September 22 is Hobbit Day, which means it is (by non-Shire reckoning) the birthday of both Bilbo Baggins and his adopted heir, Frodo Baggins. It was on this day that the “long expected party” took place in The Fellowship of the Ring, and it also provides an excellent excuse to not only celebrate the masterworks of J.R.R. Tolkien, but the film adaptations by Peter Jackson.
Jackson’s first trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, was a ground-breaking smash — it won box office glory, critical acclaim, and an unprecedented number of Academy Awards for a fantasy film. He followed it up years later with a trilogy based on The Hobbit (written by Jackson, Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh) and though it was financially successful, the second group of films was far less artistically lauded than the first.
I’ll make this clear as moon runes that appear when the exact same moon appears in the night sky as it did on the night they were written: I don’t think the second trilogy is as good as the first. Almost nothing can be. Jackson and company experimented with some new techniques with the second trilogy (shooting in 48 frames, adding in 3D, etc.) that makes it feel different, and the “most expensive home movie ever made” feel that the original trilogy had was not present.
That said, there is so very much to be appreciated in the three films set under the banner of The Hobbit. In honor of Jackson's second Tolkien trilogy, I’m going to use this Hobbit Day to celebrate what really makes The Hobbit trilogy so fantastic — the performances.
We’re not going to get into the ongoing debate (and complaining) about why this story had to be three films, although why anyone would want fewer Middle-Earth films from Peter Jackson is beyond me. A lot of material that is not present in the book of The Hobbit is presented in An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug, and The Battle of the Five Armies. A great amount of that extra material comes from Tolkien himself — things like the White Council, the mystery of the Necromancer, Radagast, and the history of the line of Durin were all taken from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, Unfinished Tales, and The Silmarillion. Because of these additions, we get to see Galadriel, Saruman, and Elrond righteously fighting it out in Dol Guldur. I’m very grateful for that.
I could go on (and on) about all of that (the completely invented pre-Rivendell warg chase in the first film has its reasons, Tauriel isn't a pure movie invention, etc), but I won’t, because that would only take away from our point here, which is to celebrate the performances of so many talented actors who helped bring Jackson's vision to life.
The titular character is a great place to start. Martin Freeman’s performance as Bilbo Baggins is a whimsical and eccentric bit of true magic. Freeman is perfectly cast, and his arc over three films is perfectly captured.
With Freeman, Bilbo goes from an isolated Hobbit worrying about his mother’s dishes to a full-on hero, and then goes the extra mile of making some very difficult choices. Freeman brings heart to the role, as well as comedic perfection — there are moments of fussiness and frustration no actor could perform better. (He also has a range of nose and hand ticks that will never fail to make me smile.) Whether it’s a moment of pure curiosity (like when he listens to Balin’s Azog story), moments of peace in Rivendell, or his beautiful speech at the end of the first film (“…but I will help you take it back if I can”), Freeman does not play one false note. Of course, there's also his growing affection for the ring he finds, and the scene in Mirkwood where he brutally murders a spider-esque creature is nothing short of horrifying. Going there and back again, he honors Ian Holm’s performance as the elder Bilbo, yet makes it truly his own at the same time.
Freeman especially shines when paired with Ian McKellen, who returned to Middle-Earth once again for Gandalf the Grey. What more can be said of the great Sir Ian that hasn’t already been said? The man is Gandalf, the end. He has the warmth, the fury, the intelligence, and the grumpiness down to a science. After his brilliance in the first trilogy, no other actor would have been accepted here. Thankfully, McKellen graced us with more Grey Gandalf than we ever had in the first trilogy, and it is a gift. The line between actor and wizard is very, very slim here.
The scenes between Gandalf and Bilbo are incredibly special, if for no other reason than we get to see two masters madly play off of each other. Gandalf gives Freeman’s Bilbo his little “nudge out of the door” and continues to be a mentor and friend for the entirety of the trilogy. These two don’t even need dialogue in some scenes — one of their best moments is in the third film, and just features the two sitting next to each other silently while Gandalf cleans his pipe. There are no words, yet we know exactly what is going on.
Gandalf is also mesmerizing when he’s not with Bilbo, especially in an early scene with Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel. He effortlessly sets up the theme of this entire trilogy, as well as a lot of Tolkien’s views on humanity.
