‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’: Three’s the charm

December 18, 2014

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And so it comes to an end – again.

Some might argue that, having taken the dense “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and condensed it into three monumental films, Peter Jackson should have had no trouble turning “The Hobbit” into an equally enjoyable and involving one-off.

Guess again.

The slimmest of J.R.R. Tolkien’s volumes, “The Hobbit” has been extended to a trilogy of its own. While these films have felt like overkill at times, the Oscar-winning Jackson brings it home with a bang with this final film in what has to stand, collectively, as the greatest achievement in extended fantasy storytelling in movie history.

Jackson has done something that will likely never be done again: It’s not just that he got these movies made the way he wanted – but that the way he did it was of such consistently high quality.

Obviously, at this point, if you haven’t seen the first two installments of “The Hobbit,” you’re not going to be able to make much sense of what’s happening here. As he’s done all along, Jackson simply drops you headlong into the action at the point he left it in the last movie. Even if you’ve seen the films, it may take you a few minutes to remember where you were.

The dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) has been angered into attacking Lake Town, where the woodsman Bard (Luke Evans) is the only one who can kill him with the last Black Arrow.

Meanwhile, the Dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) — well, really, is there any point in rehashing the plot? If you’ve seen the first two movies or if you’ve read the book, you know the story and what this final chapter needs to enfold. And if you haven’t, well, you probably don’t care. Suffice to say that there’s a battle for the gold in the mountain that the Dwarves have reclaimed, as well as lessons to be learned about the corrupting nature of wealth and power.

Jackson and his cowriters (Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro) have interpolated all sorts of backstory – about a romance between the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and the dwarf Fili (Dean O’Gorman) (with a smattering of jealousy by Orlando Bloom’s Legolas), about a battle between Gandalf IIan McKellen) and the forces of good (including Christopher Lee’s Saruman, Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel and Hugo Weaving’s Elrond) against the return of Sauron. The latter, of course, will metastasize into the “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and Bilbo Baggins’ nephew Frodo’s journey to destroy the magic Ring of Power to defeat Sauron.

Jackson’s ability to mount huge action and keep it both exciting and comprehensible seems unmatched by anyone currently working, with the possible exception of James Cameron. As the title suggests, there are five armies that wind up in the middle of the fray at the film’s finale, and Jackson makes it easy for you to figure out who all of them are.

Jackson juggles several face-offs in the final third (the film is just shy of two-and-a-half hours), giving each conflict and character its due. His heroes practically glow, they are so lovingly shot; his monsters – particularly the Orcs – look like a Frank Frazetta acid trip, and a scary trip at that. They ooze viciousness, among other things.

Has this “Hobbit” trilogy been one trip to the well too many for Jackson? I think not. This finale is exciting and emotional; it flies by because it is a roiling series of climaxes, each carrying a new level of tension and thrill.

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is a gripping conclusion to what may be the second-greatest extended flight of fancy in movie history.

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