This is it: The last Middle-earth movie directed by Peter Jackson, who gave fans of cinema and fantasy the tremendous and epic “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. His trilogy take on J.R.R. Tolkien’s children’s classic “The Hobbit” ended with the release of “The Battle of the Five Armies,” which at the time of writing this post sits atop the box office.
The finale focuses on the final 90 pages or so of the book, as well as events understood to be taking place concurrently in the Tolkien universe. The dragon Smaug goes to scorch the nearby town but is brought down by Bard, the until-previously disgraced ancestor of the king of the destroyed city of Esgaroth. The dragon’s death brings several peoples to the Lonely Mountain seeking its riches, but Thorin and his dwarven company close off the mountain to all seeking aid while he searches for his lost gem and family heirloom, the Arkenstone. The nearby Men and the Elves of Mirkwood join forces to siege the mountain and are set to do battle with Thorin’s brethren, who have come from the north as reinforcements, but then an army of Orcs come down on them to claim Erebor’s riches for their own. The dwarves, elves and men join forces to fight off a common foe, and they are able to win once Thorin and his group decide to join the fray (and once the Eagles come to save the day yet again), but Thorin is killed in the battle. Our titular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, grieves the loss of his friend before setting out with the wizard Gandalf, who had his own dealings with the Necromancer (aka an early reiteration of Sauron) to take care of before joining the fight, on his journey home to the Shire.
As has become custom, the movie version adds a lot to what Tolkien wrote in his original story. Bard (and his three children, who were not in the book at all) was introduced to the cast in the second movie, and he was given more of a personality, that of a brusque, honest, dutiful and hardworking father who does only what he thinks is right. In the book, Bard is the only one in Lake-town who is the only one to look beyond the surface at the events taking place around him. He raises the alarm of Smaug descending upon the town, something that wasn’t possible in the movie seeing as he was in prison on a bogus racketeering charge.
The movie stays largely true to the book in terms of the basics of the plot. What it expands on are mostly things that happened in the story: Bard and the elf king aligning causes after Smaug’s defeat, Thorin going a little mad with greed, Bilbo debating with himself over what to do with the Arkenstone that he found and held from Thorin. Then, of course, there’s the battle itself, which takes up a good 1:20 of the film’s 2:24 run time. There are plenty of parts that are added to pad out the run time — Bard’s children trying to survive the assault and Thorin’s meticulous fight with his nemesis, the White Orc, both drag on far longer than is really necessary. But for fans of the “Lord of the Rings” films, the drawn-out action is a welcome deviation from the book, which focuses primarily on Bilbo’s narrowed experience in the battle (he is knocked unconscious just as the Eagles are showing up, which leads to him missing more of the battle than he does in the film).
The usual film-only add-ons don’t detract too much from the overall story. The female elf Tauriel has some cool action scenes and adds some depth to Kili’s eventual death, and Legolas is always a welcome sight in a Middle-earth movie. Plus, the two of them go off to scout another part of the world that had only been mentioned previously: the fell kingdom of Angmar, from which the fifth army in the titular battle comes (the fifth army in the book is actually the Wargs, which assist the Orcs from the Misty Mountains). It added scope and strategy to the big battle that Jackson was looking for.
And then there was this scene. In “Desolation of Smaug,” we left Gandalf captured in a cage in Dol Guldur after discovering that the spirit of Sauron was indeed the Necromancer gathering his armies again. Before the big battle begins, the powers-that-be in Middle-earth come to break Gandalf out and confront this awoken terror. All of them are there: Galadriel, Elrond, Radagast, even Saruman, who would later turn on the forces of good but for now is still the wise and noble leader of the wizards. It’s one of my favorite sequences in the entire series, including “Lord of the Rings.”
In all, it’s a fun movie that nicely sets up the main attraction in the cinematic franchise. Are there tons of plot holes that don’t make any sense in the grander scheme? Of course. (My favorite from this movie: Why didn’t Gandalf think anything of Bilbo’s strange behavior once confronted about the Ring? Wouldn’t his very recent experience with Sauron put him more on guard for signs of the one thing that would bring the Enemy back to full power?) Did this really need to be broken into three two-and-a-half hour movies? Probably not. But at least they resulted in some entertaining trips to the movie theater and brought back the fun vibes from the original (and vastly superior) trilogy. In the end, the book is better just for the brevity alone, but if you want to dive headlong into the most famous fantasy world ever created, this remains a good choice.