“One light, alone in the darkness”

No matter how entertaining The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is—definitely the best of the trilogy—I still can’t shake the feeling that J.R.R. Tolkien‘s tale would have been better served as a two-parter. A lot of the added information director Peter Jackson and his stable of co-writers injected throughout the first two installments come to a head here amongst the end-to-end carnage and it does add more emotion and higher stakes albeit between characters who shouldn’t be included in this Lord of the Rings prequel to begin with (if they exist at all), but at what cost to the whole? While this beast is two-and-a-half hours of pure climax dropping us in at the moment of Smaug’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) Laketown decimation through fire and brimstone, a top-notch ending isn’t everything. It’s close, though.

Yes it falls apart when treated as a standalone movie, but few are buying tickets at random without having watched the previous films. Unlike The Desolation of Smaug, however, this one contains a level of drama on top of getting its characters to a checkpoint along the way. This is the last stand of Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his band of dwarf brothers, a culmination of their hard work and suffering that’s nearly derailed by legendary greed. The will of our titular hobbit (Martin Freeman‘s Bilbo Baggins) officially arrives to show his true worth and why Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) chose such an unlikely fellow for an adventure of this magnitude. And all the often-laborious set-up proves its value by pitting species against species in war so a common enemy can rise from ashes unchecked.

Because of where the story splits occur, I’ll admit the initial siege on Laketown hits with a whimper. Even having re-watched the previous films two days ago I found it underwhelming since it lands without any build-up. Here’s the dragon, there’s the burning town, and in mere minutes things calm down so the exposition for the real battle can commence. In this respect it’s treated as an afterthought—something that wouldn’t be true if The Hobbit was a pair of movies sliced at the arrival of Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) so the activities propelling Thorin and company to the Lonely Mountain would directly precede Smaug’s wrath. It’s a sad revelation too considering the sequence is shown it such stunning detail and yet I barely recall any of it in lieu of the Orc war that follows.

In a nutshell what happens is that Thorin falls prey to the same dragon fever that befell his grandfather. Crazed with power and wealth having retaken his kin’s home, he finds that he’d rather fortify his position and rule as a miser than hold true to his word. Woodland Elf King Thranduil (Lee Pace) wants his kind’s starlight jewelry that has been held captive and Bard’s town of men seek the fair share of wealth promised to rebuild post-fire. Rather than give them what they want for peace, he chooses to fight knowing his cousin Dain’s (Billy Connolly) regiment is on its way. Bilbo hopes to appeal to the leader he fought beside, but he receives little help because the brave dwarves at his side remain loyal to Thorin despite acknowledging the error of his way.

As alluded to in the other films, however, wanting what’s owed in riches is hardly the most important care in Middle Earth. Gandalf has arrived at the door of Sauron’s remains and sees with his own eyes how this monster has grown stronger. Barely escaping with his own life he rides to the mountain to warn all who have gathered about the imminent threat they should band together to defeat. It’s through this additional thread that Jackson is able to weave The Hobbit’s actual climax with the bridge material setting up The Lord of the Rings trilogy he completed years ago. I have to give him credit for this because I expected multiple endings a la The Return of the King once the battle ended so more random vignettes could fill in the gap.

The concurrent development of both halves to this newly cobbled epic is handled deftly as things coalesce seamlessly with Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) dealing with exposition and the orcs simultaneously while Thorin attempts to escape the selfish ego guiding his hand. Multiple small conflicts arise within the larger examples as enemies unite, family fractures, and loved ones are lost. Sauron/The Necromancer plays a much larger role than he may in the book, but thankfully he remains in the background as a guiding force for evil rather than the physical evil at hand. His inclusion helps give Gandalf and the Elves more purpose and the war therefore more weight than the petty feud for gold can provide. And in great fantasy fashion it all unfolds in a spectacularly violent dance.

I read The Hobbit over a decade ago and therefore recall very few details before witnessing them onscreen to jog my memory. Even so, I didn’t remember any of the stakes involved in Act Three. Characters die in highly emotional ways to the point where the little girl behind me began audibly weeping at the sheer magnitude of their loss. This isn’t some fairy tale skirmish ending in truce before bloodshed begins—these dwarves, elves, and men engage in a life or death situation for themselves and those they love. Similar to the Battle at Helm’s Deep, we swoop in from the sky and simply witness the theatrics of hundreds upon hundreds of soldiers colliding. Each species has its own style and they all converge in a mass of aggression as equally beautiful as it is bittersweet.

The acting is superb—even Ryan Gage‘s comically wormy Alfrid—and the artistry second-to-none. There’s some fat here and there in the grand scheme, but it isn’t glaring since it’s finally resolving the excess from An Unexpected Journey and Desolation of SmaugThe Battle of the Five Armies is therefore the tightest of the three as well as the most fun and perhaps accomplished too. By integrating the Sauron backdrop amongst the rest, nothing seems exceptionally tacked-on or out-of-place and I could sit back and watch without any frustrating minutiae taking me away from the action. From the moment Thorin declines Bard’s appeal for peace to the moment the last body falls, I was invested heart and soul. You may need almost six-hours of exposition to feel the same, but I dare say it’s worth the trouble.

Score: 8/10 

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 144 minutes | Release Date: December 17th, 2014 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Peter Jackson
Writer(s): Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro / 
J.R.R. Tolkien (novel The Hobbit)