You can only spend so much time in a mythical, fantasy world before things grow dull and tiresome. By the time The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ends, we’ll have spent over 17 hours in director Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, the trilogy of Hobbit films have had a difficult time developing their own identity. They too often feel like a lesser version of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. While Jackson’s first trilogy was ahead of its time in terms of scope and ambition, this second trilogy has often felt like a been there, done that experience. While last year’s The Desolation of Smaug was a huge improvement over An Unexpected Journey, The Battle of the Five Armies is possibly an even bigger step backwards for the franchise. Its story is thin and uninteresting, its battle sequences are really not that spectacular and – possibly the biggest offense of all for a Hobbit film – it’s just not fun.

When we last saw Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and company, they were left reeling from the awakening of the great dragon, Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). The Battle of the Five Armies begins with Smaug flying towards Laketown in an effort to burn it to smithereens. After this seemingly huge threat is wrapped up in a far too quick segment that couldn’t have lasted more than 10 minutes, we return to The Lonely Mountain where Bilbo and the dwarves are searching for the Arkenstone. After they are unable to find it, Thorin (Richard Armitage) becomes insanely upset and builds a barricade to prevent anyone from entering the mountain. But the people of Laketown are seeking treasure to help them rebuild their home and they’ve got an army of elves on their side (for some loosely written reason). Plus, there are orcs coming to fight. And that’s only four armies, so there must have been another one too. But basically they all end up fighting.

The third entry in this Middle Earth trilogy does offer one slight improvement over its predecessors: a heavier use of practical sets. Despite being filmed in the beautiful country of New Zealand, An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug relied far too heavily on green screens which made the environments feel very artificial. One of the things that made the original Lord of the Rings trilogy so beautiful was that they were almost entirely shot outside, in the natural New Zealand countryside. The Battle of the Five Armies still uses a lot more green screen technology than those films, but there are scenes that actually appear to be filmed in natural landscapes. Real filming locations will always look better than artificial, computer-generated sets, so it’s a good thing that Jackson actually decided to shoot some scenes outside.

But I’m afraid that’s the only real improvement that this entry makes over its predecessor. Since the Hobbit trilogy has been adapted from a single book that’s approximately 300 pages long, this final entry in the trilogy is essentially the last act of a single story. So it makes sense that the last act of a narrative would be more concerned with a final, climactic battle than developing a narrative or fleshing out characters. But this doesn’t work in the context of a film. Practically every film, even if it’s only one-third of a book, should have some kind of proper narrative, but the story in The Battle of the Five Armies is thin and uninteresting. The first hour of the film is nothing more than a slow and dull buildup to a massive battle and then the next hour and twenty minutes is just watching that battle play out.

Maybe this would have been forgivable if the titular battle actually managed to deliver, but even the final battle is somewhat of a bore. Sure, it’s sporadically stirring and most of the visual effects look very good, but it just lacks a certain punch. Perhaps the biggest reason for its lack of success is because it feels like it’s trying so hard to emulate one of the massive battles from the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. One of the reasons that I found The Desolation of Smaug to be so enjoyable was because it featured unique setpieces that were fun, cartoony and didn’t feel like they were trying to replicate the most successful aspects of Jackson’s previous trilogy. This just feels like something we’ve seen before and a far less successful version of it to boot.

Even the characters feel like inferior shells of those that populated the original Lord of the Rings trilogy. Despite having spent hours watching them journey to the Lonely Mountain, the majority of the dwarves are so underdeveloped that Jackson could have completely swapped them out with different actors and hardly anyone would even come close to noticing. The dwarves that are given arcs aren’t given particularly interesting ones: the love story that develops between the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) and the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is sweet but ultimately not that compelling and Thorin’s obsession with finding the Arkenstone feels far too similar to certain character’s past obsessions with The Ring. There’s a scene that features returning characters from the previous trilogy, such as Elrond, Saruman and Galadriel, but their roles here are so minor that you’ll forget that they were even in the film until their names pop up in the end credits. And then there’s Alfrid (Ryan Gage), the film’s major comic relief character who hardly delivers a single laugh. Thankfully, the one character who still manages to impress is Bilbo. Martin Freeman is still perfectly suited for the role and the only problem with his character is that I wish he was given more screentime.

Seeing as this is Peter Jackson’s last trip to Middle Earth, one would think that it would be a hugely emotional send off. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’s finale was filled to the brim with emotion and served as both a conclusion to the trilogy and a heartfelt goodbye to the franchise. Here, the ending feels incredibly standard, hardly hitting any emotional beats at all. The final scene does tie this franchise into the previous one nicely, but it’s not enough to redeem the rest of the films flaws. Technical merits are still high and the production design remains topnotch, but the characters are thinly realized, the story is only there to fuel a large scale battle and the battle ends up being pretty underwhelming. Jackson’s last trip to Middle Earth should have concluded with a bang; this trip ends with a sigh and a shrug.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies receives 2/4

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