THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES picks up in media res, with the wicked dragon Smaug laying waste to the good fisherfolk of Laketown, having been usurped of his treasure by the dwarf-king Thorin Oakenshield and his fellowship of adventurers. In the pre-credit sequence our erstwhile hero, Bard, famously shoots the dragon in his one vulnerable spot: a spectacular CGI battle of epic scope that we have come to almost take for granted in Peter Jackson's interpretations of Tolkien's oeuvre. But as we enter the main body of this two hour movie, we realise that Smaug casts a long shadow, and that his "dragon sickness" has corrupted King Thorin, who sits brooding jealously over his treasure, in paranoid search for the Arkenstone. This corruption belittles Thorin, who looks on indifferent as a great battle wages outside the walls of The Lonely Mountain. The Laketown men, led by Bard have come for their share in the treasure, as has an Elven army led by Thranduil. They face Thorin's kinsman, led by Dain, and all in turn must put aside their petty rivalries and unite against the armies of Orcs (goblins in the books) until a fifth army makes a late in the day appearance. The story of the movie is thus the blow by blow story of this battle, but really it's the story of Thorin throwing off the corruption of the treasure and becoming a king worthy of the name. And in the background, as Peter Jackson broadens his scope from The Hobbit, we see the more important battle, as Galadriel banishes proto-Sauron into Mordor, and an already tricksy Saruman prevents Elrond from warning the men of Gondor or going immediately to vanquish him there.
The controversy over Jackson's opening up of the story of The Hobbit is perhaps best answered in this film. In the first two movies I found the shift in tone from childish adventure to brooding description of the rise of Sauron jarring. I also found I didn't really empathise with any of the characters, and had no stakes in the action. Both weaknesses are overcome in this final part of the film. I really cared about Thorin's fall into corruption, and felt keenly the friendship between Bilbo and Thorin. And as much as I hated the politically correct inclusion of Tauriel, it certainly added weight to the scenes with Kili. Overall, it finally felt like I cared about this band of adventurers - a sympathy that came much sooner in LORD OF THE RINGS - but at least it came. Moreover, by opening out to the story to include the rise of Sauron, Peter Jackson gave us real stakes and arguably the most powerful scene of the whole film, as Galadriel banishes Sauron. The dramatic irony of seeing Saruman distract Elrond was superb, and there was a definite satisfaction in seeing the movie come full circle back to the Shire. In fact, I felt more than a little sentimental. For all our familial disagreements about this or that editorial decision, I have been living in Jackson's imagination for nearly fifteen years, and for a whole generation, it's his Middle Earth that is our Middle Earth. It's bizarre to think that this is the last of the films, and I wonder if he'll delve into the Silmarillion after this.
Does the movie work on its own? Yes. Perhaps better than any of the other three. The childish capers are long-since gone. We are firmly back in the adult psychological and action territory of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. I think that may be why this film feels like such a seamless entry into THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING - something the first and second Hobbit films didn't achieve. So kudos to Jackson for finally getting us there and back again. It says something for this movie that while I would happily have condensed the first two into a single episode, I wouldn't lose a single frame of this film.
THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES has a running time of 144 minutes (or more like 125 minutes of actual movie) and is rated PG-13. It is on global release.