Having navigated the barrels, spiders, riddles and ruins, it's the chance to realise this gigantic, five-way battle royale that clearly prompted Jackson's return to Tolkien's world. So much so, in fact, that most other material falls by the wayside. Smaug is unleashed and dispatched in a fleeting ten minute opening sequence, his brief but spectacular reign of fire cut short by a monologue-stopping arrow. Likewise the rising menace of Sauron is eagerly skipped past to make way for the main event.
Pelennor Fields was a noble struggle between light and darkness, observed from on high amidst the spires of Minas Tirith. This, by contrast, is a dirty barroom brawl – every hack, slash and stab felt physically from deep within the scrum. From the moment elven warriors vault the dwarven phalanx to disembowel onrushing orcs, the Bad Taste (1987) director clearly revels in the ensuing carnage with gleeful invention. Trolls act as mobile siege towers, ballistas raining death from their shoulders, walls collapsing before bipedal battering rams. A raging, elk-mounted Thranduil (Lee Pace) deals antler assisted decapitation, while dwarven rabble-rouser Dain (Billy Connolly) spouts expletives from the back of an armoured war pig. When Thorin (Richard Armitage) finally leads the charge from the gates of Erebor, the glorious rush of battle met is triumphant euphoria.
Yet despite the warmongering title, focusing on the action would be doing The Hobbit: The Battle Of Five Armies a disservice. Even during the more lengthy dialogue scenes, it's compelling stuff, reaping the rewards of characters built-up over the previous films, all of them flawed and with a convincing agenda. Luke Evans, as Bard, becomes a reluctant leader of men, whose single-minded desire to protect his children makes him one of the most human characters ever to grace Middle-earth, while Kili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel's (Evangeline Lilly) romance is undeniably touching.
As both hero and antagonist at various points, this is in large part Armitage's film though. Thorin's descent into madness under the dragon's taint is played out with maniacal intensity. His grim rebuff of Bard's diplomatic overtures (the exchange framed beautifully by a hole in Erebor's barricade) and final, hallucinatory epiphany upon a floor of burnished gold are as masterfully shot as they are powerfully delivered. Thorin is undeniably a danger to everyone under his rule, yet Armitage never allows him to become a monster, allowing glimpses of the good man he was before to shine through. Bilbo, by contrast, is a portrait of quiet understatement. Martin Freeman has grown into the part like a second skin, his warmth and honesty underpinning the hobbit's self-effacing befuddlement. It's not until the end, with the film's most effective piece of foreshadowing, that we see cracks in his character as the Ring exerts its influence.
At under two and a half hours, there's little excess weight on The Hobbit: The Battle Of Five Armies. Jackson has been judicious with the edit, jettisoning anything deemed not essential to the tale at hand. It's smart work and the film never drags but it doesn't come without cost. What could have been the stand out set piece is largely squandered, Elrond and Saruman facing off against the Nazgul in a spectacular but short lived altercation at Dol Guldur. It's a minor disappointment in an otherwise gratifying conclusion, though, and one that may yet be addressed. With the numerous threads left unresolved (Legolas' pursuit of Bolg at Smaug's finale is abandoned entirely) and key appearances truncated (Beorn's return lasts a single shot), we can presumably look forward to a far weightier Extended Edition when it arrives this time next year.
While the debate will continue to rage over whether The Hobbit needed to be split into three movies, The Hobbit: The Battle Of Five Armies is a fitting conclusion to Jackson's prequel trilogy and a triumphant farewell to Middle-earth. Now complete, The Hobbit stands as a worthy successor to The Lord Of The Rings, albeit one that never quite emerges from its shadow. Jackson has crafted a grand old tale to do J.R.R. Tolkien proud, and with a single, simple bow in the final moments, one that offers a far simpler send-off than The Lord Of The Rings: The Return of the King (2003) ever did.