really think about it. But the Hobbit films have always been another matter. They’ve been a theoretical financial success, though they’ve lagged behind the original trilogy, but I doubt many people would stick up for them as an artistic triumph for Jackson’s struggling filmography.
There are a couple of things factoring into this. The decision to stretch out the 300-some-odd pages of Tolkien’s The Hobbit over three films was an obvious mistake, something that seemed wrongheaded when it was originally announced and looks even greedier now, since it directly harms The Battle of the Five Armies. This isn’t a surmountable offense, unfortunately, since on top of this is Jackson, whose direction — while professional and occasionally inspired in brief fits and starts — feels listless. Here and there signs of the old Jackson pop up — his ticks and eccentricities as a filmmaker. But instead of being part of original, vibrant filmmaking, these flashes instead only remind us of Jackson’s salad days, and how far he — as a creative entity — and the world of his fantasy epics have fallen.
Either Jackson’s lost his touch or these types of films no longer inspire him creatively. Regardless of the reason, Battle of the Five Armies feels incredibly rote. You might have noticed that I haven’t gone anywhere near describing the plot because it’s basically the same thing we’ve seen in five prior movies. The specifics are negligible, since the film’s purpose is to build up into various battles (especially the none-too-interesting 40-minute one that takes up the biggest chunk of the movie) and action sequences. Everything else feels like filler. Most of this is structural mistakes on the part of Jackson. The dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), who’s been built up over two movies as the trilogy’s main villain, is knocked off in the film’s first 20 minutes. Battle of the Five Armies’ more weighty concerns, like its very on-the-nose ideas about greed and corruption — specifically in the dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) — play as ham-fisted on-screen and chew up way too much screen time.
The rest of the film’s problems are the same ones that have plagued the other Hobbit movies. An over-reliance on CGI (a CGI Billy Connolly on a CGI pig is kind of the tipping point of too much) and a general — and surprising — humorlessness drag the film down. There’s enough money thrown at the thing, and it’s paced well enough (for once — at 144 minutes — one of these things doesn’t quite feel like a chore), to make Battle of the Five Armies watchable, but that’s about it. Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence and frightening images.