“The Hobbit” is everywhere.
In the run-up to the release of “The Battle of the Five Armies,” the final, Armageddon-like installment of Peter Jackson’s three-part film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s comparatively lean fantasy novel, Bilbo Baggins and company have overrun pop culture, making appearances on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, where comedian Stephen Colbert dressed up as various Middle-earth characters; “Saturday Night Live,” hosted by “The Hobbit” star Martin Freeman; and “The Colbert Report,” which featured this exchange between the host and Smaug the dragon:
Colbert: “You’ve been called a ‘most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm.’ How does that make you feel?”
Smaug: “Pretty excited, in a wormy sort of way. Who was it who said that? Was it Peter Jackson? Did he say that?”
Colbert: “No, actually it was Professor Tolkien.”
That joke about literary ignorance stings a little, considering just how unrecognizable the cinematic “Hobbit” epic has become, compared to the book. It isn’t just a question of bloat, although that’s part of it. Taken together, the three films run for eight hours, which is probably longer than necessary to read the novel. Although it doesn’t feel like it, each sequel is actually shorter than the previous film.
Many of Jackson’s changes to the story are harmless, including his wholesale invention of characters and subplots. A love story about the dwarf Kili and the elf Tauriel, for instance, adds no serious injury, and even some pleasure, given the photogenic charisma of the actors (Aidan Turner and Evangeline Lilly, who makes Spock ears both cool and hot).
Alfrid Lickspittle, on the other hand, is destined to become the trilogy’s Jar Jar Binks. A character not sprung from Tolkien’s pen, this cowardly buffoon — who at one point dresses as a woman to get out of fighting — is tonally all wrong, reducing what should be an epic clash of good vs. evil to a Saturday morning cartoon whenever actor Ryan Gage is on screen. “Your slip is showing,” the heroic Bard (Luke Evans) wisecracks to Alfrid, before rushing off to save the world.
“Five Armies” opens where the previous film left off, with the awakening of the aforementioned dragon, who lays waste to Laketown and its inhabitants in the very first scene. A gorgeous excess of CGI destruction, the sequence is rendered (“filmed” would be the wrong word) in a fiery palette of burnished bronze tones. It’s exciting to watch, if empty spectacle. Every movement, every glance seems choreographed for maximum 3-D impact, with little room left for real feeling.
In its stead are sweeping vistas and scenes of stirring battle between humans, dwarves and elves on one side, and the goblinlike orcs on the other, all of whom want the gold that Smaug has left lying in his lair. These scenes dazzle the eye and quicken the pulse, but leave the heart unmoved.
This is the biggest problem. Jackson’s storytelling at this point is so driven by green-screen trickery and digital legerdemain that he seems to have forgotten about human emotion. (Actually, “human” is probably the wrong word here, given the story’s affinity for mythological beings.) Despite what you may think, Jackson’s failure is not an occupational hazard.
Gollum, for instance — a monster introduced in Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and seen more recently in the first “Hobbit” film — was a poignant screen presence. As played by Andy Serkis in a motion-capture suit, the character — part devil and part (fallen) angel — was all the evidence one needed that it’s possible to make viewers care about characters who couldn’t possibly exist, except in our imaginations.
There’s little emotion of the kind Jackson evoked, to such great effect, when the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) was thought to have fallen to his death, at the hands — er, tail — of the balrog in “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.” (You’ll just have to trust me on this one. We true fans wept.)
Another problem? There’s precious little hobbit.
Despite the film’s title, Bilbo, played charmingly by Freeman, is almost entirely absent. Despite two critical plot turns in which he provides invaluable service, the title character is relegated to second- or third-class status, swept away by scenes that alternate between grandiose mayhem and a protracted death match on an icy mountaintop between the dwarf-king Thorin (Richard Armitage) and the orc leader Azog (Manu Bennett). That last character, who is now the film’s grand villain, was only mentioned by Tolkien in passing.
But who’s counting?
You may, however, find yourself looking at your watch. At times, it feels as if “The Battle of the Five Armies” was filmed in real time. Others may wonder what the “five” armies refers to, if it’s men, dwarves, elves and orcs who are doing all the fighting. (I could tell you what the deus ex machina is, but that would ruin the surprise. It’s not much of one.)
In the end, “The Battle of the Five Armies” isn’t about numbers. Except maybe one. With three “Lord of the Rings” films under his belt, and now three “Hobbit” films done, Jackson seems to have written the definitive hobbit obit. Except for this: “The Battle of the Five Armies” hints, none too subtly, that there might one day be a seventh film bridging the two sagas — an “LOTR” prequel, and a sequel to “The Hobbit.”
Considering how Jackson has already hijacked Tolkien’s legacy, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.
★ ★ ½
(144 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for action and violence.