There and Back Again and Now Done: "Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" a worthy, much less drowsy capper

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) 
144 min., rated PG-13.

If the calculated decision of overextending and splitting J.R.R. Tolkien's light 300-page adventure yarn into a blatantly padded series of three films has done anything right, it's that each part has improved in small increments. Each of them had their rare standout sequences, 2012's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" with its tense riddle game between Bilbo and Gollum, and 2012's "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" with its thrilling, crowd-pleasing river-rapid escape in barrels and the final showdown with the titular dragon, but both also took forever to get to said moments. Collectively, the seemingly interminable "An Unexpected Journey" and "The Desolation of Smaug" are no match for "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies," once subtitled "There and Back Again," a mostly streamlined final chapter that finally caps this Middle-earth saga on a less drowsy, more rousing note. Perhaps it sounds like a backhanded compliment, but with the viewer knowing this is the third act of the book, finishing up is no longer such a trial. It will not let down devoted, pre-sold completists of the series.

Traveling far and wide to the Lonely Mountain of Erebor, hobbit burglar Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and his band of not-so-merry dwarves have helped greed-ridden dwarf king Thorn Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) reclaim his riches from the dragon Smaug. After Smaug sets ablaze the village and destroys the homes of Lake-town, the dragon is slain by bowman Bard (Luke Evans). Back at Erebor, Bilbo secretly holds the Arkenstone, most desired by Thorn who has decided to barricade the mountain from King Thranduil (Lee Pace), his army of elves, and Bard. While wizened wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) is imprisoned by Sauron, a sneak attack by Azog (Manu Bennett), Bolg (Lawrence Makoare), and their vast army of Orcs is set in motion.

Manned by director Peter Jackson, who has remained loyal to this series, and co-writers Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo Del Toro, "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" encapsulates everything "The Hobbit" has been working toward and earns the destination of its heroic journey. The film kicks off with a fantastic bang, continuing where "The Desolation of Smaug" left with the fire-breathing dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) flying out of the Lonely Mountain to destroy Lake-town, and the urgency and danger are palpable. At a comparably leaner 144 minutes, this third and final installment is practically a short film in the context of these films. While its predecessors could have stood a more advisable editor, this film moves reasonably with a brisk pace, most of the unnecessary fat trimmed and more joy and energy akin to "The Lord of the Rings" rather than the first two "Hobbit" parts. It might also be the most action-filled of the three. If one is expecting a repetitive sameness, the fantasy spectacle is still entertaining, with an emphasis on bow-and-arrow and sword battles, and there's a fun moment of Legolas stepping upward like Super Mario as a stone bridge crumbles. 

Whereas the canonical appendices and digressions interrupted the narrative flow of the first two films, Jackson & Co. never stray from the core of this long mission. Sure, Gandalf the Grey has a sidebar in which he faces off his nemesis with a little help from fellow White Council members Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy). While we already know the fates for those who turn up later in "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," there are no frustrating last-minute rescues otherwise — yes, some characters actually die, but they were interchangeable vessels posing as sidekicks anyway. Above all, our emotional investment is mostly positioned with Bilbo, a homebody hobbit, who's solidly portrayed again with a lovely humanity by Martin Freeman and would believably become Ian Holm (who appears in the last scene of Bilbo's 111th birthday to bookend this trilogy). Richard Armitage might have the strongest arc as Thorin, being overcome with greed and paranoia over his own "precious" that cloud his judgment as a leader. Evangeline Lilly also returns as take-charge elf Tauriel, whose romance with dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) comes to a weepy end.

The production is so skilled that it might have been made by a machine, but no matter the studio greed of New Line Cinema and MGM, the filmmaker's passion for this dense mythology is still in full salute, as he employs an immaculate sense of size and grandeur throughout. "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies"—and its own trilogy for that matter—might lack the substance and emotional kick of its 2001, 2002 and 2003 successors, but as great eye-candy, it's never less than impressive in its visual effects work, choreography and overall showmanship. What it also lacks in stand-alone value is made up in its gaggle of spectacular set-pieces and a coda that directly leads into "The Fellowship of the Ring." It's still cash-grabbing fan service, but at least the last prequel is a worthy companion piece to Peter Jackson's superior trilogy.

Grade: B -