Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” – Send in the eagles, it’s finally done.

Poster for "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies"

Naming the five armies involved in the final Hobbit film is a bit like naming the five factions of Divergent. Or, for that matter, the thirteen dwarves in this film. There are probably certain superfans who can manage it with minimal Wikipedia breaks, but the film itself does very little to establish the importance of every last one of them. At the end of The Desolation of Smaug, the battle for the mountain of gold is…still very much in progress, and really only gets settled when Bard the Bowman (Lucas Black) takes down the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) with a gargantuan steel arrow – but only after it incinerates his entire town. The refugees of Laketown are the closest this film offers to a group whose motives remain pure throughout the film. They’ve had their home destroyed through no fault of their own, and they’re really just trying to survive, and claim the portion of the treasure that was promised to them. Since…they will likely freeze and starve to death without it. And so it is that Bard, newly crowned dragonslayer and sorta-king of the Laketown remnant, attempts to negotiate with Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), who guards the mountain and its gold with nothing more than a band of dwarves and a titular Hobbit, Bilbo (Martin Freeman).

For reasons that are vague and ill-justified (“dragon-sickness”?), Thorin has turned into a bit of a heartless miser in the roughly 20 minutes of movie-time that have passed since the end of the second film. He refuses to turn over the gold to anyone (“Not…one…single…piece.”), and has no sympathy for the town that was destroyed due to his own actions, despite their skillful dispatch of the gigantic flaming hurdle in the way of his massive pile of shiny things. Oh, and for some reason, Bilbo is concealing the Arkenstone, a glowing object of undefinable purpose, in his coat pocket next to the One Ring. Thorin wants the stone badly, and suspects everyone around him of stealing it (it’s not paranoia if you’ve got a burglar in your employ). According to Balin (Ken Stott), the stone might make Thorin’s madness better, or worse, but no one bothers to mention what purpose the stone is actually meant to serve, even if I recall some vague bluster about “uniting the dwarves” from the first film.

In case it’s unclear, I flat-out hated the first hour of TBOTFA. Whether we’re talking about Thranduil the elf-king (Lee Pace), who shows up on mooseback with an army to reclaim a different set of shiny things from inside the mountain, Alfrid (Ryan Gage), a human with far too much screentime for his sniveling motivations, or the dwarf army (led by Billy Connolly) who shows up to defend the treasure, not a single character’s motives were admirable or sympathetic here. This is a resource war, and not a terribly interesting one. Any time a character began bloviating about his birthright or promises or honor, my eyes quickly glazed over. Really, the only honest antagonists were the two Orc armies, led by Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) – whom I could’ve sworn was already killed by Thorin in the first film – and Bolg (John Tui), his son.

Still from "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies"

There were moments in the original Lord of the Rings trilogy where hordes of unnamed (and mostly CGI) characters were battling it out for our amusement. But it was always intercut with characters that we cared about, and it never felt as empty or small as it did here. This is a battle that is ostensibly as grand as Pelennor Fields, but it kept all of the main characters shuffled off into lesser side action, mostly atop the nearby Ravenhill. And ironically, while this had the inadvertent effect of rendering the large-scale battle sequences incredibly tedious, it actually made the side-combat rather compelling. Dwarf commandos storm the orc leadership atop a mountain, Bilbo sneaks off to warn them of incoming trouble, and a series of thoroughly entertaining boss fights and intermittently tender moments ensue. This sequence encapsulates what few elements worked about this film, even during the thoroughly dysfunctional first hour. When characters are acting for sympathetic reasons, then all the pristinely-rendered action starts to have meaning once again. The elf-maiden Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) hastens to save her beloved dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) from an incoming orc-horde. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) assists Tauriel despite knowing that his own affection for her is unrequited. Bilbo maintains his friendship for Thorin despite their earlier falling-out. Even Bard, who does very little of consequence after killing the dragon, is seeking only to save his family and townspeople.

When this film worked, it was entirely due to the strong performances and relatable motivations of its characters. But it is unquestionably the weakest entry in the Hobbit trilogy, remaining as dense and bloated and inconsequential as ever. By the time the Eagles – those perennial closers – showed up to dispatch the secondary orc army just as they had barely shuffled onto the field in the distance, I started to wonder if even Peter Jackson had lost interest in this lame skirmish. And when a dying character belched forth the film’s moral, of the importance of valuing home and family over gold, it was all but confirmed. Enjoy our gold, Hollywood, even if you got less of it than the first time around. You’ve milked this story for all it’s worth and then some. And while we got some pretty solid cinema technology out of it (48fps 3D is still a marvel), it was wrapped in a languorous, incomprehensible spectacle that seems less likely to stand the test of time than Avatar.

