By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published Dec 23, 2014 at 9:16 AM

After basically spending about two and a half movies faffing around on some irrelevant side errands, Ian McKellen’s Gandalf winds up delivering the line of the trilogy. Talking to Bilbo, he sternly cautions, "Do not underestimate the evil of gold."

Man, is there not a more tragically fitting lesson to come from Peter Jackson’s "Hobbit" films? Thanks to studio greed, what was once one of the most anticipated movies of the decade contorted and malformed into a bloated three-piece obligation. It’s not that there hasn’t been some good stuff in these films, like the Gollum sequence from part one and Smaug from part two. But up to this point, it's played like a tasty little truffle, rolled out and flattened until its pleasures became too insubstantial to particularly satisfy. 

With "The Battle of the Five Armies," however, at least the trilogy goes out on a high note, delivering an extended burst of some of what Jackson can do best: big grand battle sequences with a side order of big grand old school melodramatics. The final chapter is pure spectacle, and sure, much of it is hollow spectacle – especially standing next to its older brother. But it’s entertaining and enthusiastic, and it’s the closest these echoes have felt to resembling the original volume of its Oscar-wining predecessor.

Important note: I hope you remember everything from last year’s "The Desolation of Smaug" because "The Battle of the Five Armies" sure as hell doesn’t care if you don’t. The movie launches immediately into the aftermath of the middle chapter, with the freshly awakened dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) devastating the little island community of Laketown.

Meanwhile, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and his dwarf companions heavy-heartedly watch the destruction miles away from Smaug’s former hold under a mountain. The only one who feels little is Thorin (Robert Armitage), who’s come down with a brutal case of dragon sickness (read: greed) while surrounded by the cave’s riches.

His resulting blind, drunken Scrooge McDuck-ian desire for gold only gets worse as those with even the smallest claim to the treasure – namely the people of Laketown hoping to rebuild and the elves looking for their people’s luminous gems – come by to take what’s theirs. Despite being less than a dozen strong, Thorin’s willing to go to war – or as it is commonly pronounced in this movie, WOOAAAAAR – against the humans and the elves for the gold. Then again, WOOAAAAAR’s coming anyways in the form of a massive, vicious orc army, complete with evil birds, goblins and those things from "Tremors."

And, in keeping with this trilogy’s tradition, Gandalf spends most of the first third off somewhere imprisoned in a cage off doing something completely irrelevant, leading to a minor action sequence against some black-and-white computer glitches and Cate Blanchett turning into Samara from "The Ring."

That’s honestly the most I know, understand or care about that whole Gandalf subplot. There are a few sad realizations like those scattered throughout "The Hobbit," like when it officially hits the audience they’ve spent three movies with this small group of dwarves, yet can barely name or identify any of them as characters. There’s the one in love with Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly). There’s the one with ear funnel, the one with the white curly Pagemaster beard and the perfectly round one with all the chins. Other than that, though, they’re all just anonymous beards.

I’m not even quite sure who the fifth army is in this battle of the five armies. There’s the elves, dwarves, humans, orcs and … the other orc army, maybe? The eagles? The goblins? Or perhaps it is the most dreaded, destructive force in Jackson’s "Hobbit" trilogy: the army horde of diminishing expectations.

It certainly seemed to be that final group while watching the first 30 minutes or so, which plays less like the opening of this film and more like the ending of the last one crudely stapled onto the front. The Smaug fight is technically impressive, and the fantasy action is at least exciting on a mere base level. But it’s all the payoff for a long forgotten build-up. When Stephen Fry’s greedy weasel of a ruler gets his comeuppance, for instance, it should be a satisfying moment, but since the audience has only known him here for maybe a minute total, it’s a cheap, unrewarding victory.

Thankfully, things improve greatly when Jackson finishes wrapping up "Desolation of Smaug" and puts his focus on the big five-army battle. Before the maelstrom begins, Jackson and the script do a fine job arranging and moving the various players around the battlefield, tensely debating and negotiating. Luke Evans’ Bard makes for a sympathetic hero, a good guy just desperate to prevent mass slaughter, while Armitage on the other side is strong as the gold-drunk Thorin, his inner goodness having battle with his infected greed. Of course, McKellen is Gandalf at this point; he warmly lives in the role.

Then there’s the hobbit himself Martin Freeman, who, despite being mostly sidelined, really serves as a great star. Much of the reason audiences have wanted more of Bilbo in these movies – other than him being their namesake – is because Freeman is such a delight in the role.

He captures the real spirit of the books, bringing a light, kindly noble and slyly amusing screen presence to Jackson’s big stomping epic. Just little things – a fidgety facial twitch while under interrogation, the way his baffled face seems to go through five different emotions while attempting to process a baffling decision, even merely a two-second shot of him sneaking past a guard – give "The Battle of the Five Armies" a blessed sense of humor and joy.

Finally, there’s the WOOAAAAAR (sorry; last time), with all of the armies arriving and announcing themselves like it's the "Anchorman" news rumble. Yes, it’s bloated – essentially taking at most a couple of pages of "The Hobbit" and turning them into a 144-minute epic – and CGI-smothered. At least it’s bloat that’s arguably on point this time, all aimed toward this one big standoff (the CGI also looks better, though there is a mist to much of the film, and the elves and orcs sometimes look more like textureless Xbox One characters than people).

It’s also quite fun – and none of that half-hearted "this is fun … right?" from the last two installments. There’s less of the forced merry commotion of some of the action sequences – the goblin king setpiece and the river barrels sequence for instance – and more of Jackson’s meat and potatoes: putting armies and individuals against once another in grand fashion with splashes of violent, cartoonish absurdity for extra entertained giggles.

As in his golden years, Jackson smartly crosscuts between parts of the battle, keeping track of all the action with impressive clarity. Plus, he just loads up on exciting memorable battle moments. We’ve got bears dropping from the heavens. We’ve got epic, tense one-on-one action showdowns. We’ve got a reindeer-assisted quintet of orc beheadings. We’ve got dwarf Billy Connolly head-butting enemies to death without a helmet. We’ve got Legolas, unfortunately still played by the dead-faced Orlando Bloom, but that’s compensated for by the archer being the most ridiculously hyper-capable being since God.

It’s an overload of excitement and grandiose action thrills that almost makes the audience feel like they care – and occasionally even pulls it off.

"The Hobbit" trilogy overall may forever go filed away as a great pop cultural disappointment, but at least this three-part whimper goes out with a suitably enjoyable bang. Plus, now that all three movies are out, it’s only a matter of time before a fan edits together the trilogy, taking out the padding, filler and bloat, and creating one complete "Hobbit" movie. You know, just like how Peter Jackson could have and should have done from the start. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.