Azog is back to meet his just dessert on the battlefield.

Azog is back to meet his just dessert on the battlefield.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies Opens Wed., Dec. 17

The Hobbit: 
The Battle of the Five Armies

Opens Wed., Dec. 17 at Cinerama and other theaters. Rated PG-13. 144 minutes.

If you see the names Thranduil, Tauriel, Azog, and Thorin Oakenshield, and you know instantly who they are and how they fit into Middle Earth, then you are probably ready for the third part of the Hobbit trilogy. If you can’t place the names, please consider rewatching the first two films and probably the entire Lord of the Rings box set as well. Because it’s going to get very thick around here.

Peter Jackson’s crowded final film of the J.R.R. Tolkien universe begins in mid-breath. Fiery breath: The flying dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) was loosed at the end of Part Two, and his flaming rampage is in full swing as Five Armies commences. With no memory-refreshing from the previous chapters, we launch into a dozen or so plotlines: all those names and all those creatures, plus cameo appearances from LOTR cast members. (The Hobbit takes place years before the LOTR saga.) The hubbub renders nominal hero Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) a team player rather than a true protagonist. The second half of the picture is overwhelmed by a giant battle (there may be five armies involved, but I’m a little vague on that), which ping-pongs between thousands of computer-generated soldiers and clever hand-to-hand combat involving the principals. Jackson is as resourceful as ever at exploiting cool locations—crumbling bridges and iced-over lakes—for cartoony stunts. When pointy-eared archer Legolas (Orlando Bloom) climbs a set of collapsing stairs (one of several scenes that seems expressly designed for 3-D), we see how much more Jackson delights in pratfalls over carnage.

Such ingenuity is at the service of a project that lost its emotional core when Jackson decided to take Tolkien’s relatively streamlined novel and pump it up into three plus-sized movies. (Five Armies is the shortest of the bunch, at 144 minutes.) It’s still pleasant to see Bilbo in the company of the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), but the rest of the cast hasn’t taken up the slack. Richard Armitage, as corruptible dwarf leader Thorin, and Evangeline Lilly and Aidan Turner as star-crossed lovers (an elf and a dwarf—it can never work), do not match the charismatic ensemble of The Lord of the Rings. That terrifically entertaining trilogy looms especially large in this installment of The Hobbit: Jackson takes time for multiple foreshadowings of his 2001–2003 epic, which only underscores the suspicion that the Hobbit movies constitute a very long prelude to the main event.

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