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10

Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” – A bloated and beleaguered adventure

Poster for "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

Why does this film exist? As the line between art and commerce grows increasingly blurred with the unchallenged rise of franchise filmmaking, it’s certainly a fair question. Of course, on the heels of a billion-dollar franchise like Lord of the Rings, a second trip to the well was a virtual certainty. I ask this question not out of some naive sense of entitlement for artistry to emerge from the studio system, but rather as a self-contained quibble with the film itself. As I watched a nearly shot-for-shot remake of a sequence from 2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring, featuring hobbits Bilbo (Ian Holm) and Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) – looking 11 years older as actors, but inexplicably younger as characters – I found myself wondering what exactly was the point of this protracted exercise in nostalgia. The film is saddled in equal measure with sequences that simultaneously pad the runtime and remind the audience of the horrific fate that awaits Middle Earth in the trilogy we’ve already seen. And yet, it was only as I got to know the younger version of Bilbo (Martin Freeman) that my skepticism and apathy began to fade a bit. For it is Freeman’s light touch and sympathetic performance, as well as the film’s characterization of Bilbo, that allows it to pass as a standalone adventure story. Even as it frequently seeks to undermine itself by adhering to self-referential bits of fan-service.

To cultivate audience sympathy with a reluctant hero is a daunting task. In this very same weekend, I saw Rise of the Guardians, an unfortunate misstep from Dreamworks Animation that mingled brilliant visuals and a strong supporting cast with an utterly unsympathetic protagonist. The Hobbit was saddled with a similar burden – to allow Bilbo Baggins to initially be the most useless and reluctant member of a party of dwarven warriors who all ostensibly have personal reasons for being there. The wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan), who seems just a bit more capable now than in his twilight years, imposes upon Bilbo’s hospitality relentlessly (in a sequence that is nearly interminable), and insists upon the hobbit’s value to the endeavor. And yet, the wizard compels him to join by appealing simultaneously to his boredom and racial guilt, rather than any specific contribution he might make. And what is their noble quest? This band is setting off to reclaim their stolen homeland, yes, but also to recover the massive bounty of gold – mined through dubious labor practices under a monarchic regime – that is cached within. They are initially no better than a band of pirates at eliciting audience sympathy, and are just as minimally characterized. And yet gradually, Bilbo comes to truly believe in their quest, and when he finally explains his motivation for sticking with this diminutive baker’s dozen, I found that my own interest level had risen similarly.

Martin Freeman in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"

Dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is given a nice, meaty revenge tale to work with, and acquits himself well on-screen. But the other dwarves are given scarcely more characterization than Snow White could muster, with their attributes reduced to simple, one-word descriptions. Thinking back to how effectively Jackson’s previous trilogy managed to characterize a nine-member ensemble and myriad supporting characters, I can’t help but wonder whether nine was simply the breaking point. Apart from plump gourmand Bombur (Stephen Hunter) and ancient, genial Balin (Ken Stott), I could hardly tell you a single one of these dwarves’ unique strengths or contributions to the party. We hear that some of them are farmers, merchants, and miners, but I would task anyone to point out which is which, without the aid of Wikipedia or the IMDb. I’ll admit, my memory of the novel (which I read when I was 12) is faint, but if any such differentiation was present in the source material, it hardly makes an appearance in the film.

But speaking of appearances, I must address the film’s 48 frame-per-second 3D presentation, if only because I ended up quite unexpectedly enjoying it. Yes, every bit of rapid motion looks jerky and anomalous, but I found myself asking whether it really looked bad to my eyes, or whether it simply looked unfamiliar. After about 10 minutes of staring into what looked suspiciously like British TV, I found that my brain had adjusted completely to the illusion, and these events – and the gorgeous cinematography that captured them – were simply a window that I was gazing through. Apart from the occasional wandering audience member in the foreground, the illusion was never broken for me throughout the film, and I found that it worked hand-in-hand with the obvious advances that Jackson’s Weta Digital FX shop has made in rendering all-CGI characters in the past decade. Whether I was gazing upon an overlong cameo from Gollum (Andy Serkis) or a grotesquely blubberous Goblin King (Barry Humphries), I felt an overwhelming sense of being there, in the presence of these entirely real creations. While not all of The Hobbit‘s technical virtuosity serves to the story’s benefit (I still don’t quite understand the point of those brawling mountains), it is certainly one of its great strengths.

Bilbo asks Gandalf a simple question at the outset of the film. “Can you promise that I will come back?” The wizard answers no, and yet the audience is capable at all times of answering yes. The film is at its best when it allows Freeman to emphasize Bilbo’s personal stakes through his performance and characterization, rather than reminding us that a far greater threat – and a certain safe return – loom in the hobbit’s narrative future. Likewise, the dwarves (aided a bit by flashback) manage to eventually present their quest as a noble endeavor, worthy of story and song. And as long as they can carry it to a swift completion, they may manage to give this series of films a real raison d’être. But as it stands, the film just meanders from setpiece to meaningless setpiece with no room to breathe in-between. The quest never picks up any steam, and the party seems more like an ambling family R.V. that can’t make decent time because Dad insists on stopping off for a family photo in front of the Great Big Lawn Chair off Route 6. They may eventually reach their destination, but they might find the journey was scarcely worth it. And when Grandpa is a wizard capable of summoning air support with the slightest effort, you can’t help but wonder whether hiking across every mountaintop was really worth it.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what a strained metaphor looks like.

FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10