The concluding installment of Peter Jackson's misbegotten Hobbit trilogy is an action-packed muddle. There are some terrific shots and scenes, and of course the digital effects are top-of-the-line. But the story, a continued inflation of J.R.R. Tolkien's slender 1937 novel, remains emptily overstuffed; and the endless noisy contentions between the titular five armies (or four, or possibly six, maybe more) soon challenge our ability to care about what's going on.
The movie's most effectively spectacular sequence comes right at the beginning, which takes up where the previous film, The Desolation of Smaug, left off. Smaug, the fire-breathing dragon who speaks with the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch, has been forcibly evicted from the gold-filled dwarf mountain of Erebor and is now winging his way toward the nearby human settlement of Laketown. Here we have Jackson at his best, deploying meticulous production design and soaring camerawork to create a landscape of flaming devastation. This is exciting stuff, and we're primed for more of it. Unfortunately, the director proceeds to give us way too much, and the picture quickly begins to sag.
It should be noted that Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the adventuring hobbit at the center of Tolkien's tale, sits out much of this picture, and that the beloved wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, as always) is similarly sidelined—at the beginning he's been imprisoned by the evil Sauron (a character not yet named in Tolkien's book) and is being menaced by the dark lord's wispy minions, the Nazgûl. This leaves us to focus on the Dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage), enthroned amid his vast dunes of gold coins and whatnot, who is slowly going mad in his search for the ambiguously important Arkenstone. Thorin's recovered treasure has drawn the covetous attention of various other tribes, and before long a contingent of elves arrives, led by the serenely courageous Thranduil (Lee Pace), who's intent on retrieving some sacred elvish gems that had also been appropriated by Smaug.
The Elves put this quest aside to help defend the Dwarves and the besieged humans against an army of hideous orcs, led by the snarling Azog (Manu Bennett), who is in turn intent on… well, wasting everybody in sight. There are also armies—or what seem to be armies—of eagles and bats and, for one brief, puzzling moment, monster earthworms that might have been airlifted in from David Lynch's Dune.
While all of this is going on, we get a continuation of the drippy love story involving the stalwart dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) and the warrior elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). The tiresome wizard Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) also puts in an appearance, along with his ridiculous rabbit wagon; and there's some leaping about by Orlando Bloom's über-blond Legolas as well. Thorin's ancillary dwarves (Bifur, Bofur, Bombur and so forth) are also on hand, for the usual no reason at all.
Once again, though, Jackson gives us a lot to look at. The film's environments—a gothic proliferation of stone stairways inside Erebor, the ramshackle docks and dwellings of Laketown—fill every corner of the screen with wondrous detail. And there's a transfixing scene in which two characters confront each other on a frozen waterway; when the ice cracks, one of them falls through, and we see his body drifting by beneath the translucent floe. It's a brilliant conception, of a sort otherwise largely absent from this movie.
Five Armies is the shortest of the Hobbit films (just under two and a half hours), but it's still too long. And taken together with its predecessors, it once more fails to justify the existence of this whole bloated endeavor. Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies, with their classic moral clarity, gave us a fully realized world; further elaboration has served no purpose. The ending of this picture has been strenuously tailored to hook up with the beginning of the Rings saga, but the resulting comparison of the two trilogies is likely to prove ruinous for this one.