The quality of the final instalment of the Middle Earth saga is divided along the same lines as its title. When focusing on the small, such as individual characters, themes and set pieces, it is effective. When the scope widens, most obviously with the eponymous battle, the film becomes meandering and fails to fully capture the scale of the battle or indeed the stakes over which it is being fought. This is disappointing and surprising as the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers and the Battle of the Pellennor Fields in The Return of the King both demonstrated Peter Jackson’s talent for truly epic battle sequences. But whereas those sequences provided a sense of danger, escalation and, perhaps most importantly, scale, the Five Armies in this film are largely anonymous masses, spread out in long shots and then encountered all too briefly in close-up. Similarly, Jackson fails to deliver the dramatic crosscutting that he did in The Two Towers between Helm’s Deep, Isengard and Osgiliath. Although there is crosscutting here between the various armies, too little time is spent on each clash, making this the shortest film in the entire saga, and also the most lacking in dramatic heft.
However, amidst the rather superficial large scale scenes, there are many smaller sequences that are effective. Various individual set pieces are enthralling, such as Smaug’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) assault on Laketown, the duel between Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) as well as an escalating fight as orc Bolg battles Kili (Aidan Turner), Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom). Best of all is Saruman (Christopher Lee), Elrond (Hugh Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) taking on the Nazgul and Sauron (Cumberbatch) in a dazzling clash of swords and magic. To see the most powerful figures in Middle Earth truly wielding their power recalls the dizzying heights of Jackson’s own power. Nor are the film’s better moments confined to combat: Thorin’s descent into madness is depicted with careful nuance and evocative sound, while scenes focused upon the titular Hobbit emphasise both Bilbo Baggins’ down-to-earth view of the awful events around him, and the perfect casting of Martin Freeman in the role. Personal favourite: Bilbo sheepishly admits his besting of Thranduil’s (Lee Pace) guards. Individual moments like this in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies are very effective. It is all the more disappointing, therefore, that the film ultimately adds up to less than the sum of its parts.