Ranking the Lord of the Rings Movies
The Lord of the Rings films are some of the most widely renowned and acclaimed blockbuster films of all time. Peter Jackson’s sublime trilogy, followed up by his technically groundbreaking three-part rendition of the Hobbit managed to subvert expectations and redefine the public perception of how good a fantasy film could be. Over two decades since these films were released and before the release of The Rings of Power later this year, it’s worth a look back at these classic hallmarks of fantasy filmmaking and sees just how well they stack up against each other.
6.) The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (2014; RT 59%)
Stretching The Hobbit into a film trilogy was bound to cause some problems along the way, problems which all come to a head in Battle of the Five Armies. Financially successful, making $962.2 million off of an enormous budget of $250-$300 million, Warner Bros.’ big investment in Jackson and the wider Hobbit series as a whole paid off. Nevertheless, the film’s decision to quickly off Smaug in the opening sequence only to spend the next two hours padding out the run time with long shots of characters fighting and a heaping layer of fan service does little to innovate on the long-standing promise of the Lord of the Rings franchise.
That this movie is as good as is it despite its problems is a testament to the filmmaking prowess of Jackson. While it’s obvious that Battle of the Five Armies is cobbled together from parts of the original second movie, new reshoots, and a heaping layer of CGI, what is less obvious is how majestically Jackson manages to make it all work. Despite its issues, despite the problems with pacing, and despite the struggles inherent with stretching out a rather small battle in the book to a big screen Hollywood CGI fest, the movie still manages to be entertaining. That, in and of itself, is an impressive feat. It doesn’t raise Battle of the Five Armies to the same level as the other Lord of the Rings films, but it’s good enough to make it harmless popcorn fun.
5.) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013; RT 74%)
The middle part in any trilogy is, generally, the hardest part to get right. Desolation of Smaug manages to hit most of the right notes, but falls flat with an uninteresting antagonist that feels like an experiment in CGI rather than an actual threat to Bilbo and the party. Benedict Cumberbatch’s mailed-in performance as the disinterested wyrm is a bit disappointing and far from the fearsome foe found in the original book. Nevertheless, the return of Andy Serkis as Gollum in a fun rendition of his and Bilbo’s riddle battle from the original book, Richard Armitage’s impressive performance as the slowly-corrupted Thorin, and Stephen Fry’s entertaining take on the Master of Laketown all offer improvements to an overall slow film.
The introduction of Legolas and other callbacks to the original Lord of the Rings trilogy does little to move the plot along, an obviously aged Orlando Bloom not bringing the same lighthearted dynamism to the role that he did twenty years ago. Nevertheless, the overall tenor of the journey is a bit more exciting than in The Battle of the Five Armies, the sense of wonder that accompanied the original entry in the Hobbit series still mostly intact. There’s no saving The Desolation of Smaug from an overly bloated run time and an abrupt ending that felt out of place at the time and feels even more like an obvious attempt to pad out the films’ release today, but it is a serviceable addition to the series.
4.) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012; RT 64%)
The first Hobbit film is by far the best. Starting off by hitching its star firmly to the original trilogy with a lovely tie-in complete with cameos by Elijah Wood and Ian Holm, the film begins wonderfully. A gorgeously-realized opening sequence, in which the dwarves slowly arrive to Bilbo’s house plays just like in the book, setting the standard for the lighthearted comedy and quips that would define these films. Unlike its various sequels, which felt pressed to squeeze every drop out of every paragraph in the original book, An Unexpected Journey feels more balanced, the obvious first half in a film series that was originally only supposed to be two films. Behind the scenes looks at the development of the first Hobbit film, after Jackson took over from former director Guillermo del Toro, show just how disjointed the project was from the beginning, with Jackson feverishly reworking and redesigning what had been, up to that point, a completely different production.
Considering this completely new way of film production, absent the years of prep time given the crew on the original Lord of the Rings, the heavy reliance on CGI makes more sense. While it was shocking at the time, especially when coupled with An Unexpected Journey’s foray into 48 FPS, its looks positively tame when compared to modern blockbuster cinema’s complete reliance on CGI as an end in and of itself. Granted, the CGI from 2012 doesn’t always hold up, especially when compared to many of the practical effects found in the original trilogy, but, given the ethos of the time, it makes more sense.
