With a title as long as The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, a plot description of the conclusion to this plodding and largely unnecessary trilogy isn’t really required. There’s a hobbit, there’s a battle, and there are five armies. The economics of war are at the forefront of the dramatic action. Spoiler alert: The greedy dragon is killed in the first act, and now everyone—dwarf, elf, man, and orc—wants a piece of his treasure. Greed is deemed the “dragon’s sickness,” gold being imbued here with an evil power to corrupt, and no sooner is the Lonely Mountain liberated, along with the treasures hoarded therein, do the various armies descend upon it, everyone eager for their share. Greed comes close to bringing the good-aligned forces of Middle-earth into all-out war, if not for the appearance of a common enemy, and the battle that ensues is epic in every sense of the word.
But, you ask, “I thought there were five armies?” The fifth one that swoops in to save the day is a pack of giant eagles. If J.R.R. Tolkien weren’t so famously averse to allegorical readings of his fantasy novels, one could be so bold as to suggest an “America as savior” reading of the conclusion to the titular battle, wherein simply the appearance of the eagles seems to imply that the enemy has been vanquished. And it could also be noted that the destruction of Lake-town by fire shooting down from above is reminiscent of London’s experience of the blitz during World War II. But perhaps the comparison can so easily be made because Jackson’s film makes the destruction and mayhem so realistically felt, the terror and helplessness on the faces of the fleeing residents being the focus, rather than the backdrop, of Jackson’s depiction of Smaug’s attack.
Other moments also captivate, most exuberantly a viscerally charged battle between the ring wraiths—which get much more play time in The Lord of the Rings—and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), who Jackson renders in the scene as a glowing, almost demonic force, the sequence far darker and weirder (shades of Ken Russell) than anything from the two earlier films. The bowels of the Lonely Mountain are hauntingly conveyed, the caverns seeming to descend forever into the earth, and a sequence in which a greed-mad Thorin (Richard Armitage) imagines a nightmarish descent into a quicksand-like abyss made up of his own treasure is particularly surreal, further representing the film’s willingness to distort and embellish its already fantastical world. The cities of men, both Lake-town and Dale, are also shown as intricate and believably complex, especially when they’re used as set pieces for major battle scenes. Jackson ultimately plays to his strengths, orchestrating dynamic action sequences that excite in their level of detail, but also dazzle in their aesthetic design.
But the obligatory romantic subplot, absent from the source material, plays itself out ploddingly, and the admirable effort to create a female character for the films to make up for the dearth of such in the book is undercut by the one-dimensionality of Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), an elf warrior who seems motivated entirely by the pursuit of love. But these films, and Tolkien’s entire oeuvre, are most affecting in their depictions of friendship, and the performances here represent platonic male intimacy in convincing, often moving ways. Bilbo’s (Martin Freeman) goodbye to the remaining members of the band of dwarves is an emotional high point, heartfelt and uncontrived as he makes an invitation to tea feel like the world’s most generous confession of love. And while the conclusion to The Battle of the Five Armies ultimately feels like a bit too much table-setting for Jackson’s earlier The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the ending hits a lovely, bittersweet note when Bilbo realizes, as perhaps The Lord of the Rings fans did when they came to the first two meandering Hobbit films expecting more of what Jackson had offered in his earlier trilogy, that you really can’t go home again.