This Hobbit Day, take a break from the perils of 2020 and journey back to Middle-earth for our definitive list of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, ranked from worst to best.
September 22nd is the birthday of everybody’s favorite curmudgeon-y, smoke ring-blowing Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. The jury’s out on exactly how old Bilbo would be in the year 2020 (soon to be remembered, hopefully, as the year that never was) but for this year’s Hobbit Day, we take a deep dive into Peter Jackson’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings film trilogies, ranked from worst to best and complete with stats on each film’s MVP, favorite moments, and essential commentary on which Middle-earth dwarf is the hottest of them all.
6. THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY
MVP: The Hobbit himself, Bilbo Baggins, but… the true MVP is Martin Freeman. The actor brings to the table his trademark conviction and depth we’ve been treated to in his work for years now, and it’s especially welcome in the face of the franchise’s weakest film. Unexpected Journey’s pace is as uneven and bloated as a Hobbit’s waistline after a full day of seven square meals, but Martin Freeman makes it worth your time.
Favorite moment: The Eagles swoop in to save the day, once again taking their sweet time and arriving with only seconds to spare before everybody’s shit gets irrevocably rocked. Then they drop the hot dwarf prince Thorin (Richard Armitage, henceforth referred to as Hot Prince) off on Pride Rock so Gandalf (Ian McKellen— hello, old friend) can give him a magic little smooch to wake him up or something like that.
Best line: “You don’t have one, a home. It was taken from you. But I will help you take it back if I can.” —Bilbo
Best needle drop: More of a sequence than a needle drop, when the Moria Mens Choir flex their vocal chops in Bag End for a chilling fireside performance of “Misty Mountains.”
5. THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG
MVP: Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug, but really only because of this video of him Acting with a capital A in all his mo-cap glory.
Best moment: The ring falls out of Bilbo’s pocket in Mirkwood and, before he can grab it, a lil spider-crab Pokemon-lookin’ guy gets in his way, at which point Bilbo goes absolutely medieval on it, largely betraying his traditional Hobbit etiquette. Afterward, Bilbo realizes what the ring has made him do and, for the first time, understands the full weight of such a small thing. The bit is as impactful as it is entirely because of the depth that Freeman brings to the performance.
Best line: “If this is to end in fire, then we will all burn together.” —Thorin (aka Hot Prince)
Best needle drop: The Hobbit trilogy doesn’t boast nearly as many heart-wrenching or exciting music cues as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but Desolation does feature Ed Sheeran over the credits, and that was pretty cool for 2013, I guess.
A shocking revelation: An Unexpected Journey doesn’t make it easy to distinguish between the seemingly endless roster of dwarves in the equation. Who’s to tell the difference between Oingo and Boingo, Bingo and Bango, Frick and Frack? Desolation of Smaug does a far better job in this department, giving each dwarf some room to breathe in the spotlight. One great moment reveals a profoundly shocking revelation: it seems that Hot Prince isn’t the only hot dwarf in town. Yes, it’s true: there is, in fact, another hot dwarf in their company, albeit in more of a greasy Brooklyn musician kind of way. I thought his name was Kiwi for a while but it turns out it’s Kili (Aiden Turner, who is definitely hot sans dwarf getup).
Anyway, Kili and his friends are in Elf jail, and Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel— Kate from Lost in a red wig— is walking around these cell blocks that appear to be designed after the queue for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disney. She finds Kili playing with a rock, and it’s here, when Kili describes it reminds him of his mommy who worries about him, that we, the audience, realize he’s hot! (Arguably hotter than Hot Prince, feel free to sound off in the comments.) So Kili, let’s call him Hot Rocks, and Kate from Lost have this really cute moment that doesn’t bear any significance to the larger plot at hand, but it’s important to know that, when it comes to the attractiveness of Middle-earth free folk, Hot Rocks definitely gives Hot Prince a run for his money.
4. THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES
MVP: Bard (Luke Evans) — Bard doesn’t have much to do in the second half, but his presence in the first is nothing short of kick ass. He takes down Benedict Cumbersmaug with a makeshift bow and arrow that he balances on his SON. We have no choice but to stan a true Middle-earth MacGyver.
Best moment: Legolas (oh yeah, he’s here, despite not appearing in the original Hobbit novel) hangs upside down from a bat-goblin thing and singlehandedly takes down an entire line of battle-ready orcs. Honestly, just pick any moment that Legolas is in and it’s still cooler than anything I’ve ever done in my entire life.
