Spoiler warning: This review is being posted on the film's day of release and some spoilers are discussed.
The company of Thorin Oakenshield has reclaimed the Lonely Mountain, but in the process has unleashed the dragon Smaug on the surrounding lands. With armies gathering to storm the mountain, refugees flooding out of Laketown and Gandalf imprisoned in Dol Guldur, it once again falls to a single hobbit to try to save the day.
The Battle of the Five Armies is the third film in Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, a piece of avant-garde experimental cinema determined to find out if you can extract three movies totalling eight and a half hours from a single 288-page children's novel. If An Unexpected Journey told us "Probably not," and The Desolation of Smaug suggested "No, not at all", The Battle of the Five Armies concludes, "No, and seriously is this poorly-choreographed CGI fight scene going to go on much longer?"
This is not to say that Battle is an unmitigated disaster or is not, in parts, enjoyable, just that this trilogy pretty much ends as it started and continued: some very reasonably well-written scenes between skilled actors (Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett, Richard Armitage etc all on top form), a lot of special effects of varying quality and a lot of shots of orcs trying to stab people who are trying to stab them back, except for some reason the orcs are now almost all computer-generated and distinctly unconvincing.
Based on the end of Desolation, I was expecting an interminable sequence in Laketown as the dragon prepares to arrive and all the dwarves left in the city in the last film help save the day. Instead they all leg it within minutes of the film starting (completely negating the need to have them split up at all) and the entire Laketown episode is done within a quarter of an hour. This is quite cheering, and the film proceeds at a fairly brisk pace as armies gather, Thorin is consumed by the dragon-lust for gold and some tense negotiations unfold between Thranduil, Bard and Thorin. Even the newly-introduced subplot with Gandalf imprisoned in Dol Guldur is resolved with commendable swiftness, complete with shots of Elrond kicking backside and Galadriel reprising her "Evil Crazy Enya" role from Fellowship which was weird enough the first time around.
This focus, a cheering welcome after dubious scenes of ill-judged comedy and the pointless dragon skirmish that seemed to last longer than the Thirty Years War in the previous film, then goes out the window once battle is joined. On the one hand, Jackson uses a bird's eye camera view to very cleverly establish the battlefield and the different fronts that the fight takes place on. With Tolkien's description of the battle taking up just a few lines in the novel, Jackson has to flesh it out to a multi-front battle taking place before the gates of Erebor, in the surrounding hills and then degenerating into messy urban warfare in the ruined streets of Dale. This is all great. On the other, the battle then goes on for well north of an hour of scenes of people whacking one another with swords. To mix this up, Jackson moves away from the big battle scenes after a bit to focus on a series of duels between key protagonists and antagonists, with Legolas, Tauriel and Kili squaring off against Bolg and Thorin taking on the menacing Azog. However, duels are best when they are focused affairs and the mixing of the two duels with one another and with occasional divergences to what Bilbo or Bard is up to drains them of a lot of dramatic tension. Those who hate the "Superelf Legolas" of the previous movie will also not be happy here, with way too many scenes of the CGI version of Orlando Bloom pulling off some crazy acrobatic move against all the odds. One scene of Legolas air-surfing across some falling rocks may actually make you want to drop an EMP bomb on Weta Digital's offices to make them stop.
Oh yes, and at one point four sandworms from Dune show up, do nothing apart from dig some tunnels that some of the orcs use (for no apparent reason, as then tons more arrive overland) and leave.
The trilogy's use of CGI at the expense of the natural beauty of the New Zealand countryside has been one of its biggest problems, and Battle initially seems to rally against that with some great scenes on the banks of the Long Lake filmed apparently entirely on location with nary a CGI vista in site. However, it's not too long before this is abandoned and once again we are in plastic backdrop city. The use of CGI becomes inexplicable here, especially when Dain Ironfoot shows up and everyone gets excited to hear Billy Connolly speak up, only to discover in close-ups that he's an unconvincing CG mannequin. What the actual hell?
The conciseness Jackson shows in the early going of the film is also frittered away as the battle scenes wear on wearily. Bard spends vast amounts of time looking for his children. Stephen Fry's minion character from the previous films get a quite unnecessary and time-consuming subplot of his own where he does precisely nothing. Legolas and Tauriel have to take a side-trip to Gundabad for no reason (a trip of several hundred miles which they accomplish in less than 24 hours with no explanation whatsoever). Jackson also goes a bit weird by pulling out one of the five armies from the books (no wargs here) and replacing them with flying bat-demon things, but then introduces a second army of different orcs. In fact, there's at least six armies fighting at the battle (seven if you count Team Thorin as a distinct faction) just to make things even odder.
Working against this are the actors, who as usual deliver even when faced with awkward exposition or having to act against tennis balls, and Howard Shore's soundtrack. After a fairly unmemorable second movie he comes back strong here with some nice new themes. And Jackson does stick the landing with this one: Battle's ending is fairly focused with a minimum of goodbyes and finding an excellent way of segueing into Fellowship of the Ring whilst staying true to the original novel.
The Battle of the Five Armies (***) starts off very well, gets bogged down in some overlong action scenes, and then recovers for a reasonable ending. But of the three it's the one that suffers the most from the decision to split the slim novel into three films. It's the shortest movie of the six Middle-earth flicks that Jackson has directed, but there are moments when it feels like by far the longest, and it's the one that is most obviously weakened by an over-reliance on computer graphics at the expensive of real actors and a dramatically satisfying script. It's an entertaining popcorn movie, but it cannot be anything other than disappointing to realise it's been released almost thirteen years to the day after The Fellowship of the Ring, which managed to be much more than that and still the greatest epic fantasy movie ever made. The film is on general release now.