“You are only quite a little fellow in a wide world, after all.”
It’s the words that Gandalf reminds his companion at the end of The Hobbit The Battle of the Five Armies. The avuncular line has a cozy feel that evokes the bedtime-storytelling of J. R. R. Tolkien’s 1937 children’s classic — now better known as the trilogized prequel to a 21st-century fantasy phenomenon. Gandalf’s sentiment is also all too apt for Peter Jackson’s vexing end to his strangely apportioned adaptation: Bilbo Baggins is indeed quite a little fellow in Mr. Jackson’s great world here — less a central hero on a journey than a supporting player in a movie bookended by destruction and war in dark, grim lands.
The Hobbit The Battle of the Five Armies picks up hot on the heels after last year’s movie, with the dragon Smaug giving Lake-town its promised end by fiery devastation. It’s a rip-roaring opening spectacle of burning buildings and refugee villagers, with Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch with baroque cruelty) thundering over streets like a runaway bomber, until he is felled by Bard the bargeman. Bilbo (Martin Freeman) watches from far away next to the dwarfs he traveled with to Erebor.
There, the headstrong leader Thorin Oakenshield will install himself in hoarding splendor, a slave to “that terrible need” for treasure. And so on, and so forth. Mr. Jackson returns to the flexible hirsute action figures of Middle-earth for the most recent work, and probably last, adventure. Gandalf (Ian McKellen) makes his way back to center stage from imprisonment, with Cate Blanchett and Christopher Lee swooping in to lend supporting gravitas. The Elves and the Orcs come together on Erebor, as seemingly everyone — though particularly Thorin — feels the pull of the dragon’s riches, which appear to attract all possible conflicting parties to the Lonely Mountain and neighboring Dale in dire preparation for the movie’s title.
Some of the issues with Mr. Jackson’s accordion-extended Hobbit is just that gravitational pull: At the picture’s true core is not quite the engaging Mr. Freeman as Bilbo, ever twitchingly alive, as you might think. Instead, the story insists upon the hoary sentiment of filthy lucre’s overriding all reason and friendship, like an opera without song. Erebor is a fake castle-like (or cathedral-like) stronghold, containing Thorin like an insane Macbeth in the labyrinth of his desire, but outside, the gathering of armies seems like a hurry-up-and-wait stage setting by another cast of CGI thousands.
When the Dwarfs, Elves and Orcs — those silly, evil forces that show up constantly to need the direction from their rabble-rousing leaders to go forth and “slay them all” — finally engage, Mr. Jackson’s huge set pieces shift between stirring visual salvos and general panoramic swarming. It’s only as individual good guys peel off for death-defying confrontations with Orcs on ledges that the routine violence crackles again with true danger and deft showmanship.
What this adaptation of The Hobbit can’t avoid by its final installment is its predictability and hollow foundations. It’s been said before, but Mr. Jackson himself is still haunted by the past: For all the craft, there’s nothing here like the unity and force of The Lord of the Rings, which is positively steeped in mythology and features (wonder of wonders) rounder characterization than the scheduled revelations on display here. At times Mr. Jackson expects too much viewer investment, whether in a rushed forbidden love between the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), or in the poor comic relief of a grabby Lake-town deputy who presents further venality.
It’s especially a shame since Mr. Jackson’s original knack for world creating (not to mention the sense of humor in his early installments) is often lacking in the ever-proliferating superhero-series worlds that his own vastly successful endeavors undoubtedly helped encourage. Bilbo may fully learn a sense of friendship and duty, and have quite a story to tell, but somewhere along the way, Mr. Jackson loses much of the magic.