It is exceedingly bittersweet to see the wilds of Middle-earth one last time.
Ever since director Peter Jackson first brought us to the Shire in 2001’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” Middle-earth seemed to be endless. After 13 years, five movies, a dragon’s weight in box office gold and 17 Academy Awards later, the end has arrived, with “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” capping the prequel trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s first book, the 1937 genre-defining fantasy classic, “The Hobbit.”
“Battle” plunges the viewer straight into action as the dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) attacks Lake-town, which is defended only by Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans).
Deep within the Kingdom of Erebor, the titular hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) watches with great concern as the gold-crazed dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) refuses to share the wealth and faces off against the forces of both the Lake-town men led by Bard, and the Wood-elves, led by Thranduil (Lee Pace).
What they don’t know is that the evil Orc army is secretly headed to Erebor. The wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen), the elf archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and the elf sword maiden Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) race to Erebor in the desperate hope of warning the gathered armies.
“Battle” is aptly titled, because there is fighting in 90 percent of the film. The first 5 percent is for reminding the audience what’s gone before and the remaining 5 percent is for setting up what’s to follow.
In effect, Jackson squeezed three movies out of the single book. As it turned out, 2012’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and 2013’s “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” were elaborate set-ups for the full-screen denouement that is “Battle.”
By now, viewers have watched many fantasy battles in so many movies, the Lord of the Ring (LOTR) Trilogy’s (The Battle of Gondor or Helm’s Deep) in particular. But the truth is that the clash in “Battle” was the first big one, setting the stage for all that followed.
Jackson does not let that bit of history prevent him from doing all sorts of damage, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind if the mayhem seems familiar. “Battle” trudges on in the considerable shadow of its well-armed offspring.
That said, “Battle,” like Bard fending off Smaug, knows what it’s aiming for. When villains are revealed, heroes will fall; others will find their destiny elsewhere. The addition of Legolas and Tauriel have successfully been integrated into the old material. Thorin is the dwarf with the dilemma, faced with choosing between what he has always wanted and what is right, and Armitage portrays him as someone almost literally tearing himself to shreds.
We continue to get a class in the badassery of the dwarves. “Battle” gives viewers a chance to say farewell to beloved LOTR characters like Gandalf, Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving).
But this prequel trilogy has all been about Bilbo, and Freeman displays newfound nobility and inherent warmth in his everyman hero. It is Freeman who provides the film’s stout heart, turning “Battle” into the emotional and narrative ending of the saga—with magic ring in tow.
“Battle” takes the dramatic time to tie up all the loose ends—and set up the important details that leads it into the tumultuous events of the war for the One Ring. A growing evil is unmasked. A company’s time ends. Future companions are sent off. A burglar goes home.
That is perhaps its most underrated quality, that it not only tops off “The Hobbit” as a trilogy, but that it immediately makes you want to watch the LOTR films that are chronologically set after them, the future trilogy to rule them all.
It’s a grand opportunity to cherish one final adventure on dreamt-off shores with fond fantastic friends—majestically enhanced by Howard Shore’s musical score, Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography and Dan Hennah’s production design.
Dare to imagine a coming time when another hobbit named Baggins will play a pivotal role in the history of this fictional world.
Warner Bros.’ “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” opens in cinemas on Dec. 12.