There's little any critic could say or do to en- or discourage you from seeing Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, now showing at theaters areawide. It's the final installment in Jackson's Hobbit trilogy and the final of six monumental films devoted to depicting (and re-writing) the Tolkien universe. By now, you know about what to expect. Although be advised that at 144 minutes, this is the shortest of Jackson's Tolkien films by a significant margin.
The story will be unfamiliar to those who've only read the 1937 book and expect a word-for-word adaptation. This is 100 percent Jackson's vision now, and many of the characters in the film have been expanded from minor appearances in the original text, if they appeared at all. That's not to cast aspersions, just to reiterate that this is not your grandpa's Hobbit.
After having awakened Smaug, Bilbo (a pitch-perfect Martin Freeman) and the merry band of dwarves are holed up in the Misty Mountain, in search of the temporarily misplaced Arkenstone. News of the mountain's treasure has spread throughout Middle Earth and armies of dwarves and elves arrive to claim their rightful share. Meantime, Sauron and his orc minions — orcs bred and gruesomely maimed for battle — are marching on the mountain with designs to claim it for strategic positioning in their quest to conquer (or destroy) the known world.
Narrative hints at the upcoming Lord of the Rings saga are peppered throughout the script's middle and final acts, but the vast majority of the movie is what its title promises: a battle. On balance, the Misty Mountain clashing must be ranked below both the battle of Helm's Deep in LOTR's The Two Towers and the final assault on Minas Tirith in The Return of the King.
It's less good for two reasons: Most importantly, the battle here is rendered almost entirely in computer animation, so there's an impersonal, synthetic quality to the proceedings. Jackson simply may have gone too far with the enormous earth-eating beasts and Legolas' unprecedented nimbleness. There's a one-on-one battle between Legolas and an orc henchman that's almost too ridiculous to be amazing. You yearn for him sliding down the steps of Helm's Deep on an orc's shield, firing arrows as he goes; not this, leaping in slow-mo through the air from stone to stone of a crumbling tower which he'd somehow precisely felled across a chasm of ice.
Secondly, the forces and motives at play are both less defined and much less sweeping here. You won't find anything like Aragorn's "this day we fight!" speech or Pippin and Gandalf's moment of fear and courage when the odds are stacked against them in Return of the King. The good guys here are still just fighting for treasure.
There's no denying that these movies are exhilarating cinematic experiences. As ever in Jackson's universe, the spectacle is off the charts. But I'll say again: The CGI has never been more prevalent nor more distracting, and for large chunks of the film, you can't help but feel that you're watching scenes from a Hobbit video game, the live feed of which is, of course, mind-blowingly good and non-glitchy.