In the early 2000s, director Peter Jackson transformed J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy into one of the most financially and critically successful movie trilogies of all time, with a $3 billion worldwide box office take and 17 Academy Awards to its name. Nearly a decade after that initial fantasy adventure release its final installment, Jackson found himself taking the director’s chair for the big-screen adapatation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which had languished in development hell due to an extensive legal battle. With Jackson recently admitting that the prequel trilogy was largely underdeveloped before production began, we look back at all six of the Oscar-winning director’s Middle-Earth films.
6. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)
The grand finale of The Hobbit trilogy chronicles the defeat of the mighty dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) and the titular epic struggle. However, all that bombastic drama is wasted on a film that feels far too convoluted and essentially confirms what cynics expected from the moment a three-film version of Tolkien’s comparatively tiny source material was announced. Rather than wrapping up the story on a high note, The Battle of the Five Armies lets down its predecessors, despite its clear connection to the original Lord of the Rings trilogy.
5. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
The second Hobbit film saw the return of Orlando Bloom’s fan-favorite Legolas, and while the action scenes (including an extended river sequence) are exciting enough, the love triangle between Legolas, Kili (Aidan Turner) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is obvious filler for a story that is severely lacking in substance. Still, Smaug is just as fearsome as fans would expect, and the confrontation between him and Bilbo (Martin Freeman) toward the film’s end is a highlight (especially for Sherlock fans), even if it sets up the film for a disappointing cliffhanger ending.
4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
A number of cast members from Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy reprise their roles for this first Hobbit film, which aims to use the shadowy rise of Sauron to connect the two trilogies. Despite some notably silly and unnecessary sequences, the film makes great effort to recreate the magic of the earlier films. Even though it doesn’t reach that level, there is still enough to recommend the film to fans. In fact, the “Riddles in the Dark” sequence featuring Andy Serkis’s return as Gollum alone makes An Unexpected Journey worth a watch.
3. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
The film that started a phenomenon, this first Lord of the Rings film introduced moviegoers to iconic characters like Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen). A group of nine companions embark on a perilous quest to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring before the dark lord Sauron assumes control of Middle-Earth, and Jackson imbues the tale with enough atmosphere, sharp visuals and epic storytelling to have crafted a film trilogy that could easily be considered the Star Wars of its generation, in terms of cultural impact.
2. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
After the fellowship fell apart, our heroes go their separate ways in this darker sequel to the first film. Frodo and Sam (Sean Astin) are joined by the duplicitous Gollum, and motion-capture genius is born in Serkis’s incredible performance. The trilogy’s themes become far more explicit and moving this time around, as the nations of Middle-Earth realize that they must stand together or not at all in order to defeat this great evil. The best fantasy works because it has deep real-world resonance, and no film in the Middle-Earth saga illustrates this fact like The Two Towers.
1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Frodo and Sam finally complete their journey to destroy the One Ring in the conclusion to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. To some, the film may run a bit too long — much has been said about its extended denouement, after all — but with nine hours of story to resolve, one can hardly blame Jackson for taking the time out to find just the right note to end his magnum opus on. Stirring and emotionally driven, The Return of the King stands as the apex of fantasy films and cemented the trilogy as not only one of the most profitable stories ever told but also one of the very best.
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