The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which opens on Dec. 17, picks up right where the last installment, The Desolation of Smaug, left off this time last year. Without any foreplay, Smaug the dragon (performed with serpentine silkiness by Benedict Cumberbatch) barrels down on Lake-town as the residents scramble to evacuate, belching fire in devastating passes. Our hobbit hero Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his dwarven companions look on from their spot at the foot of Lonely Mountain, while Bard (Luke Evans) steps up to slay the massive monster. He rigs himself a makeshift bow to fire the Black Arrow and sights his target by balancing one end of the projectile on the shoulder of his trembling son.
It's a smashing sequence, and the best use of 3D in the movie, with Smaug charging at the pair of diminutive humans from the background as they ready their final shot. And it all takes place before the title card.
With the dragon dispatched, The Battle of the Five Armies lavishes the rest of its runtime on the promised orc-on-dwarf-on-elf-on-human fighting, in luxuriant and, honestly, tedious detail. It's an extravagant good-bye to the universe J. R. R. Tolkien created and that Peter Jackson then realized on screen, but it also does nothing to work as a movie unto itself. Instead, it's more like a television series finale, there only to please the die-hards and send everyone off in a flurry of tears and severed orc limbs.
Jackson accomplished a fantasy film miracle with the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He brought the world Tolkien readers had spent decades imagining to vivid, faithful life and he did so in a way that was breathtakingly expansive. We didn't see all of Middle-earth on screen, but it came across as a kingdom that continued far beyond our gaze, including wonders and marvels in all of its far-flung corners. The Hobbit movies have felt like an extended victory lap of sorts, with Warner Bros., Jackson, and audiences being understandably reluctant to let go. But The Hobbit films have also been five pounds of story in a 10-pound bag, a simpler, smaller book being unnecessarily spread out into three parts. This final segment, for instance, spends an unreasonable amount of time on Alfrid (Ryan Gage), the Lake-town toady.
Like the Lord of the Rings movies, the Hobbit trilogy announces its scale in swooping shots over the stunning New Zealand-as-Middle-earth landscape and epic battle sequences in which CGI forces of various races rush at and attempt to slaughter one another. But this new installment feels more like TV in its form than something cinematic — it just keeps going, "last time on The Hobbit"-style. There's no introduction, there's very little rising action and no downtime, really. It's just an acceleration toward the battle of the title, which — despite Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo del Toro's attempts to inject heft and ties to the previous trilogy with the whole "Necromancer" storyline — is all just a squabble over gold.
In place of the finality of the world being saved, The Battle of the Five Armies is fleshed out with callbacks to The Lord of the Rings — Bard's confrontation with Smaug echoes Éowyn's (Miranda Otto) showdown with the Witch King, Alfrid is a lightweight Gríma Wormtongue (Brad Dourif), and Thorin Oakenshield's (Richard Armitage) brush with dragon sickness recalls Théoden's (Bernard Hill) possession as well as the fixation caused by the One Ring. The CGI battles look like the other CGI battles. Dedicating this final film to an event in which the trilogy's main character plays only a minor part doesn't give much resonance to Bilbo's journey, but that's not been a huge priority for The Hobbit, despite being about having an adventure and all of Jackson's enhancements aside.
Instead, Battle of the Five Armies is all about making space to give as many characters as possible a good-bye — like Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom), in addition to the many new ones. Cate Blanchett's Galadriel appears for what amounts to an extended cameo, as does Hugo Weaving's Elrond, Christopher Lee's Saruman, and Sauron the evil eyeball. It's all of Middle-earth's greatest hits in one feature. If it doesn't work well as a movie itself, it will surely do the job as fan service, and as a chance to visit this world one last time. And for all their big screen grandeur, The Hobbit movies' true home really is on television, where they'll air in endless marathons on cable, one running into the next. In that context, Battle of the Five Armies' weakness won't matter at all — it'll just seem like part of some sprawling nine-plus-hour experience, the way it was meant to be seen.