Nobody thought what Peter Jackson achieved directing three Lord of the Rings films back-to-back would be repeated, but then he went ahead and did it all again anyway with The Hobbit. The result hasn't been of the same quality, but that shouldn't take away from the magnitude of his undertaking.
His Hobbit trilogy has problems – the story is stretched too thin and there's far too much CGI – but taken on its own merits it still beats the majority of fantasy films out there. Comparisons to The Lord of the Rings are inevitable and justified however.
The Battle of the Five Armies is the climatic entry in the Middle Earth saga, finishing JRR Tolkien's classic story and completing the six-film series. After two films - the first too uneventful and drawn out, the second too CGI and action heavy - audiences everywhere will know what to expect from film three.
Fans will be pleased to hear however that the final part mixes the best elements of the two before it, resulting in the trilogy's most complete film. There is too much CGI as before, but for the most part it looks better – stunning at times even – if not sullied by some gorgeous CG-free shots of the New Zealand landscape towards the end that show what might have been.
Picking up immediately after the events of The Desolation of Smaug, the film's plot boils down to Smaug's attack on Laketown followed by the titular battle as men, elves, dwarves, orcs and eagles descend on the Lonely Mountain.
That's the plot on a macro level. On a micro level it's primarily about Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who having conquered the mountain and taken his place as king is driven mad by a desire to hold the Arkenstone, the treasure of treasures and the king's jewel.
The battle itself takes up most of the film and gets better as it rolls on. At first there's little weight to the events unfolding compared to similar battle scenes in Return of the King, which featured characters dealing with the horrors of war. Slowly however a sense of importance grows.
Characters start to feel the effects of war personally and it works, lending the battle a gravitas few action scenes in the trilogy have had. The two prior films were almost passive experiences, visual theme park rides with little to connect with, but TBotFA betters that – even if it takes some time to get there.
As a story the film works because despite the problems of the previous movies there was just enough to make the payoff here worthwhile and successful. That said, there are still filmmaking problems: the script is clunky, the editing creates holes where there needn't have been and sometimes the love of CGI goes way, way overboard. At one point a CGI crow lands in front of a character that has no business being CGI.
Save for a handful of cast members the performances are routine. Ian McKellan is as great as ever of course, and Armitage comes good despite some hammy moments at the start. Best of all are Evangeline Lilly and Aiden Turner as elf Tauriel and dwarf Kili, who make a romantic angle created solely for these films work despite the supposed love between them never feeling quite earned by the script.
While Lilly's Tauriel has been a fine addition to the series – which featured few women on Tolkien's page – on the whole it's the narrative additions to The Hobbits' story that have marred these films. The last minute addition of a third film has also had a clear impact on the editing process of the films so far, with the first dragging so that the final two may move more briskly.
I can only hope Jackson eventually releases a cut removing additional plot threads added solely to flesh the story out. It's unlikely – even longer extended editions are more his forte – but someone somewhere should make it happen. That's a film I want to see.
Often spectacular and increasingly involving, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies delivers a good payoff for a trilogy marred with issues of self-indulgence. Jackson's second excursion into Middle Earth won't become filmmaking legend like his first, but it's still a solid and fun trilogy that delivers some of that Lord of the Rings magic... eventually.