Time to say goodbye: the end cannot come too soon for the third Hobbit film

The first two parts of Peter Jackson’s super-sized Hobbit trilogy held their own, but the director squanders all his best assets in this sorry mess of a final installment.

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The Hobbit: the Battle of the Five Armies (12A)
dir: Peter Jackson

“I think I’ll slip away quietly,” says Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) at the end of the third Hobbit movie. You can understand his reluctance to bid farewell to his companions. The introductions alone took up half an hour of the first film, An Unexpected Journey, and we’re still no closer to being able to distinguish one hairy dwarf from another. The goodbyes would take even longer: the air-kissing, the exchanging of elf-mail addresses. Knowing the director Peter Jackson, we could be talking about a whole separate movie.

This is, after all, the man who has turned J R R Tolkien’s 350-page novel into eight hours of cinema. Add the Hobbit films to his Lord of the Rings trilogy and you’ve got enough in-flight entertainment to fill a trip from the UK to New Zealand to see the spectacular locations. The first two Hobbit movies balanced grandeur and intimacy expertly, so it pains me to say that this is the only one I might consider walking out of, even if it were showing on a plane.

Problems become apparent immediately with the death of Smaug, the dragon unseated from his mountain lair. The entire first film was spent teasing us with glimpses of a claw here, a swishing tail there. The second movie, The Desolation of Smaug, revealed him in all his gloating glory, played by Benedict Cumberbatch through motion-capture technology. As the third part begins, Smaug is swooping through the oily skies and torching anyone with the misfortune not to have a speaking part. Then, 15 minutes in, he bites the bullet, or rather the arrow. No one was under any illusion that the dragon would go on to star in his own spin-off sitcom but the casualness of his demise is anticlimactic, like Al Capone going down for tax evasion.

For the remaining two-hours-plus, a dragon-shaped hole looms on-screen. The land around the Lonely Mountain is attacked by different armies in battle sequences that are a mishmash of glistening pixels. Sombre characters turn half to camera to deliver lines such as, “The time of the Orcs has come!” and, “We wait for cover of night.” The script will chasten anyone who thought that they would never again hear in earnest the sort of dialogue parodied by Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in their “We rise at daybreak” routine from The Trip.

Danger becomes frustratingly diffuse. A big deal is made about war bats. Bats trained especially for war – how thrilling is that? But do we get to see them in action? No, we do not. One gets killed. Presumably the others took that rather badly and reverted to being common or garden bats again. Meanwhile, the Goblin mercenaries look intimidating, initially. “We’ll take care of them,” scoffs the Dwarf leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). Bish, bash, bosh. End of.

In searching for a figure of menace, the film places some emphasis on the greed that holds Thorin in its grasp. He broods over his cave full of gold and experiences a flashback montage of warnings about the corrupting power of wealth. Personally, I’ll take my lectures on purity from sources other than a trilogy that has made close to $2bn so far. Also, greed doesn’t really work as a baddie. When it comes to memorable movie villains, I find monsters and tyrants are preferable to abstract nouns.

Having disposed of one of his assets, Jackson squanders the other. Blockbusters require delicate performers to guide audiences through chaos – think of Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean series or the jaunty cast of Guardians of the Galaxy. Nothing else in the Hobbit films has provided quite the thrill of a quizzical eyebrow or comical catch-in-the-throat from Martin Freeman. He is positively Chaplinesque in his pathos but even Chaplin would have struggled to make an impression in a film that kept him largely off-screen.

With the first two pictures, I defended Jackson’s decision to supersize The Hobbit. The final episode shows what happens when a director has too much movie left at the end of the story. Battles blur into wars and there are slow-motion death scenes for characters with whom we never became adequately acquainted. By the time we reach the first recorded instance of a suspense-free showdown on a splintering frozen lake, only the most generous viewer will not feel that this ponderous movie is Tolkien the piss.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 09 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, How Isis hijacked the revolution

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