The biggest laugh I heard from the audience at my screening of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies came from seven words in the end credits: "Based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien." Just picture that tweedy Oxford philologist nodding in pleased approval at this adaptation of his lark of a children's fable, especially the kabooming violence of the last hour, which shakes mountains and severs heads and plays like Middle-Earth Smash Bros.
The film builds to a series of boss battles against scarred and gum-fleshed orc chiefs Tolkien didn't even bother putting in the book. They're individually spectacular, staged with the full invention and brio of Peter Jackson, who is as good at this stuff as anyone in the history of movies. But they just keep coming, like frozen yogurt from a self-serve spigot.
That too-muchness marks this as the most crowd-pleasing of the series, even as this is the film that will most enrage the amateur Tolkien scholars. And this finale actually offers, for its first ninety minutes, Jackson's surest, sharpest storytelling since way back in The Fellowship of the Ring. The conflicts and relationships are clear enough that even folks who napped through An Unexpected Journey will follow along.
Besides the usual pomp and scenery, there are some new wonders. The opening dragon attack is spectacular, shot with a clarity and power missing from The Desolation of Smaug's botched drown-the-beast-in-popcorn-butter climax. A haunted-city showdown between shivery ghost knights and the staff- and hair-whipping superteam of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Saruman (Christopher Lee) proves almost as grand. It's sad that Hollywood filmmaking is so often about attempting to put the dreams of children onto our screens, but shouldn't it still be notable when someone actually manages it?
This installment benefits from the fact that there's finally a theme besides "walking takes a while." It's obvious but meaty: the corrupting power of greed, a topic about which, admittedly, it's a little rich for the third movie adaptation of a one-volume YA novel to get snooty. Richard Armitage, as head dwarf Thorin, gets to play the gold-mad Treasure of the Sierra Madre hardass, a stern Scrooge McDuck with a touch of Howard Hughes.
The local elves want their cut of the loot, as do refugees from the town destroyed by the dragon that Thorin and company awoke in movie two, and then — right on schedule — there's one of those orc armies that continually surprise everyone in Middle-earth movies. And then there's the fighting.
Somewhere in there is Martin Freeman, so endearing and resourceful as Bilbo in the first two films, saying, "I'll find myself a safe place to stand" and then getting knocked out for much of the last of the movies titled for him. The series' MVP is given the bench. Bilbo and the Shire get the final reel, of course, but the goodbyes aren't as protracted as they were in The Return of the King — or as the hellos were in An Unexpected Journey. In fact, other than the overkill on the killing, this installment finds Jackson at last making concessions to bladders and theatrical running times. It wraps up in under two and a half hours.
Finally, let's be honest here. Reviewing any chunk of Jackson's Tolkien-flavored fantasy-combat-simulation project is like reviewing some holiday party or a possibly obligatory family get-together. You know whether you're going, you know who you'll see there, and you know that you'll either grit through it and be glad when it's over, or you'll lose yourself in it and miss the ritual when it's gone.