The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (12A/PG-13, 144 mins)
Director: Peter Jackson
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
It’s been a fair old trek to get to here, this final part of the Hobbit prequel trilogy. And, much like the experiences of its characters, it’s been a frequently exhausting and arduous journey punctuated by individual moments of relief and enjoyment.
The late decision to make three films rather than two has meant it’s often felt like you were journeying across Middle Earth in real time, and it all began to smack of cashing in. We certainly get value for money in terms of minutes in the cinema, even if this finale is a relatively brisk sub-2.5 hours, but an awful lot of that time feels like we’re treading water.
Has it been worth it in the end? Will many people plough through the six-film marathon of these plus the Lord of the Rings trilogy or will they, like now happens with Star Wars, judiciously skip the weaker entries in order to get to the good stuff?
Certainly one element where this is likely to score with fans is in the linking done to Rings. Some of it might be a bit clunky and forced, but more often than not the bridge building is both fun and evocative and likely to put a Christmas re-watch of Rings on a lot of people’s agendas.
But for now, we rejoin this poor relation directly after the end of last year’s second film, as dragon Smaug wreaks his desolation on the village of Laketown. Exposing the somewhat arbitrary stopping point of Part 2, this episode is swiftly resolved, leaving dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) in control of the mountain hall of Erebor and its enormous piles of gold.
The trouble is he’s turned mad with power, and a lot of time is spent on Thorin’s intransigence, which is threatening to be the catalyst for war, with the elves and men also ready to stake a claim to the treasure. But it’s nowhere near as compelling as the hold the One Ring had over Frodo and mostly there’s a lot of sitting about, which at least makes a change from all the walking in the first two movies.
It’s difficult though to have any great investment in these characters beyond Bilbo and wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), which is a major issue. Billy Connolly turns up as a dwarf king with bizarrely computer enhanced features, to swear and stick the nut on orcs but, as ever, almost none of Bilbo’s companions stand out.
Lord of the Rings succeeded because we cared deeply about the Fellowship, but that’s sadly lacking here. It also worked because it blended real world locations with brilliantly realised visual effects; now it looks like none of it might be real at all, especially darker scenes. Just because Peter Jackson has the ability to create anything with CGI, it doesn’t mean he should. Frankly at times it looks ridiculous, and when you’ve got dwarves riding rams up mountainsides you’ve probably gone too far.
This is highlighted even more by the truly horrific High Frame Rate process, which makes proceedings look like a filmed play, shiny and inauthentic and totally lacking in filmic texture. It’s not too bad when no one has to move but most of the time it’s embarrassing, and it’s astonishing that someone thought something that looked as bad as this was acceptable to project for top dollar.
Still, Jackson is more than capable of conjuring greatness in bursts, starting with Smaug’s terrifying, fire-breathing onslaught, even if we then have to wade through the added guff and padding of the arguments among the Laketown survivors.
In the end, if it works at all, it’s because of the world we’re in, it’s because of what Tolkien has created and it’s because Lord of the Rings exists and we know there’s so much more to see here.
No doubt Jackson cares about the product he’s delivering with this prequel trilogy, but ultimately it will probably be looked upon by audiences as an obligation rather than a necessity.