Hobbits put their trust in simple pleasures: a nice meal (or two, or six), a cup of tea, a social call. So it's ironic that writer-director-producer Peter Jackson has proven determined to complicate "The Hobbit," J.R.R. Tolkien's relatively humble volume, into three, two-hour-plus films, culminating in "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies."
With most of the book's plot expended in two previous films, this third installment -- penned by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro -- mines appendices to Tolkien's "The Return of the King." It's probably best not to think too much about how this $250 million sausage was made, as it'll quickly become apparent how narratively bereft it is, how thematically redundant to the five Middle Earth films (totaling fifteen hours) that precede it.
All that aside, fans of the series and fanboy grumblers will have to agree that "The Battle of the Five Armies" is often entertaining. Carefully choreographed action rules the day, with clashes on an ice floe, a crumbling bridge, a mountain ridge. And that title's not kidding around: Most of the film is one giant extended battle, with multiple dwarf, elf, and orc armies converging in the vicinity of Erebor (a.k.a. The Lonely Mountain). If you intend on caring a whit for what's going on, bring a scorecard, but if you ask me, you're better off just going with the flow.
The gang's all here: hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), greed-infected dwarf Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his twelve dwarf compatriots, sage wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Elven king Thranduil (Lee Pace) and his son Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Woodland Elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), royal Elf Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), human Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans). A la Harry Potter, the sprawling Middle Earth saga affords many more parts for beloved British thespians, including Ian Holm, Stephen Fry, Billy Connolly, Benedict Cumberbatch and Christopher Lee, who at age 92 must be breaking some kind of record with his athletic fight scenes (achieved mostly with a double and CGI assist).
"The Battle of the Five Armies" is many stories: a tale of Middle-Earth "troubles" -- "ethnic tensions" if you will -- a (self-mocking?) parable of greed ("Don't underestimate the evil of gold!" Gandalf thunders), a love story of sorts (the triangle of Tauriel, Legolas, and Aidan Turner's Dwarf Kĺli), and a tale of male bonding between Bilbo and Thorin. Add in the grace notes Jackson and his team sometimes bring to each of these tasks, and the action-Jackson spectacle, and genre fans likely won't feel cheated out of their time or the price of the 3D ticket. But for some, especially the fantasy tourists, the "Ring"-around-the-resolution feels pretty old by now. Are we there yet? Yes, there and back again.
Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images. Two hours, 24 minutes.