Best line: “If more people valued home above gold, this world would be a merrier place.” —Thorin
The hottest of them all: It’s Hot Rocks, by a nose. His (SPOILER ALERT!) death is particularly tragic and largely thematically unexpected, as opposed to Hot Prince’s death which anyone with half a filmic brain cell can see coming. Hot Prince’s death is a moment, yet again, made memorable by Martin Freeman’s performance. But at the end of the day, Hot Rocks’ death is the bigger blow. Rest in peace, Hot Rocks, the people of Middle-earth will never stop thirsting for you. Stray thoughts: It’s my understanding that this is the least-liked of the Hobbit trilogy, but it’s my favorite and feels the most complete of the three. The trilogy was originally intended to be just two films, and Unexpected Journey certainly suffers the most from being sent through the taffy pulling machine. Journey is bloated, Smaug is a little stop-and-start, but Five Armies feels like exactly what it was always supposed to be, complete with engaging visuals, dynamite battle sequences, and some really thoughtful emotional beats. Of the Hobbit trilogy, it’s the entry that most feels like a product of the folks that brought us…
3. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS
MVP(s): Merry, Pippin, and Treebeard (Dominic Monaghan, Billy Boyd, and John Rhys-Davies, respectively) — Two Towers finds our ensemble at their most split up and, for many of them, at their most interesting. Hobbit-bros-for-life Frodo and Sam’s journey is actually the weakest link in this installment; Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are running around Rohan being hot (in Gimili’s case, literally just overheating and sweaty from all the running); but it’s Merry and Pippin, when they team up with Treebeard and co. to take down Isengard, that prove themselves the most essential players on the board in this round. The fall of Isengard is a crushing militaristic blow to the Middle-earth Axis, and a great reward for champions of morality, justice, and environmental conservation.
Best moment: There’s one right answer, and it’s when Legolas rides a shield like a skateboard down a flight of stairs during the Battle of Helm’s Deep. In all seriousness, the Battle of Helm’s Deep is one of the best battle sequences across the entire LOTR/Hobbit franchise, not to mention in all of cinema. It’s a testament to the artistic and technical wizardry (pun intended) employed by Peter Jackson, DP Andrew Lesnie, and their entire camera team, choreographers and stunt performers, make up artists, and VFX artists, not to mention the gargantuan task editor Michael Horton had of piecing it all together and never once dropping the ball on pacing.
Best line: “Don’t tell the elf.” —Gimli
Best needle drop: They’re Taking The Hobbits to Isengard
Favorite fun fact: *Leans over to Tinder date* “Hey, babe, you see that? When he kicked the helmet? Yeah, Viggo Mortensen actually broke his toes when he kicked it. He actually improvised kicking it and literally broke his toes. His scream is his legit reaction to breaking his toes. Not everyone knows that.”
2. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING
MVP: Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) — Looking back, Sean Astin’s work throughout the entire trilogy was largely overlooked. The only acting love the Lord of the Rings trilogy ever got from the Academy was in the form of a rightfully earned supporting nod to Ian McKellen for the first installment. Still, Astin’s performance— in Return of the King especially— anchors the trilogy with heart and humor in equal measure.
Best moment: The lighting of the beacons never fails to jack me up. I don’t know anything about sports, but I have to assume that those sport-ballers sit in their sport-rooms prior to going on their sport-fields and watch the lighting of the beacons scene to get themselves pumped up. Can someone confirm this?
Best needle drop: Billy Boyd singing “The Edge of Night” always, always, ALWAYS makes me absolutely weak in the knees and, no, I will not be taking questions at this time.
Best line: TIE — “Smeagol promised! /Smeagol lied.” —Frodo / Gollum (Bone chilling. You have to give Smeagol/Gollum/that gross little bastard credit for coming back with such a cool retort.)
“My friends… you bow to no one.” —Aragorn (Tears. Every. Damn. Time.)
1. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING
MVP: Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) — Aragorn (aka Strider, aka Heir to the Throne of Gondor, aka scruffy Middle-earth brooding zaddy goals) puts the entire team on his back after the crushing loss of the Fellowship’s favorite magical grandpa. The trilogy is chock full of moments where Aragorn rids himself of various shades of emo reluctancy and, in this house, we love character growth.
Best moment: In a film full of awesome battles and skirmishes, chases on horseback, and fights to the death with giant fire boi’s (a close second for best moment and, yes, I know it’s called the Balrog), the best moment is the entire Council of Elrond scene, wherein a bunch of dudes simply sit around yelling at each other. The dialogue is so well paced, and it’s a testament to Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens as true masters of these characters and their nuances. It’s a scene that, more than any other, perfectly encapsulates the politics, convictions, desires, and history of the core representation of the Free Peoples of Middle-earth.
Best needle drop: The entire score. Howard Shore scored all six films across the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies. But it’s the score for Fellowship that takes the cake and sets up what will become some of the franchise’s most memorable and beloved melodies and themes.
Best line: “I would have gone with you to the end, into the very fires of Mordor.” —Aragorn (It’s a line that never fails to put a lump in my throat and all the credit goes to Mortensen’s facilities as an actor, in all of his— to date— three-time Academy Award nominated glory. Also, the way he pronounces “Mordor?” *chef’s kiss*)
Stray thoughts: Many are quick to call Return of the King the trilogy’s best entry and their not wrong, except that they are. Return of the King is enormous in scale, the stakes are the highest they’ve ever been, and it has the gargantuan task of wrapping up everything that’s come before it. The Two Towers excels in its world-building and instrumental moves that set the stage for the trilogy’s final act. But Fellowship of the Ring, however, is the one that will stand the test of time. It’s the entry that stands on its own legs the firmest (whereas Two Towers and Return really rely on their predecessors to bolster their stance) and feels like THE modern classic of the fantasy genre. While Two Towers and Return of the King proudly boast their impressive merits, Fellowship is the beating heart of the trilogy, not to mention the most successfully paced, written, performed, and executed from beginning to end.