And then King Kong happened. And happened. And carried on happening until over 3 hours had past, completely unaware that it had long ago lost any of the interest the audience once had in it. King Kong was a bad film, mostly due to this colossal run time, and is a film I can't see many people jumping to defend. So when Peter Jackson announced that he would be directing a version of The Hobbit, a relatively short book, I got worried. When he announced it would be done in 3 films, I got really worried.
And I was right to be worried. The Hobbit trilogy can only be defined by it's complete lack of restraint, the same restraint that made the Lord of the Rings trilogy so good, and The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies is a near perfect example of why this lack of restraint matters. It's is the shortest of Peter Jackson's Middle Earth films, running for just roughly 2 and a half hours, but it's a ridiculous amount of time that is almost entirely dedicated to a battle that is only described afterwards in the books, taking place off page with Bilbo unconscious.
It's a perfect example of the padding that was added into King Kong and the earlier The Hobbit films, but this time we have an entire film that is easily 80% new material, or additions to pre-existing events that serve no real purpose. Tauriel has almost nothing to do, the addition of Legolas to the proceedings adding nothing of value to the film other than the rule of cool and Gandalf's adventures in wherever the hell he ended up are quickly dealt with to move onto what the advertisers are referring to as the defining chapter in Middle Earth - a nice way of selling the film, but one that is thoroughly incorrect. The result of the battle is inconsequential to the only character that the audience actually cares about, and being as this is prequel, we already know that things turn out OK, so any dramatic tension that could have been built in that regard is already gone by the time the audience is in their seats.
Despite this focus on one battle, I'm amazed to say that action fatigue fails to set in, the film periodically taking breaks from one set piece and focusing on another in order to refresh the sense of scale that the battle holds, and for the most past this works quite well. The camera never lingers on one set piece for too long, moving from one set of dwarves to the men to another set of dwarves to Bilbo to the elves and the orcs. This constant movement could have felt jumpy or overly erratic, but it makes the battle feel as large as a battle containing five armies would be. The over reliance on CGI that Jackson has fell into really stands out here though - it would have been nicer to see more practical effects, a highlight of the Lord of the Rings films being the realism given to the battles by the use of extras.
Minor characters in the book are bumped up to major characters status, and it doesn't feel like fan service for the most part thanks to some passable writing and the addition of minor sub-plots that, despite being fairly extraneous to the main story, matter to the characters involved in logical ways.This isn't to say that these sub-plots aren't nonsense, but the film seems to realise this and plays up to it, adding in small moments of humour that wouldn't have been there in the Lord of the Rings films. No one will be looking back on The Hobbit films as a solid trilogy in their own right, but at the same time these won't end up as infamously bad as the Star Wars prequels.
I've tried not to go into too many details of the plot itself to avoid spoiling the story for anyone that hasn't read the book that was first published 77 years ago (what's the sell by date for spoilers?), but the meandering nature of the plot does get tiresome before the battle really kicks in, spending too much time setting up the position of each of the armies, and is again indicative of the poor, padded writing that the trilogy suffers from as a whole. There are more flaws than I've gone into here (the best action scene happens right near the start, the only interesting sub-plot is wrapped up far too quickly and it barely feels like Bilbo is in it), but I don't think anyone expected greatness from this film. The Battle of Five Armies concludes The Hobbit films in the same way they started - full of padding, overly long, but still reasonably fun. It's an entertaining couple of hours, but it isn't a couple of hours you'll be dying to repeat.