And thus does one of the most ill-considered experiments in franchise extension end precisely the way it was bound to end. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, the grand finale of director Peter Jackson's three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 children's novel, feels like a weirdly-shaped movie fragment and not a movie at all. Though it's still perhaps the best individual film of the trilogy, if only by default. It starts out terribly, finds itself by the end of its first hour, starts to lose the thread during the wandering titular battle sequence that can only boast about its mass, and not its narrative momentum nor its visual excitement, and finds itself again in the last 15 minutes or so, when it refocuses itself on the hobbit whose status of protagonist has been more nominal than actual in two of three films now. So that's a lot of losing and finding and losing, but in the aggregate, the film ends up with more satisfying material, percentage-wise, than the achingly slow-paced The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which kicked things off (barely) in 2012, or the meth-addled flitting between ill-constructed subplots in 2013's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

The film's biggest problem is the obvious one: not, precisely, the decision to break the meager little book into three long tentpole films, but the way that decision came up so late in the game. Initially, the idea was to make The Hobbit into a two-part adaptation, and the revised concept came after the script was written and principal photography was completed, and the material had been shaped into two individually contained features. Jackson and fellow writer-producers Fran Walsh and Philppa Boyens did a solid enough job of fashioning An Unexpected Journey into a fairly cohesive thing even after chopping its end off and bloating it up with extraneous material in the middle, but The Desolation of Smaug felt at once too rushed and too aimless in all its padding, and the cliffhanger ending tacked on after its somewhat functional third-act climax made it feel needlessly unfulfilled in a way that none of the team's earlier Tolkien films had. But the worst of it is only now coming to fruition: for if The Desolation of Smaug is kind of a self-contained object with the illusion of a final act, The Battle of the Five Armies is that film's actual final act, bafflingly inflated to 144 minutes and given no first and second acts of its own. It's literally about virtually nothing but the run-up to its battle and the battle itself, trying desperately to buttress that with enough character scenes to feel like it has some kind of self-contained arc.

The movie is never worse than in its hectic opening, which abruptly picks up with the massive dragon Smaug (voiced and motion captured by Benedict Cumberbatch) flying to destroy the lake town of Esgaroth, outside of the lonely mountain Erebor where he lived for many years in evil isolation, until some dwarves riled him up by dousing him in gold from giant molten statue. Fuck alive, the end of The Desolation of Smaug was asinine. So Smaug burns the hell out of Erebor, until he is eventually taken down with an enormous black arrow fired by the brave pessimist Bard (Luke Evans), who has been prepared for just such an occasion. I admire any film with the instinct to hit the ground running like this, but Smaug's attack is not at all suited to the function the film requires it to serve, and we're never really invited back into Jackson's Middle Earth so much as we are plopped there. As the film clumsily juggles characters and plot developments that follow as the Esgaroth populace re-orients itself and marches off to Erebor to demand their share of Smaug's treasure from newly-reinstated dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage), the blunt-force style of storytelling only really serves to call attention to how little reason we've been given to care about any of this even slightly. Near the end of the overall sequence, a dog wandering through the bottom of the frame looks straight into the camera in a manner that suggests it's trying to get out of the movie, please, and boy, did I ever feel for that dog.

The opening sequence is the most aimless, trivial, aggravating part of a film that swoops from grandeur and the best filmmaking of Jackson's career since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King all the way back to tin-eared dialogue and embarrassingly amateur shot set-ups and editing at a fairly regular clip. The Battle of the Five Armies is at one and the same time far too indulgent in stretching barely any narrative content out to some two and a quarter hours of movie, pre-credits, while hectically rushed in its depiction of what little bit is there. The subplot from the last movie that found the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan, never less interesting in the role) trapped in a ruined haunted fortress is bluntly disposed of in about five minutes featuring weird cameos from Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, and Hugo Weaving; Stephen Fry's nefarious master of Esgaroth evaporates from this movie so quickly that I kept assuming he'd show up again.

