The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ★★★

Finally.

The first two Hobbit films were a series of hollow action pieces, one after the next, where the dwarves were captured then bailed out, over and over again. The Battle of the Five Armies is much better than the previous films because there’s actually some stakes. The first 1.5 hours of this film finally gives us some action worth caring about. Smaug devastates Laketown, murdering humans, and the dwarves feel guilt. People are in actual danger. There’s suspense and tension. Actions have consequences. It’s like real storytelling.

Then, after the great beginning, it gets even better when 3 of the titular 5 armies face off. Dwarves vs. men vs. elves, all with claims to gold, all right and wrong in their own way. Three sets of well-motivated characters in a scenario that evokes themes of nationalism, loyalism, and greed. There’s momentarily a sense that this could go several directions.

But alas.

After 1.5 hours of great writing and spectacle, where my chest rose and I swelled with satisfaction, Jackson loses it. I can more or less pinpoint the moment, as four characters ride away from the battle of the now 4 armies. They leave the rich battle behind and so leaves all the tension. We return to the first two film’s hollow spectacle, and are quickly reminded that every improvement in CGI technology since Lord of the Rings was a bad thing for Peter Jackson as a filmmaker.

It somehow becomes icy winter, when just before it was fall. Legolas gets in a laugh-out-loud ridiculous battle with one orc, while Thorin gets in a cringe-worthy ridiculous battle with another. Meanwhile the titular battle of the 5 armies fizzles out. It just finishes, off-screen, mostly un-explained. Jackson leaves that to the imagination, or more accurately, just hopes you’ll forget about it and won’t care. Meanwhile, there’s the truly awful love story weighing the whole thing down too. It’s painfully underdeveloped and distracting, as we’re supposed to believe and even care about how much some elf loves some dwarf.

The Lord of the Rings films aren’t perfect, but they will forever be among my most favorite films. Though they’re intermittently cliché and cheesy, they’re always compelling and often awe-inspiring. The Hobbit series was only intermittently compelling, but frequently cliché and cheesy. Out of the 8.5 hours of Hobbit films, maybe 2 hours was worthwhile. 1.5 hours of this one, the Gollum riddle scene, and Martin Freeman’s performance as the titular hobbit. Bilbo Baggin’s story was always beautiful. It has just been hard to see that over his series of films.

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