The Hobbit' delivers big, empty spectacle
Five Armies' is heavy on the effects, light on character development
One of my critic colleagues pointed out that Hobbit filmmaker Peter Jackson has no shortage of chutzpah. It takes brass to spend at least half a billion dollars stretching J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved but modest book to three protracted films and then lecture the audience on the evils of greed.
But Jackson definitely puts his ambition and his fortune on the screen for The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, a thematically threadbare but undeniably sprawling spectacle. Revisiting the massive battle scenes of his second of three Lord of the Rings films, Jackson renews his credentials as one of the most energetic "field marshals" in modern movies. There's not a lot to Five Armies, but it sure provides plenty to look at.
Like the prologue to a typical James Bond film, Armies begins with a set piece, resolving the previous film's cliffhanger involving Smaug the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) attacking the humans of Lake-town. Then the action shifts to the Lonely Mountain, where dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) reclaims his throne but grows obsessed with hoarding the dragon's riches.
Laying claim to part of the treasure are Lake-town's refugees as well as the neighboring wood elves (lead by Luke Evans and Lee Pace), but the three-way standoff faces an interruption from legions of Orcs and other fantastical monsters. Plainspoken hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) mostly serves as an observer and audience surrogate, but is less marginalized here than he was in the previous film, The Desolation of Smaug.
Given that Jackson sets up The Hobbit as a prequel to The Lord of the Rings, full of little callbacks and Easter eggs, it's impossible not to compare the two trilogies. The special effects of the first films might be showing their age, but throughout Middle-earth comes across as a magical but lived-in place, populated by credible, textured personalities.
Not only are the intricate CGI backdrops more obviously fake, The Hobbit's characters get much less development. Orlando Bloom reprises his role as swashbuckling elf Legolas, but spends the film virtually expressionless. A star-crossed romance involves Evangeline Lilly's elf and Dean O'Gorman's young dwarf, which isn't exactly Romeo and Juliet (or even Gnomeo and Juliet), but at least gives the actors something to do.
The Hobbit occasionally finds its groundedness in Bilbo's rare interactions with the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), or his musings about tending his garden at home. The Battle of the Five Armies, like the previous two Hobbit films, has just enough sparkling nuggets to make you wonder if there's a much better — and much shorter — movie in there amid all the imitation gold.