By far the shortest and bloodiest of the trilogy, The Battle of The Five Armies more than lives up its name but the actual characters are left largely on the sidelines
For a franchise that has thrown everything but the Velcro-clad dwarf at the 3D wide screen, the final part of Peter Jackson's overly ambitious Hobbit trilogy really is a case of diminishing returns. Grumbles from the purists that a 320-page children's book does not a three-part movie epic make are finally borne out in a concluding instalment that certainly zips by in a refreshingly short running time but also sacrifices vital and entertaining characters for skull-crushing action.
Well, it's not called The Battle of The Five Armies for nothing, and from a bravado opening sequence that sees furious fire-breathing dragon Smaug swooping down and unleashing fiery hell on Laketown to a second half which is essentially one long battle scene, the last of Jackson's trilogy really does not let up on the pitched battles and one-to-one mortal combat.
From vast halls of molten gold and battle royales on frozen lakes, there is much to savour visually. However, there is precious little of the Hobbit in The Hobbit. Bilbo Baggins does have a key role in several scenes but he seems diminished, as it were, as greater events unfold around him. Worse still, neither does Gandalf, by far the most compelling character in all of Middle Earth, feature much. He is left to rush about with yet more dread tidings from the east.
In fact, The Hobbit creaks under Jackson's constant need to revisit the more grotesque and diabolical elements of Middle Earth with portents of what is to come, sixty years hence. Scenes of Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving and a kung-fu fighting Christopher Lee smiting ghostly apparitions of Sauron's outriders are wholly unnecessary and, without the context of the first movies, vaguely laughable in their stagy, heraldic campness.
Jackson's got a bad case of prequelitis alright but you can hardly blame the old boy for not wanting to let go; with LOTRs, he accomplished the greatest realisation of a fictional universe in cinema history and he shall miss his playground.
The Hobbit, in truth, is a bucolic and homely tale which is rather more genteel than the saga of war and disaster presented here. This trilogy is a compressed LOTRs-lite but nobody could fault it for those battle scenes, many of which are really re-runs of the series of epic ding-dongs that made The Return of The King so great.
This Misty Mountain hop is long and bloody. Heads are hewn clean off and clanking legions of Orcs, each one uglier than the previous one, stream down the mountainside to face ranks of Elves in gleaming armour as the Dwarves, lead by Thorin's cousin, Dain, played with foul-mouthed gusto by Billy Connolly, swarm about.
All this and a sub-plot involving handsome scion of Erebor, Kili (Aidan Turner), that actually does more than pad out the near-depleted source material. His love for Elven beauty Tauriel (the flinty Evangeline Lily) provides a touch of romance during wartime and Kili and his more reserved brother, Fili, become ensnared in a fiendish Orcish trap. Meanwhile, Orlando Bloom stands about nobly or does his aerobic prancing about bit, all the time looking like he's thinking about the next toilet break. Man, those Elves are a bunch of pious bores. They really put years on you. Oh, and the eagles are back. Those bloody eagles . . .
As in LOTRs, Jackson's central message that greed is bad is well handled. The once proud Dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield goes mad with 'dragon fever' at the sight of the unimaginable riches that lie deep in the mines of Erebor. A very impressive Richard Armitage channels real Shakesperean angst as a king teetering on the edge of madness, flinching and raging with paranoia and self-doubt.
At a mere two hours and ten minutes, it is fleet and not just hairy of foot, but Jackson has squeezed every last drop of Orc blood and box office gold from a book that never really deserved its own separate franchise.