Peter Jackson has left Middle-earth. The series is done. Jackson's adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit have come full circle, and are now neatly joined together into one epic story. As fans of the books and films know, Jackson made them out of order, along the lines of the Star Wars saga starting with the central triad of films, then working back to the origin. And I've gotta say, without a hint of a spoiler, Jackson and company have put a perfect ending on this third Hobbit film, one that seamlessly blends into the beginning of the Rings trilogy. I'd even suggest hitting YouTube to watch the opening scene of The Fellowship of the Ring before settling down to Five Armies, just to see how cool the transition is.
A year ago, The Desolation of Smaug ended with the angry, vengeful, gold-loving titular dragon being awakened from a long sleep in Lonely Mountain, then setting out to wreak havoc on nearby Lake-town. The Battle of the Five Armies opens with Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) flying in, gushing fire, wreaking that havoc. It's a spectacular beginning to a film that delivers both eye-popping visuals and dramatic satisfaction all the way through.
Now, no moviegoer in their right mind will be buying a ticket for this film without seeing all of the previous ones. But for those rare few who do, a primer: Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is our Hobbit hero; Gandalf (Ian McKellen) is a virtuous but tough wizard; Thorin (Richard Armitage) is a Dwarf king; Thranduil (Lee Pace) is the Elvenking; Legolas (Orlando Bloom) is Thranduil's son; Bard (Luke Evans) is a human archer; Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is an Elf warrior; Saruman (Christopher Lee) is another, probably more powerful, wizard, a guy who knows how to swing a sword.
With the truly frightening Smaug being dispatched only a few minutes into Five Armies, the film quickly gets around to all of the problems between the disparate factions of Middle-earth. The Dwarves don't like the Elves, the Elves don't give a damn about the Dwarves, the humans are kind of caught in the middle of everyone else's crises, the Hobbit — yes, there's only one Hobbit here — is a hairy-footed fish out of water, and the Orcs, the most hideous of the villains, just want to stomp on or decapitate everybody else.
The story moves its focus around from heroism to cowardice, from love to hate, from greed to mistrust to madness. But check out the title. It was originally going to be The Hobbit: There and Back Again (the actual subtitle of Tolkien's book), but was changed, partly due to what this last third of the film trilogy was leading up to: war, massive war, lengthily fought out on an immense battlefield with participants including members of every faction already mentioned, along with big bats, big birds, and something that looked like a big bear. For extra measure, those sequences are complemented by magnificently choreographed, gravity-defying scenes of one-on-one fights.
Jackson has delivered a top-notch conclusion to a great trilogy, one that stays loyal to the book while filling in some of that source material's holes by including pieces of Tolkien's own appendices to it. It's a film that astounds in areas of both interior and exterior production design, and while it's very violent, it comes to a surprisingly warm and comfy conclusion. Be warned, though: On the way there, the story kills off more major characters than in a typical season of Downton Abbey. ♦