Elves and orcs are just going through the motions in the final chapter of Peter Jackson’s ‘Hobbit’ trilogy
Bleary visuals, a blearier narrative, and a stage groaning with characters in search of a stopping point—The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies is the keystone in the arch between the two trilogies. The masonry is shaky: obvious little-person stunt doubles in the long shots, billions of winged animated critters churning up the leaden skies in the final battles.
It begins wrong-footed with the untimely dispatching of the trilogy’s most commanding figure, Smaug the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch). He passes just as was indicated in the previous episode, Desolation of Smaug—it was a death foretold with an arrow pointing to it, so to speak. The survivor of Smaug’s firebombing, Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) is drafted to become the leader of a hoard of Lake Town refugees heading to the Lonely Mountain.
Once upon a time, the fate of Middle Earth depended on locating the dread ring of power. The Battle of the Five Armies is about debt collection. The lake people arrive first. Following them, an army of elves arrives, trying to retrieve a pawned necklace from a pack of greedy dwarves holed up in their mountain fastness. (To be fair to the elves, they have a dual purpose: they’re also hauling care packages for the displaced Lake Town homeless.)
The toxic gold hoard of the dear departed dragon is poisoning Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), handsomest and tallest of the dwarves. Remember those battalions of orcs who had been milling around in the marshes, slugging each other? They invade, riding their giant hyenas. Also coming in for the fight: Thorin’s relative, a hog-mounted dwarf Dain (Billy Connolly). And lurking about is Ryan Gage as Alfrid, the Falstaff of the refugee camp, a unibrowed creep who is meant to deliver Rowan Atkinson-style comedy relief.
This wrap-up exemplifies what critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called “Chicken McNuggets” action cinema—tasty bits unconnected by any organic matter. The tasty bits are few, but there are moments in the scrimmage where it seems as if director Peter Jackson didn’t get his yarn tangled. It’s a minor thrill to see how well drilled the elf-army is, a football half-time show of whirling shields and brandished bows. A proud scene features the huge Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett of TV’s Arrow) floating in the water under a layer of ice after his fight with Thorin. Better still is the weirdly intimate way these two combatants, dwarf and orc, look at each other when they’re temporarily exhausted—it’s the observant detail that would have been noted in Beowolf. During another fray, Legolas (Orlando Bloom) tosses his fine silver braids and reaches back for an arrow with that sure smooth gesture we love…only to find his quiver empty. Another human moment: Ian McKellan’s Gandalf, out of pipeweed, rattling the bowl of his pipe, and trying to inhale up some flavor as he sits next to Bilbo (Martin Freeman).
The rest, one can shrug off. As a castle tumbles, Legolas runs up the disconnected flying stones of the building like a staircase. Middle Earth is an ancient realm from before the laws of physics were discovered. Bolg (Lawrence Makoare) is an orc every bit as pretty as his name. He wears a skull for a sporran, like Satan on South Park. He licks the place where his lips would be when he corners the only female in the picture to get more than five minutes on-screen, Evangeline Lilly’s warror elf Tauriel. Rapiness isn’t what you expect from this epic.
Elves are great healers, but they have no way to avoid the pain of love. “Why does it hurt so much?” says the lovelorn Tauriel. “Because it is real,” she is told. If only the film were so; instead, the CG is as thick as mayonnaise. Tauriel’s heartbreak doesn’t hurt like the time Liv Tyler’s Arwen had a vision of the stone effigy of her dead hero Aragorn. It’s like the difference between Tristan and Iseult and a star-crossed junior high romance.
THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES With Martin Freeman, Orlando Bloom and Cate Blanchett. Directed by Peter Jackson. Rated PG-13. 144 minutes.