We closed last year's review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug with a rhetorical query: "Perhaps Bilbo and his mates will never ever find whatever it is they're searching for. Maybe the series will go on forever. Would that be such a bad thing?"
Let's answer that. It would indeed be a bad thing to continue this franchise a moment longer. With The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies — the third and presumably final installment of the Hobbit series — filmmaker Peter Jackson has finally worn out his welcome. It isn't that J.R.R. Tolkien's fantastic parable of dwarves, wizards, and monsters has lost its relevance, although that's always been more or less in question. It's just that after two trilogies in thirteen years we've seen enough pointy-eared and sharp-clawed creatures in gloomy forests to get Tolkien's point across. It's time to move on.
Small children and recalcitrant grown-up Middle Earth-lings may disagree. It's fun to watch Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) scamper around in his bare feet. The movie has an excess of the things the franchise's core audience purportedly wants to see: the destruction of Laketown by the winged Smaug; the evil machinations of Sauron the Necromancer (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) and Azog (Manu Bennett), leader of the ugly Orcs; more inter-tribal canoodling between Kili the dwarf (Aidan Turner) and the elfin warrior maiden Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly); the clowning of Alfrid the coward (Ryan Gage); and, as advertised, the clash of the five armies. It's hard to name all five armies offhand. Let's see: Dwarves, Elves, Humans, Orcs. What's left — Goblins? Union technicians? Publicists? The Guild of Fanboys?
An air of melancholy hangs over the action. Heroic dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) covets the vast hoard of gold stashed in the Gothic Slumber Section of the Lonely Mountain of Erebor, and is determined to hold off four armies in order to keep it. The prize he most craves is the Arkenstone of Thrain, the magical gem of Lonely Mountain. As a MacGuffin, the Arkenstone takes second place only to the prodigious Ring of Sauron itself, the bauble that dispenses all knowledge and grants the wearer invisibility, but which unfortunately causes the possessor to go mad over the sheer wonderfulness of it all — just remember poor Gollum from the Rings trilogy.
Unbeknownst to all, Bilbo has both the Arkenstone and the Ring in his pocket. The point of the Hobbit trilogy, if not the raison d'etre of Tolkien's labyrinthine saga itself, is that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and that with great power comes great responsibility. Bilbo has a lot on his mind, but all he really wants is to get back to his humble cottage and curl up by the fire with a book. That same impulse applies in varying degrees to all the characters, as well as, ostensibly, to Jackson himself, which may explain why The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies seems a trifle weary, as if everyone were exhausted and anxious to finally get it over with.
One of the last scenes shows Bilbo and the sagacious Gandalf (Ian McKellen) quietly sitting side-by-side as Gandalf puffs on his pipe. The battle is finished but the task is far from accomplished — remember, The Hobbit is the prequel to The Lord of the Rings. When we boil away all the monsters and spells and warfare, McKellen and Freeman are the heart and soul of the story, two peaceful beings trying to restore the world to the way it was. And failing that, to at least squeeze out the time to share a friendly moment.
Jackson, his collaborator Guillermo del Toro, and the cast members could very well produce the original Rings cycle again, from scratch, and a whole new generation of kids could conceivably be thrilled with it. But those of us who have sat through all six installments now undoubtedly share a little of Bilbo's desire to head back to the Shire and kick it for awhile without all the sturm und drang. It's been an incredible journey, but the party's over.