"The Lord of the Rings," Peter Jackson's big-screen trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien's novel, was a massive success during the early 2000s, ending with a rare fantasy-film win for best picture at the Oscars ("The Return of the King") and spawning virtually its own home-video market where fans purchased hours of deleted footage and extended versions of all three films.
"The Hobbit," Jackson's follow-up trilogy, has always felt slightly less magical. Maybe the effects have lost their novelty in the wake of "Avatar," or maybe the recurring characters feel overly familiar. "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies," provides a passably satisfying ending to a franchise that has always seemed a little like a bonus DVD.
"Battle" picks up where the last film left off, as the dragon Smaug, roaring with the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch, attacks the village of Lake-town. The visuals are stellar, and there's Pythonesque humor from the cowardly villager Alfrid (Ryan Gage). Still, this opening sequence feels oddly like a climax, as the underdog Bard (Luke Evans) attempts to fulfill his destiny.
From there, Jackson loses focus while tying up loose ends. Ian McKellan's Gandalf needs rescuing, the Necromancer (also Cumberbatch) needs conquering and Cate Blanchett needs to show up as the fan-
favorite Galadriel. Those with dog-eared copies of the Tolkien novel are most likely to keep up during these disjointed scenes. Our hero, Bilbo Baggins (the endearing Martin Freeman), gets oddly sidelined.
Once "Battle" finally launches into its roughly one-hour war between humans, Orcs, Elves (led by Lee Pace's wonderfully campy Thranduil), Dwarves (led by Richard Armitage's mini-majestic Thorin Oakenshield) and other fantastical creatures, we get the usual mechanical pleasures of the action-spectacle: swords clashing, edifices crumbling, a white-knuckle showdown between Thorin and Azog (Manu Bennett) that features some thrillingly tricky camera work.
The best moments come at the end, when we learn the fates of various characters. As in the last film, the dwarfish Romeo Kili (Aidan Turner) and his elven Juliet, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), are particularly moving. "Battle" could have used more of this emotional impact. It's what makes the difference between mere entertainment and a genuine treasure.