As the latest chapter begins, Smaug the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) has been roused from his avaricious slumber by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and is seeking payback on the helpless population of Laketown. The great wyrm’s incendiary devastation of the wooden hamlet makes for some striking visuals, though at times the sequence can’t help but feel like the theme-park ride it will one day presumably become. A great deal of time is wasted establishing the greed of the town’s Master (Stephen Fry, far too good for this material) and the endangerment of the children of noble Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans). Luckily, just as all hope appears lost, we discover that Smaug has a weakness for triumphal monologuing equal to that of any Bond villain ever to hit the screen. Arrow meets breast, and the dragon problem is solved.
Alas, a new problem quickly arises. The people of smoldering Laketown feel, reasonably enough, that they deserve some compensation from Smaug’s hoard, given that it was the dwarves’ poking that riled him up in the first place. But Thorin is not in a sharing mood. Balin—he’s the dwarf with the long white beard played by Ken Stott, for those who have an understandable difficulty keeping track—has diagnosed his leader as coming down with “dragon sickness,” an infirmity known to contemporary medicine as “acute Trumpism.” In any case, he is committed to keeping every coin or trinket in the Lonely Mountain, and particularly obsessed with finding a wondrous gem called the “Arkenstone.”
But as any lottery winner could tell you, the minute you luck into a vast fortune, friends and relations come out of the woodwork looking for a share. Following the men of Laketown, it’s the elves of Mirkwood, then dwarves from the Iron Hills, and finally multiple divisions of orcs who are gravitationally attracted to the dragon's trove. Before you know it, the stage is set for the titular “battle of the five armies.”
In Tolkien’s novel, the entire affair was resolved in four short pages. But Jackson’s ambitions for the material being rather grander—he would of course be remiss if he did not try to outdo last trilogy’s Battle of Pelennor Fields—the fighting rages on for about an hour, featuring more last-second rescues and escapes than I could count, several of them involving the interspecies love triangle of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Taurien (Evangeline Lilly), and Kili (Aidan Turner). The orc armies bring with them a variety of armored and amputeed trolls, some acting as battering rams and others as catapults, along with a flotilla of killer bats, a troop of goblin mercenaries, and some giant tunneling worms (the “Earth Eaters”) that seem to have been flown in special delivery from Dune. I would describe it all as too much of a good thing, but the latter part of the phrase is far too generous. One villain even gets a not-dead-yet moment more ridiculous than any since Glenn Close popped back out of the bathtub in Fatal Attraction. And did I mention that there’s a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) at the center of it all? If I forget, it’s only because the movie does the same for considerable stretches.