From the beginning of what has become this trilogy, The Hobbit films have felt like a dare to Peter Jackson, who's never met material that he couldn't stretch into oblivion. When he made The Lord of the Rings trilogy into a ten-hour marathon, it was understandable because… well, have you seen what that book looks like in a single volume? It could dispatch a small dog if it fell. The Hobbit, not so much. But that didn't stop the ambitious New Zealander from expanding a short novel into an eight-hour epic, the finale of which has arrived.
Not only is The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies the end of this trilogy, but it is also the end of the Middle Earth series of films. So it's not at all surprising that we find Jackson indulging in all his most extravagant excesses, the most notable of which is his penchant for massive, lengthy battle scenes that simultaneously test credulity, patience, and the land-speed record for most deus ex machina moments. In fact, The Hobbit: BFA is essentially a two-plus hour long fight scene, with intermittent breaks for fan service and bare bones exposition. If you loved The Lord of the Rings for its thrilling action, then you'll be given plenty of that here, albeit warmed over in the microwave so many times that it's started to sag in the middle.
The story picks up right where the previous one left off. Smaug (the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch), dragon-enraged by nearby Laketown's aiding and abetting of the thieving dwarves, has set out to level the place using fire and careless placement of his feet as he crawls along building tops. Some guy whom I thought of as Handsome Hero Man, but whose name is Bard, I think, dispatches the beast within the first ten minutes, rendering the previous events of the film utterly anticlimactic. Word gets out that the Lonely Mountain is up for grabs again, so an army of elves, dwarves, men, orcs, and some real big birds show up looking for a piece. Meanwhile, Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his merry band of dwarves are holed up inside, hoping Thorin doesn't go insane with greed over a missing MacGuffin gem, which happens to be in the possession of Bilbo (Martin Freeman). Those five armies I mentioned? They battle.
It's very disappointing indeed when the movie's title character has been relegated to the sidelines in order to make more room for the very dashing action heroes played by Evans and Armitage. This makes sense because the entire movie is a series of fight scenes, in which a three-foot halfling can hardly participate. Evans and Armitage don't embarrass themselves, but Freeman is practically this film's raison d'être for me, and he vanishes faster than any old magic ring could do it. What you're left with is a very expensive yet completely generic fantasy hack 'n slasher that has coasted by on the goodwill generated by its predecessors. Films like The Raid and its sequel prove that there are plenty of interesting ways for an individual to be murdered, but The Hobbit: BFA runs out less than halfway through.
As with the previous two films, there is the puzzling presence of characters from The Lord of the Rings that were never mentioned in The Hobbit. I'm no superfan, so this doesn't disturb my nerd feelings, but it becomes a little insulting when Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), and even Saruman (Christopher Lee, who is friggin' 92 years old) show up for a battle jam that occurs nowhere in the novel, and exists primarily for fan service. None of these actors could give a less-than-entertaining performance even if they tried, so the scene does not completely fall flat, but it's painfully obvious what Jackson is doing here. It is almost as though he could tell that the audience's interest would be flagging after watching dozens of anonymous extras whack each other for thirty minutes, so it may be good to drop in some familiar faces for a day's worth of shooting.
When the film finally decides to come to a conclusion—a comparatively definitive one after the Russian nesting doll that was the end of The Return of the King—it feels like Jackson is heaving a huge sigh of relief at the prospect of not having to dwell in this world anymore. That's a shame. The first three films were a collective masterpiece, appropriately huge in scope, with the sense that their creator was head-over-heels in love with his work. Now that The Hobbit is over, with its clunky, cash-grabbing structure and inescapable bloatedness, the series feels more like a product of Hollywood than it did eleven years ago. This is a case of a sequel diminishing the original, a beating of the proverbial horse so profound that its ancestors look a little bruised.