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Six giant movies. Two long narrative arcs tied together in a tidy bow. The Middle Earth dual trilogy is Peter Jackson’s masterpiece.

What Happens at Erebor...

A Lake-towner among the elf army
A Lake-towner among the elf army

We begin where we left off. I think I could have had fun at The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies even if I hadn’t seen the other films in the series, but it probably helps to know who Bilbo the hobbit (Martin Freeman) and Gandalf the wizard (Ian McKellen) are.

A dragon is attacking Lake-town and the citizens are fleeing. A man named Bard (Luke Evans) shoots down the dragon with a giant black iron arrow and a little help from his brave son.

Meanwhile, ten dwarfs and a hobbit are searching the dragon’s hoard in a vast mountain hall for a specific gem called the Arkenstone. The dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage) is becoming obsessed with their new-found massive treasure.

When news of the dragon’s death spreads, suddenly everyone in Middle Earth sends an army to the mountain to claim a share of the dragon’s treasure. First to arrive are the fishermen from the newly devastated Lake-town. The elves arrive next and offer aid to the townspeople ... and also hope to recover some stolen gems from the hoard.

King Thorin’s court and the hobbit are ashamed that their king isn’t helping the people outside (they call his greed “dragon sickness”), but they follow him loyally.

Actually... Bilbo, who’s had the Arkenstone all along, sneaks out and he gives it to the leaders of the assembled groups outside the gates, hoping that the bargaining chip will avert a battle in favor of negotiations.

Before that can transpire, an army of orcs arrives. The elves and dwarves join forces to fight them.

Excitement and Bookkeeping

For sheer fun, I think I preferred the previous film, The Desolation of Smaug, with exciting escapes, the tension of meeting the dragon, and the novelty of quaint, rustic Lake-town. In The Battle of the Five Armies the story requires a bit more bookkeeping, and no important new characters or places introduced.

Still, The Battle of the Five Armies offers sustained excitement at many scales. We see ranks of elves and their precision movements; ranks of dwarves moving a more haphazardly yet still forming an impenetrable wall with their shields. But then we also follow the fates of certain fighters in their one-on-one confrontations with notorious enemies such as Azog and Bolg (Manu Bennett and Lawrence Makoare).

When the fighting runs out and the good guys begin to mourn their dead, my audience started to leave.

But the title character still has a final scene, traveling back home with Gandalf. Jackson ends The Hobbit where he began The Lord of the Rings, inviting geeks everywhere to sit on their asses for fifteen hours straight as they watch the pair of trilogies back to back.

Descended from Video Games

In time, I suspect that The Hobbit will look dated. I’m already a little tired of the video-game aesthetic in big-budget movies. The Battle of the Five Armies seems to be entirely set at night, or under a smoky sky, lit with unnatural orange-red light. The look is justified and appropriate, but its visual ancestors are more computer games than epic cinema. They feel more at home on my laptop than in a dark theater.

Will Thorin’s head trip look as good as Dumbo’s in 70 years? Will Saturday night crowds be quoting along when Gandalf recites the Middle Earth names with great solemnity and foreboding?

For now, who cares? The Battle of the Five Armies is as good as big-budget fantasy filmmaking gets in 2014. So if that holds any appeal to you, get out there and see it.