I must admit that I am one of the people for whom a little bit of me died when they announced that Peter Jacksons adaptation of The Hobbit would become a new epic trilogy. Two films, I could see, but three, with a load of extra stuff added to make it a "true" prequel? I'm not sure I signed up to that, in my heart. But you know what? I enjoyed An Unexpected Journey, when many didn't, for all it was overlong and meandering. I liked the smaller scale, the bumbling, un-epic nature of it's Company. And then The Desolation of Smaug fixed a lot of those problems anyway, with more pace and focus and maintaining a sense of fun and intimacy that made it easy to ignore the more earnest stuff over in Dol Guldur. Going to the cinema just after Xmas to see a Hobbit film has become a tradition too, so we were always going to go see The Battle of the Five Armies, and to be honest I was looking forward to it. It's a shame then, by my review can be summed by a long, disappointing sigh.
It starts pretty well, though, with Smaug thundering down over Laketown and smashing up the place. It's grand and scary and dramatic as all hell, the sort of spectacle that Jackson's Lord of the Rings series has always done well, with a clear sense of where everyone is and what they are doing in between the mayhem. Smaug builds his death scene up like a old ham, because of course he would, and the Dwarves looking on in horror is a nice change, and serves to start opening up the gap between Thorin and everyone else in the Company. The problem is that as Smaug crashes to earth, the life of the film starts to go out with him.
There is a problem with the source material here, of course, in that the thrust of the story for much of the book is the mountain and the dragon, and the fight over the spoils has always felt slightly tacked on, although something that would logically happen. The film has made the decision to pile additional weight on this conflict, by tying it into the early moves of the War of the Ring, which pivots the action away from the characters we've spent time with for the previous 6 hours, and onto characters you know from the earlier trilogy. It also has to explain why Thorin is suddenly an asshole, and a resolve rivalry with Azog-the-White-Orc that they added in back in An Unexpected Journey. In the middle of all of this, the film just completely loses its way.
The first big problem is pace. All this extra "stuff" means that for a whole lot of the running time characters are re-stating plot points and relationships, or setting them up afresh. A lot of it, especially around the Laketown survivors, is utterly superfluous. Bard doesn't need a family to run around screaming as a motive to fight because his bloody town has just been destroyed and he's found leadership thrust upon him and thats probably reason enough. Albert-the-lickspittle along eats up about 20 minutes we could all have done without, thanks. Similarly, Legolas' appearance in The Desolation of Smaug was neat, but it was the addition of Tauriel that worked better. Here, Legolas takes over, removing most of Tauriels hard-established independent agency and ramming himself in everyone elses' fight scenes to boot. Meanwhile the rest of the Dwarves vanish into a hairy chorus of frowns and even Bilbo is often missing, it seems, from his own film.
I'd forgive a lot of this if the sort of spectacle I've come to expect from this series delivered as well. The earlier movies have had smaller set-pieces; Goblin Town, Barrel-riding, that sort of thing, and the promise of a great, sprawling battle around the Lonely Mountain had to be worth the cost of entry, right? But, finally, it seems that they've crossed the line between being able to put anything up on the screen and knowing where to draw the line. The whole thing starts to look like a video game, with a range of increasingly wacky units turning up, starting with the Sandworms, which inexplicably they don't use to tunnel straight into the mountain they're bloody attacking.
The whole flow of the final act is nonsensical and unfocused, Despite An Unexpected Journey having a whole section about Trolls not being able to survive sunlight, lets have dozens of the bastards in the Orc army! Need to get to the Orc command post up on a mountain? Here are some Rams from somewhere! Ride up there and suddenly the command post is built of a range of destructible towers and other ruins! Only Four Armies in your Battle of the Five Armies? Here is another, that arrives and is destroyed within 10 minutes, without engaging any of the other four. (oh, by the way, the Fifth Army was "Wargs", not "More orcs"). In the end, I just got knocked out of the film, and found it hard to care, and after all that time in Middle Earth, that's a crushing shame,
Lets end on a happy note: I did like Thranduil and his War Moose. He was one cool Elf.