WARNING: SPOILERS. Although the source material has been out for almost 80 years, so I’m not exactly revealing military secrets.
It’s difficult to know where to start this review. There’s the context of a six-film journey that began when I was still in school. There’s the background of being in New Zealand and learning to appreciate just how much these films have meant to this country. Both these things make me want to write a positive review, but there’s just one problem. The film isn’t very good.
It’s not even necessarily that this film is worse than the other two. It’s more that it’s exactly the same, and after nearly nine hours of this bloated series, I’m totally worn out. It doesn’t help that our cinema shows a short documentary before the film: just seeing clips of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is enough to remind me how superior those movies were.
An Unexpected Journey was endearing but sluggish, and The Desolation of Smaug was engaging but exhausting. This final engorged part of Tolkein’s 300 page children’s book is completely numbing. They even changed the title to the Battle of the Five Armies to prepare audiences for what they were going to get: two-and-a-half hours of convoluted fighting, mostly between CGI-enhanced characters with names no-one can remember.
There really is nothing in the way of plot. In order to flesh out the thin narrative of The Hobbit, Peter Jackson has stuffed an enormous amount of extra material into these films. This provided an opportunity to turn a film about a single battle into something more interesting, but instead all he did was add more stuff to that single battle. So we cut between endless scenes of shouting and running and stabbing, and still none of it holds any weight, because despite the huge amount of time we’ve spent in this world, we don’t care about any of the characters.
Except Bilbo. Thank god for Bilbo, and indeed Martin Freeman, who almost single-handedly saves the film by being the best character with the best scenes and the best lines. The narrative does all it can to drag the focus off him, despite him being the eponymous hero, and yet he still just about manages to hold his ground. You get a sense of what a powerful story this could have been if it had been streamlined into a single movie, with the focus squarely on its hobbit protagonist. But no, instead there are endless orcs and elves and dwarves and (most boring of all) humans, and the script knocks Bilbo unconscious so it doesn’t have to find anything for him to do during the (oh-thank-god-it’s-the-)final climax.
So about those other characters. I still don’t know the names or personalities of most of the dwarves. I especially don’t care about the god-awful forced romance between that dwarf that loves that elf and that elf that loves that dwarf. Balin is just about loveable, and Thorin is just about interesting. Gandalf gets rescued early on in a scene that was written purely to make all Middle Earth nerds wet their pants with unbridled glee. Fair enough: it’s awesome. After that, he mostly stands around and complains that no-one’s doing anything while he also isn’t doing anything.
The elf king is generically antagonistic, Bard the bowman must be decent because I can remember his name, and Legolas continues to look and act like a video game character, performing ludicrous and obviously CGI stunts that mostly result in unfortunate gales of laughter. (Worst moment of cinema this year: watch him hop across the rocks of a collapsing bridge.)
Meanwhile, Alfred, the Master’s servant, is bumped up to a major role for comic relief, a worthy successor to Jar Jar Binks in the category of catastrophic misjudgements. He’s not even the most cringeworthy character in the film, because for some utterly perplexing reason, Billy Connolly shows up as a dwarf something-or-other on a warthog something-or-other, swears a bit in a Scottish accent, and then disappears entirely from relevance and the screen.
Everyone argues for ages, and then they fight for ages, and then the eagles show up and save the day in about three seconds. It’s as lazy a denouement as Return of the King, where ghost armies slaughter everyone at the end, but here it’s ten times as exasperating because the whole film is about the battle. Oh, and if the argument is that the eagles also save the day in the book, maybe that’s a clue that you can’t turn that single page into an entire film.
(Wait, hold on, it’s a metaphor for World War 2, where the orcs are Germany and the eagles are the USA, an overwhelmingly powerful force that doesn’t bother to show up until everyone is dead but then claims all the credit. Right, and in this analogy, the humans are France, the dwarves are Britain, and the elves are… Russia? No, scratch that, there’s no deeper meaning at all. I mean, there really isn’t.)
Right at the end, the script somehow misplaces all its characters, and the lady elf and the elf king have an excruciating discussion about love, and I’m just about to lose the will to live, when the film finally gets it right. It ends beautifully, the way it should have been throughout, with Bilbo and Gandalf sharing intimate character moments. The Concerning Hobbits theme kicks in, and suddenly I remember why I love these films, and I’m heartbroken that they’re about to end forever.
Because they meant a lot to me growing up. And they clearly meant a lot to New Zealand, as demonstrated by the touching documentary screened in our cinema (and presumably throughout NZ) before the film. This isn’t an awful movie, it’s just an exasperating one. But it’s also the final piece of a towering legacy that will rightly endure.