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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ***

Is it worth $15 (3D)? Yes

At long last, the bloated, self-important, seemingly endless “Hobbit trilogy” has ended. Mercifully. I honestly thought we’d never make it, what with Bilbo and company travelling for what felt like forever in the first film only to say in the end, “Hey, look there way in the distance – that’s where we need to be!” And then there was the inflated second film, which had a cool action sequence down a river but concluded with a lonely, chatty dragon en route to destroying a town we barely know and don’t care about.

Fittingly, this is where the third “Hobbit” film, “The Battle of the Five Armies,” picks up. Boy does it. For as pathetic as dragon Smaug (voice of Benedict Cumberbatch) was last time, he is equally fearsome this time. Flying over Lake Town – which like its name suggests, exists on stilts in the middle of a lake – with rage and burning it to a crisp, Smaug leaves little behind in one of the most exciting action scenes this year. Seen in IMAX 3D with ear-popping sound, the music, sound effects, shrieking cries, visual effects and cinematography remind us how great director Peter Jackson was on the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and still can be when he wants to put on a show.

The rest of “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is pretty entertaining as well. There are still too many characters and too much going on, but Jackson succeeds in keeping the focus on possession of the Lonely Mountain, in which rests mounds of gold and a precious jewel called the Arkenstone.

The movie doesn’t provide a refresher/recap for those who’ve forgotten the watch-checking boredom of the last film, so here’s a primer: Dwarf leader Thorin (Richard Armitage) believes the mountain is rightfully his, and asks his friends and hobbit Bilbo (Martin Freeman) to help him reclaim it. Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) also helps. Once inside the mountain Bilbo annoys Smaug enough for Smaug to go destroy Lake Town, in which virtuous do-gooder Bard (Luke Evans) will do anything to protect his family.

Back to “Five Armies”: With Smaug no longer guarding the mountain, elves, dwarves, Orcs, Goblins, and men make their way to it in the hope of procuring the gold and Arkenstone. There’s about an hour and a half of buildup before the armies take sides and go to battle, but when they do the action and visual effects hit a fevered pitch that remains high for a solid 45 minutes. Throughout the sequence Jackson expertly mixes humor with peril, sadness with triumph, empathy with disgrace. It’s a whirlwind of emotions to the backdrop of all hell breaking loose.

                                        

Instead of another three hour slog through Middle Earth Jackson keeps things moving at a relatively brisk 144 minutes, taking mercy on us by not drawing things out more than he already has. As a result this is the best film of the new trilogy, which you’ll recall is a prequel to the far superior “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

The irony of Jackson obnoxiously stretching J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” into three movies is that it’s the exact opposite of what usually happens with adaptations. Ordinarily a book is too long and has too many components to fully condense into a movie. With “The Hobbit” Jackson took a dense book and unnecessarily stretched it into three movies in what can only be considered a money grab rehash of his Oscar-winning “Rings” success.

But at least the effort was there to give us our money’s worth. Say what you will, the “Hobbit” trilogy does not skimp on production value or visual splendor, so the flaws are certainly not for lack of trying. “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is not a great movie, but it is a good one that should be seen on as large a screen as possible if you’re so inclined.

Did you know?
Gollum does not appear in the film.

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