If nothing else, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies essentially renders the entire second film of this ill-conceived trilogy superfluous. The events of last year's Desolation of Smaug that truly matter to the series as a whole largely boil down to a couple of moments of character development and that wonderful little scene between hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch). Everything else turned out to be excess.
I've always been at least sympathetic to the idea that The Hobbit, though a slim novel, was too complicated to be turned into just one film. J.R.R. Tolkien's book is rambling and episodic, with several major characters who are barely even present for much of its narrative. One film could have easily felt overstuffed.
But it likely would have been better than the trilogy we have now, which opened with a languorous film that seemed to take hours to get going, before turning into a pointless action fest out of nowhere, then continued with a too-long adventure tale that sat uneasily as a retroactively conceived "middle" film. (The original plan was for only two films, though that was changed before the first hit theaters.)
Battle is probably the best of the series. It's a war film that moves at a brisk clip and features plenty of big, signature moments that would have landed in a more judiciously pruned series. But the film mostly underlines how little we've come to care about these characters over the course of these films. There are some nice moments throughout with wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), dwarven leader Thorin (Richard Armitage), and Bilbo himself. But they pale in comparison to the payoffs afforded by director Peter Jackson's original Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Battle of the Five Armies moves at a blistering clip. If you like giant battles between armies of CGI creatures, this might be your new favorite film ever. And Jackson and his collaborators are smart enough to know where to put the emotional beats that should break this stuff up. They've just overextended the narrative so much that the emotional beats play as wearying, rather than gratifying. There might have been a good film — or even series of films — here once, but they've been swallowed up by bloat.
Ranking all six films
That said, now that we have all six films, it's time to do the only proper thing and rank all of them. Imagine the first three being fairly close to each other, then a large gap, then the last three being rather close to each other as well (though perhaps a bit more spread out).
1) The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: There have been few better, or more audacious, opening acts in the history of the blockbuster. The first film to take us into Jackson's version of Middle-earth now stands as the best. What's remarkable about it is just how leisurely it is. Even as it's building momentum, it's making sure to take the time to allow audiences to get to know every single character, buying it goodwill that will carry through essentially every other film Jackson made in the world.
2) The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: The first half of this movie is a little lumpy and unformed (a problem that has bedeviled Jackson with essentially every film he's made save Fellowship), but once it passes the halfway point, it begins to head toward the siege of Helm's Deep — the finest setpiece in any of the films — and it attains an impressive weight for a movie set in a fantastical land. The sequence when Gandalf rides into battle might be the most purely beautiful one in the whole series.
3) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: This was the movie that made the most money, and won all of the Oscars, and generally settled into conventional wisdom as the "best" of the original trilogy. And it's certainly a very good, very involving film that brings the films to a rousing close. But it's also the film out of the first three filled with the most strange storytelling decisions and sequences that end up going nowhere. It's a frequently astonishing film, but it's easier to nitpick than either of its siblings.
4) The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies: The first three Lord of the Rings films are, in some ways, about the idea of morally just war, of taking on an enemy so evil that only violence will defeat it. What sets Battle apart, then, is how it's essentially about the sheer pointlessness of some wars, as Thorin's lust for treasure sparks an incident that very nearly destroys Middle-earth. Of course, then the orcs ride in, and it becomes about the righteousness of war again, but that's largely in keeping with the ancient epics Tolkien was inspired by. This film is more interesting as what it might have been than as what it actually is, as outlined above.
5) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Roundly derided as being too long and boring, this is actually a touch underrated. Yes, the film loses a little something the longer it goes on (and is not helped by Tolkien loving to get his characters in peril, then have them saved by a deus ex machina or two), but I actually love that opening hour set in Bilbo's home, with all his unwelcome dinner guests. It sets up emotional stakes for the story — the comforts of home, the dangers of the road — that the trilogy then struggles with paying off. And the scene with treacherous Gollum near the end is a keeper.
6) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: Here's the real weak link of all the films, a movie packed with incident but light on meaning, as Jackson and company just try to keep the good time adventuring coming, without really buying us further investment in the characters or their quest. The scene between Bilbo and Smaug is great, but the rest of the film loses sight of the hobbit at the tale's center, in favor of more and more CGI excess. If these films are ever re-edited into two movies (or even one), expect this to be the one that sees the heaviest cuts.