Freeman also gets to play a famous book scene with Andy Serkis, who performs his swan song as Gollum. It plays like a chamber piece, and once again, it’s two masters pinging back and forth between each other. The “Riddles in the Dark” sequence might give us our most nuanced look at Serkis’ Gollum that we’ve gotten, and that’s not an easy height to scale.
For all of the technical wizardry on display in the creation of Gollum (and there is a ton of it), the reason Gollum is so effective in these films comes down to one very important thing: Andy Serkis is a brilliant actor. He’s always playing around 20 different factors and ticks at once as the mentally-ill, ring-poisoned Gollum/Smeagol, and it doesn’t matter if the result is rendered in CGI or not.
Serkis isn’t the only one in this trilogy who performs under a digital mask. Special mention must also be given to Benedict Cumberbatch. His Smaug is one of the greatest dragons ever to grace a screen, which is exactly as it should be. His back and forth with Bilbo in the second film is astonishing, and Cumberbatch gives Smaug a nasty, conceited air that is so very appropriate for a dragon that sleeps on a pile of stolen gold. The fact that it’s Holmes and Watson from Sherlock taking part in the scene makes it even more fun.
Let’s see, who am I missing? Oh yes, there's the little matter of 13 (count 'em, 13) dwarves. The book does little to distinguish this band aside from Thorin and Balin, but Jackson and his team managed to create 13 distinct dwarf characters that are all instantly recognizable with complete personalities. That’s no easy feat, and sure, big ol’ Bombur may only get one spoken line (in the extended Five Armies) but his big action moment during the barrel sequence in the second film is a showstopper.
The dwarves that really stick out from the pack are the ones who get to know Bilbo the most, and that is a company of three. James Nesbitt is hilarious as Bofur, but he also has two of the more heartbreaking moments in the trilogy. He wishes Bilbo farewell in both of these scenes, and Nesbitt proves that he can go from silly to earnest at the drop of a blunted knife.
Ken Stott’s Balin also deserves special mention, as he carries a lot of the expositional load and does so with the aplomb of a master storyteller. He’s another one of Bilbo’s main emotional supports, and certainly the eldest and wisest of the dwarven company, Gandalf excluded. His twinkle-eyed wisdom is always valuable to the leader of the company as well — a leader who has the singular tragic arc of the second trio of films.
I speak of Thorin Oakenshield, played by the imposing and wondrous Richard Armitage. Though Bilbo is the title character and our way into the story, this trilogy is really about Thorin and his quest to take back his home. Armitage plays almost every note there is to play as Thorin — he has a quiet (yet unquestioned) dignity as a king in exile and a maniacal Gollum-esque craziness when he’s overcome with the dragon sickness. When he ultimately makes the right choice in the final film and becomes the leader he was meant to be, we’re ready to follow him anywhere. He goes from self-serving to sacrificial in three films, and the arc is perfectly played out by Armitage.
Sadly, his arc ends in his death. Such is the tragic nature of Thorin. Just as he realizes what the true duty of a king is, he perishes. Much of what he’s learned is because of Bilbo, and Armitage’s best scenes take place when he is paired with Freeman. Their friendship is one of the story's greatest joys, and it is a connection Bilbo never forgets. The way Armitage plays Thorin’s growing respect for the Hobbit is incredible and heartwarming. They have their differences, for sure — but they end on an understanding. Bilbo actually gets Thorin to smile, for Illuvatar's sake! A smile from Armitage's Thorin is worth more than all the gold in Erebor.
To be honest, there really isn’t a performance in this trilogy that I don’t like. Graham McTavish shines as Dwalin every time he’s on screen (especially when Thorin breaks his heart in the third film), Sylvester McCoy is absolutely (and appropriately) absurd as Radagast, Luke Evans makes us really care about Bard (a character we meet for roughly three seconds in the book), and all of the returning actors from the previous trilogy are as good as ever. The films also feature Orlando Bloom’s Legolas getting his elvish butt kicked and Armitage’s Thorin charging at a dragon with a wheelbarrow. Why would you not want these things in your life?
The Hobbit trilogy is a mad display of talent and creativity. You’d be hard pressed to find better (or more fun) fantasy anywhere, apart from the classic trilogy that came before it. Thanks to the work of Peter Jackson, his crew, and a small army of talented actors, we realize that it truly is small acts of kindness and love that keep the darkness at bay. There's no other way to say it — these movies are, if you'll indulge me, precious.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.