3.) The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001; RT 91%)
Jackson’s entry into the world of Middle Earth and one of the strongest fantasy films of all time, The Fellowship of the Rings is an incredible romp through the opening book in Tolkien’s trilogy, taking care, especially in the extended edition, to firmly plant the viewer in the world of Middle Earth before taking them on a wild journey through a fully realized landscape. Every sequence in the majestic opening, from Gandalf and Frodo’s simple ride through the Shire to Bilbo’s birthday and the fireworks show, introduces all the main Hobbit characters and Gandalf without needing to exposit much of anything. Unlike most movie villains, the Nazgûl feel dangerous, their hoarse voices, lack of (most of) a face, and Morgul blades all selling the fact that Frodo and the Hobbits are in real trouble. Boromir’s death is easily one of the most iconic and powerful death scenes in all of cinema, Sean Bean’s troubled face selling every nuance of a good man who makes a bad decision in a moment of weakness.
Nevertheless, it is the weakest of the original trilogy. The opening sequence, while informative and very useful to the overall plot, drags a bit, especially during rewatches of the extended edition. The eponymous Fellowship is not formed until halfway through the film, by which time the party takes stops at Rivendell for a while. The Fellowship is a bit of an unwieldy vehicle for conversation or dialogue, the smaller parties of later films proving to be much more capable without sidelining essential characters. These are nitpicks, to be sure—the film is overall fantastic—but they hold it back from overtaking its sequels.
2.) The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002; RT 95%)
The Two Towers has the best battle scene in all six Lord of the Rings films, hands down. Helm’s Deep is a masterpiece of battlefield storytelling, the against-all-odds last-stand against hordes of Uruk-hai a bit more relatable than Pelennor Fields’ legions of CGI orcs or Fellowship’s small skirmishes against Goblins and Uruk-hai. Everything in the battle, from the brilliant, like the rainy night hiding the aging CGI, to the mundane, like the one elderly archer who starts the entire battle, is pitch perfect, a testament to how to tell a compelling story that isn’t lost amid a sea of CGI, lens flare, motion blur, and camera shake. In fact, one of the amazing things about Helm’s Deep is just how discernable the action is, how Jackson avoids obfuscating his shots in pursuit of selling the chaos.
Additionally, the characters are at their high point in Two Towers. Andy Serkis’ portrayal of Gollum is as fundamentally complete as it was technically groundbreaking at the time, portraying him as the tortured, conflicted soul that the Ring made him be. Elijah Wood as Frodo begins to show the weariness of the Ring’s influence on him, invoking subtleties that show his ever-loosening grasp on reality and his increasing paranoia. The dialogue between Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas is engaging and hilarious, the sort of banter that’s been repeated ad nauseum with modern Marvel productions but, at the time of release, helped to give a bit of levity to what is overall a rather serious film. Bernard Hill as King Théoden, once awakened from his stupor by Gandalf, comes to life as one of the series’ most tragic characters, a man who let life pass him by and now has to grapple with the consequences of his inaction.
Two Towers succeeds at this and much more. Criticism can be made of its winding tone and Frodo and Sam’s seemingly endless trek through desolate wasteland, but it’s all in the nature of middle films. Only the grandeur of the following film holds Two Towers back from the top spot.
1.) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003; RT 93%)
Return of the King is a masterpiece on many levels, serving as a fittingly epic capstone to an epic series. It is a movie of transformations. Frodo completes his transformation from a happy-go-lucky hobbit into someone almost wholly corrupted by the Ring. Sam transforms into Frodo’s guardian someone who can help him carry an impossible burden to the finish line. The competition between Gollum and Sméagol reaches its apex, with Gollum winning the battle of wills. Aragorn transforms into the King of Gondor. Éowyn becomes the warrior she was always supposed to be. The very landscape of Middle Earth itself is changed, as the world becomes an ever-worsening hellscape, the forces of Mordor destroying all they come in contact with. Return succeeds at crafting an epic scope that the rest of the series never reaches. From Théoden’s speech before the Battle of the Pelennor Fields to the Denethor’s Shakespearian tragedy, every part of Return seems perfectly balanced to end the original trilogy with the gravitas that it deserves.
Is it a perfect film? Certainly not. An argument can be made that both Fellowship and The Two Towers surpass it on a variety of levels, but given its Herculean task of wrapping up the storylines of the entire Fellowship plus a few extra characters met along the way, it strains but never buckles under the weight. Sure, it has quite a few endings and the deus ex machina Dead Men of Dunharrow, alongside Legolas’ CGI exploits against the Easterlings and oliphaunts, lower the stakes a bit, but the film succeeds at crafting an ending worth waiting for, one fitting the quality of the journey. Oftentimes, endings are the most difficult part of an epic story to land perfectly and Return of the King succeeds about as well as could be expected given the quality of its two predecessors, in the process cementing the entire series as a landmark of fantasy filmmaking.
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