Meanwhile, plenty of lengthy, soporific time is dedicated to politicking between elves and men, between dwarves and elves, and to maneuvering armies into place before they actually start to fighting. And a great deal too much time is turned over to the allegedly comic scallywag Alfrid (Ryan Gage), who gets himself into the most hellishly unentertaining scrapes and represents the single most ill-advised choice in this series, even worse than the dismal introduction of a romantic plot between dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) and elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), the latter of whom makes it almost two-thirds into The Battle of the Five Armies before devolving into a generic action grrl damsel in distress. Some of this works better than other parts, and generally speaking, the tension the filmmakers creak out of the build-up is better than the actual fighting itself, which gets to be a bit numbing. And in the case of the protracted (so protracted) battle between Thorin and his CGI orc nemesis Azog (Manu Bennett), it's both numbing and boring, since the film's obvious hope that we'll regard this as a great clash between lifelong enemies is undercut by the crappy development of Thorin over the trilogy, and Armitage's limp performance thereof, and the complete absence of any development of Azog.

Regardless of the rest, nothing is better than when Martin Freeman's Bilbo Baggins is the focus. After being rudely sidelined in The Desolation of Smaug, the ostensible lead character is back to getting enough screentime to feel like he matters again, and he's used as well here as in any other point of the trilogy. The point of hobbits, really, is to domesticate high fantasy; this was their function in both of Tolkien's novels featuring them, and it's something that Jackson & company have never grasped better than they do here, using Freeman's comic fluster as a way of lightening and humanising (hobbitising?) the clashes of battles, the ponderously portentous dialogue, and Howard Shore's emphatically epic score. Freeman, I am more convinced than ever, is the most interesting performer in the entirety of the Jackson Middle Earth franchise, playing a character whose arc and emotions he has thought about far more than the writers ever did, and making his interpretation all about Bilbo, not about the enormity of the films themselves. It is a little performance, a silly and friendly performance, and a very true performance, and because of all this, it is the absolute, clear highlight of a sloppy movie.

Sloppy, but not without its compensations. Limited to basically just three locations - the ruined city outside the dwarf keep, the dwarf keep itself, and an enormous iron hellgate - the director's tendency towards gawking at his sets is tamped down a bit, and instead of feeling like a travelogue for a CGI-aided New Zealand, The Battle of the Five Armies actually starts to use the camera to shape the action and provide a sense of scale; it is the only one of the Hobbit movies to come even close to attaining the visual sweep of all three Lord of the Rings pictures. Even some of the least interesting moments, like the Thorin/Azog fight, are pepped up by the introduction of winter, adding a harsh edge of white to Andrew Lesnie's characteristically postcard-like cinematography. And for the first time in three films, there's no obviously weak CGI: some of the close-ups of Azog and other computer-made creatures probably could have done with a bit less bright, direct lighting, but there's not a single shot that matches the tacky video game aesthetic of An Unexpected Journey, especially.

In essence, it mostly works as a popcorn movie: a fatiguing popcorn movie whose action scenes are repetitive and occasionally too ridiculous to care about (once again, Orlando Bloom's forgettable Legolas shows up to turn things into Mario game), but which are presented with a passion and gravity that feels so, so much better than the meandering idiocy of the last two movies, and punctured by Freeman's wonderful low-key comedy when it all threatens to become top-heavy with pretension. It proves that the whole idea of a three-part Hobbit was a ruinous idea for more than it ever comes close to redeeming the first two, and it still feels like a paltry return to Middle Earth that would have been better left undone. But it has its moments. And next year, when the single-movie fan edits of the trilogy are complete, I don't mind supposing that some of the loveliest stuff will be in the 20 or so minutes that come out of this last movie.

Reviews in this series
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Jackson, 2001)
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Jackson, 2002)
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Jackson, 2003)
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Jackson, 2012)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Jackson, 2013)
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Jackson, 2014)