After billions in sales, hours of adventures, and more than a decade of work, Peter Jackson’s double-trilogy adaptation of author J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings and Hobbit books is finally concluded, and now that critics have weighed in on all six films, it’s time to look back and see how The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies stacks up against its predecessors. With that in mind, we present an updated list of Jackson’s Middle-earth saga that includes his most recent epic, fresh off of a $90 million debut in the US. What did you think of The Battle of the Five Armies, and how do you feel about its place on the list?
When the Lord of the Rings trilogy reached its conclusion with The Return of the King in 2003, it strode into theaters like a conqueror, the culmination of a critically beloved and commercially spectacular franchise whose satisfying denouement seemed like a foregone conclusion. Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies were never quite so fortunate; while they were reviewed well enough and certainly made a fair bit of money at the box office, this prequel trilogy never built up as much steam as its predecessor — so it’s perhaps fitting that the final installment, 2014’s The Battle of the Five Armies, ended its journey in Fresh territory by a fairly slim margin. While most critics enjoyed Armies, they also felt that it — like the trilogy as a whole — suffered from overextension, the result of stretching a relatively brief book out to three epic films. (Armies, at nearly two and a half hours, is the shortest of a very hefty bunch.) Still, no matter how long it takes to arrive, a satisfying ending is a satisfying ending; as Claudia Puig wrote for USA Today, “The final installment of the Hobbit trilogy is the best, featuring more spectacular action scenes as well as the series’ most emotionally resonant moments.”
Just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in. Jackson wasn’t supposed to direct The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey — originally, he only signed on to produce a two-part series of Hobbit movies, with Guillermo del Toro attached to direct. But after two years of slogging away on a first installment that seemed like it might never get off the ground thanks to money woes at MGM, del Toro departed, leaving Jackson to take the reins. And while Unexpected Journey failed to live up to its own hype in some ways — critics seemed a lot more sensitive to this chapter’s inflated running time, and some scribes were displeased with Jackson’s decision to film at 48 frames per second — that didn’t stop it from grossing over a billion dollars worldwide, or from reaping positive reviews from the likes of the Newark Star-Ledger’s Stephen Whitty, who wrote approvingly, “The Hobbit becomes what it was originally meant to be — not a cut-from-the-same-cloth prequel, but its own, individual thing.”
With 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Jackson found himself in a situation few filmmakers ever experience — namely, following up a movie that made more than a billion dollars worldwide but was still regarded as something of a disappointment. It couldn’t have come as a surprise to Jackson, given the marginally more contemplative pace of his first Lord of the Rings prequel, as well as the crushing weight of expectations generated by the epic blockbusting sweep of Jackson’s LotR trilogy. His Hobbit franchise rebounded with its second installment, 2013’s The Desolation of Smaug, which fell a hair short of its predecessor’s impressive box office take, yet enjoyed a far warmer critical reception — due in no small part to the introduction of Benedict Cumberbatch as the voice and mo-cap spirit of the titular dragon, adding action and evil charisma to a series that needed both. As Betsy Sharkey put it in her review for the Los Angeles Times, “Peter Jackson’s newest installment of the Tolkien trilogy is set afire by the scorching roar of a dragon.”
It took a few decades to get there, but once J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books finally, officially made their way to theaters, they did it in a big way — and they did it the right way, courtesy of Peter Jackson’s sure-handed direction (and a $93 million budget), not to mention a pitch-perfect cast that included Elijah Wood (as the pure-hearted hobbit Frodo), Sean Astin (as his stalwart friend Samwise), and Ian McKellen (as the mighty wizard Gandalf), united in their quest to save Middle-earth from the malignant advances of the dark lord Sauron. Full of eye-popping special effects (including those used to bring to life the warped Gollum, played by Andy Serkis) and bolstered by a screenplay that did justice to its hefty source material, it was an unqualified smash — both with audiences and with critics like the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle, who observed, “Watching it, one can’t help but get the impression that everyone involved was steeped in Tolkien’s work, loved the book, treasured it and took care not to break a cherished thing in it.”
After all that buildup, the final installment of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy had a lot of epic expectations to live up to — and by most accounts, 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King met or exceeded them, delivering the franchise’s passionate fanbase a suitably sweeping conclusion to the saga that many of them had loved since long before Jackson ever stepped behind a camera. Clearly, given all the anticipation that later greeted The Hobbit, Jackson was the right person to adapt the beloved books that served as his movies’ source material; as Bill Muller put it for the Arizona Republic, “Not only has Jackson boldly and faithfully brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s world to life, he’s created the most epic and sweeping fantasy adventure of all time.”
He set a high bar for himself with the first Lord of the Rings movie, The Fellowship of the Ring — and then Jackson surpassed it with the second installment, 2002’s The Two Towers, which took a plotline that largely amounted to a lot of walking and turned it into a legitimate three-hour epic, complete with elves, dwarves, hobbits, amazing large-scale battles, and sentient, ambulatory trees. A two-time Academy Award winner (and Best Picture nominee), The Two Towers racked up nearly a billion dollars worldwide during its theatrical run, and prompted suitably hefty praise from critics like Salon’s Charles Taylor, who opined, “Yes, there are some ‘middle-chapter’ problems, but Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptation hasn’t lost its devastating humanity, its heart-stopping cinematography or its epic sweep.”
Finally, here’s Orlando Bloom having a bit of fun on set and singing an internet-famous ditty: