The biggest laugh I heard from the audience at my screening of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies came from seven words in the end credits: “Based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien.” Just picture that tweedy Oxford philologist nodding in pleased approval at this adaptation of his lark of a children's fable, especially the kabooming violence of the last hour, which shakes mountains and severs heads and plays like Middle-Earth Smash Bros.
The film builds to a series of boss battles against scarred and gum-fleshed orc chiefs Tolkien didn't even bother putting in the book. They're individually spectacular, staged with the full invention and brio of Peter Jackson, who is as good at this stuff as anyone in the history of movies. But they just keep coming, like frozen yogurt from a self-serve spigot a kid didn't bother turning off -- more and more in a relentless gush. The Hobbit is less a trilogy than it is a heaping mound of sugary goo.
Nothing wrong with froyo, of course, despite the freeze-headache danger. That too-muchness -- or is it generosity? -- marks this as the most crowd-pleasing of the series, even as this is the film that will most enrage the amateur Tolkien scholars who have always balked at Jackson's cheery vulgarizations. (Guys, these movies no more harm the prof's original world than did Terry Brooks's Shannara books.) And none of that's to say I didn't savor much of this last, stabbing-est Hobbit, the film that's something like hours 18 to 20.5 of Peter Jackson's Middle-earth masterpiece/folly/tech-demo/New Zealand tourism reel. This finale actually offers, for its first 90 minutes, Jackson's surest, sharpest storytelling since way back in The Fellowship of the Ring. The conflicts and relationships are clear enough that even folks who napped through An Unexpected Journey will follow along. (You are not expected to know the names/faces of the 13 dwarves.) There's none of the narrative ditches these movies routinely grind into -- nothing in The Hobbits is as goofy-dumb as Aragorn getting saved from a cliff-fall by the love of a nice horsey in The Two Towers.
Besides the usual pomp and scenery -- the goblets! the braids! the deflated soccer-ball faces of the orcs! -- there's some new wonders. The opening dragon attack is spectacular, shot with a clarity and power missing from The Desolation of Smaug's botched drown-the-beast-in-popcorn-butter climax. A haunted-city showdown between shivery ghost knights and the staff-and-hair-whipping superteam of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and Saruman (Christopher Lee) proves almost as grand. It's sad that Hollywood filmmaking is so often about attempting to put the dreams of children onto our screens, but shouldn't it still be notable when someone actually manages it?
This installment benefits from the fact that there's finally a theme besides walking takes awhile. It's obvious but meaty: the corrupting power of greed, a topic about which, admittedly, it's a little rich for the third movie adaptation of a one-volume YA novel to get snooty. Richard Armitage, as head dwarf Thorin, gets to play the gold-mad Treasure of the Sierra Madre hardass, a stern Scrooge McDuck with a touch of Howard Hughes: He forsakes the world to hole up with his treasure. As always in Jackson, a stubborn king refuses to aid a world in need, and when he softens he's bathed in divine light with no real in-story source.
The local elves want their cut of the loot, as do refugees from the town destroyed by the dragon Thorin and company awoke in movie two, and then -- right on schedule -- there's one of those orc armies that continually surprise everyone in Middle-earth movies. And then there's another. And then there's the fighting. Spoiler: Jackson's dwarves and elves behead orcs with all the ease that young David gathered Philistine foreskins. Some heroes fall this time, but only the diehard fans will feel much. These Hobbit pictures are about spectacle rather than stakes, even during the somber wrap-up of the elf-dwarf-elf love triangle.
Somewhere in there is Martin Freeman, so endearing and resourceful as Bilbo in the first two films, saying, “I'll find myself a safe place to stand” and then getting knocked out for much of the last of the movies titled for him. The series' MVP is given the bench. Bilbo and the Shire get the final reel, of course, but the goodbyes aren't as protracted as they were in The Return of the King -- or as the hellos were in An Unexpected Journey. In fact, other than the overkill on the killing, this installment finds Jackson at last making concessions to bladders and theatrical running times. The Battle of the Five Armies wraps up in under two and a half hours, some 15 minutes shorter than its predecessor but still roughly the length of Bilbo's dinner party in part one. The resolutions of many plotlines have been curtailed, most likely to be added back in the eventual extended-edition home-video release.
The longer versions of all Jackson's Middle-earth films have played better (and made more sense) than their theatrical cuts, but this time he's trimmed out something absolutely vital, the one element that, besides his mad gore-minded grandiloquence, has kept everything together five films running: an attention to the emotional lives of his hobbits.
Finally, let's be honest, here. Reviewing any chunk of Jackson's Tolkien-flavored fantasy-combat-simulation project is like reviewing some holiday party or a possibly obligatory family get-together. You know whether you're going, you know who you'll see there, and you know that you'll either grit through it and be glad when it's over, or you'll lose yourself in it and miss the ritual when it's gone. Either way, consider this: Once the final version of The Battle of Five Armies hits Blu-ray, Jackson's full series will take almost a full day of your life to get through. And yet, even here, at the end of all things Middle-earth, the filmmaking and world-crafting and orc-decapitations are still brash and vigorous, still lavish, rousing, grating, wearying, and hilarious, both intentionally and un-.
When orc and dwarf spill through fog onto a silvery frozen lake, and then in that roller-rink moonscape gorgeousness keep their grudge match going both above and under the ice, you may carp that it's all just too much. But it's hard not to marvel at just how much too-much Jackson has whipped up -- and how much of it was inspired.
Caveat: The author is not opposed to swords and elves and shit.