This finale to director Peter Jackson’s epic Hobbit trilogy is a series of thrilling set-pieces. It begins with an ending (the showdown with Smaug) before a breathless build-up to the final massive battle, in which Jackson throws everything but the kitchen sink onto the screen: trolls and eagles and bears – oh my! It is beautifully orc-hestrated mayhem and the 144 minutes rocket past.
Does our hairy-footed friend Bilbo get dwarfed by the action? Yes and no. Bard (Luke Evans) and Thorin (Richard Armitage) take centre-stage for the battles, but Jackson makes sure that the hobbit remains our moral compass. As Bilbo Martin Freeman brings a quirky Englishness – a self-effacing humility and warmth that contrast nicely with the bombast surrounding him. The director allows us one tender interlude in which Bilbo and Gandalf sit side-by-side in companionable silence, while the wizard fiddles with his wooden pipe. Bilbo has played an important part in the battle for Middle Earth, but he’s ‘only a little fellow in a wide world, after all’, as Gandalf tells him at the end.
Amidst the fiery havoc wreaked by the dragon Smaug, and the bone-crunching dwarf-on-Orc violence there are a couple of comic performances that stand out. Billy Connolly as Dain, the ferocious tusk-bearded dwarf, is a hoot. He rides into battle on an armour-plated pot-bellied pig, yelling ‘Would you consider just sodding off’, bludgeoning Orcs with his mallet-cudgel, or giving them a Glasgow kiss, which seems equally effective. Then there is Alfrid (Ryan Gage), a cowardly weasel who dresses up as a woman to avoid fighting and mistakes Gandalf for a vagrant: ‘Oi, pointy hat! We don’t want no tramps here.’
Other highlights include the CGI creations of Weta Workshop, whose Smaug, with its supersonically loud wingbeat is magnificent. The Orcs have had an upgrade in ugliness and weaponry. Their leader, Azog, has a sword instead of an arm and a wolfhead codpiece. In the final battle on ice he wields a breeze block on a chain. Big beasts are everywhere: bats bred for war; trolls with catapults on their backs; a moose, who uses its huge antlers to impale a whole row of Orcs; curly-horned rams ridden by dwarves; a massive troll with Long John Silver legs; giant eagles who drop bears onto the battlefield!
Taken as a whole, the six Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films are a stunning achievement – one which is unlikely to be surpassed. They have been a magical blend of talent, invention and creativity. With thousands involved in their production (watch the sea of names in the end Credits), it has been a miracle that Jackson and his team have got nearly everything right, from casting to costumes, from music to locations. Some of the dialogue in this last episode was a bit corny (samples: ‘if anything moves on that mountain, kill it’; ‘will you follow me one last time?’; ‘we live to fight another day’), but we can forgive Jackson the occasional lapse in quality control – this wizard is human after all.
Some have criticised his decision to turn a short novel into a trilogy. The Hobbit films are LOTR-lite – they do not have the emotional sweep of their bigger brother. We have nothing approaching the tear-jerking, painterly grandeur of Frodo’s farewell in The Return of the King. But they are still superior entertainment. Jackson ends his second trilogy where the first began, with old Bilbo being visited by Gandalf the Grey. Things have come full circle, and, in a lovely touch which shows Jackson’s attention to detail, the final image is the iconic map from the start of the book.