TIME, OSCARS, and uncountable helicopter shots may have burnished its legacy, but it's startling to remember what a gamble The Lord of the Rings series was considered back at the beginning. Emerging during a period when audiences were riding the post-Matrix aloof coolness wave, and helmed by a cult director known for outrageously Freudian splatter, the prospects of anyone beyond the Tolkien die-hards sticking past Lord of the Rings' first cinematic installment were far from assured. It all worked out like gangbusters, fortunately, fueled by Peter Jackson's kinetically macabre energy, an extremely committed cast, and, most importantly, an unaffected sincerity that kept all the clown-car fantastic elements feeling of a piece. Even now, catching a few random minutes on cable can easily lead to hunkering down and clearing your schedule for the rest of the day.
The prequels, however, have presented a much bumpier ride—proving that, yes, it is entirely possible to have too much of a good thing. Although the shortest film of the entire franchise, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies sure seems like the doziest, lacking the urgency and built-up character development that made The Return of the King such a victory lap. Coming from a filmmaker who is clearly weary of the Epic Elder Statesman crown, the results are a dramatically uneven, technically flabbergasting film, which often feels more dutiful than inspired. Except, that is, for those moments when it really, really comes together.
Beginning with the rather significant loose and scaly end left dangling at the end of the previous film, this time the story finds Thorin (a scenery-chewing Richard Armitage) & the Dwarves finally reclaiming their mountain kingdom, with Bilbo (Martin Freeman) an increasingly reluctant onlooker. While Gandalf (Ian McKellan) investigates a growing darkness elsewhere, a gaggle of races with differing agendas amass outside the gates, leading to the massive throwdown of the title. Orcs and Elves go flying everywhere. If anything in the above synopsis gives you pause, some brushing up is definitely advised before viewing. (Bonus points if you remember the dude who turns into a bear.)
Six installments of anything is difficult to keep fresh, of course, and Jackson's by-now-patented combination of huge battle scenes, low comedy, and occasional grossouts, while occasionally still exhilarating, often seem like the work of a man ready to move on, with the scenes that he clearly feels passionate about surrounded by an awful lot of obligatory connective tissue. (That said, the final edition of the now-mandatory Legolas Moment™ is pretty goddamned sweet.) Judging a movie by what it could have been is rarely fair, but seeing Guillermo del Toro's name in the end credits makes it hard not to wonder how, had he directed as originally planned, he would have juiced things up. As it stands, the overall impression of The Hobbit is of a series none too gently nudging against its expiration date. There's only so much bloat that the combination of Christopher Lee and Howard Shore's majestic score can compensate for, as it turns out.
And, yet. When all the money shots have been spent and the characters that are still able are saying their final goodbyes, this last, lumpy chapter somehow regains the bittersweet, weirdly handmade-feeling magic that got so many people invested in the series in the first place, ending on a rather lovely grace note that brings the considerable high points sailing back into memory. Give it a few years and a couch, and time will most likely be kind.