I still remember arriving in the theater in December 2012, settling into my seat and preparing myself for the epic journey I anticipated. I had purchased my ticket for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and had been waiting for months to see it.
Like many, I was sorely disappointed. And the two following Decembers brought nothing even remotely better in the movie's two sequels.
I walked out of the theater with almost a sense of shock, that the genius behind the Lord of the Rings series, barely 10 years prior, had cranked out such mediocrity. Peter Jackson's original trilogy, now ranked among some of the greatest films of all time, each scored in the mid-90s on Rotten Tomatoes. The Hobbit trilogy, by contrast, scored 60, 75, and 64, respectively, for its three movies. Not pure drivel, but certainly not anywhere near the caliber of their predecessors.
So what happened?
I think the difference can all be boiled down to one element: heart. And here's why.
Despite having a prologue that's not only rich in lore but also visually epic, The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) doesn't try to ram characters down the viewer's throat one after another. We open to the actual story with Bilbo writing a passage into his book, taking his time to explain the simple life of the Shire. Then we are introduced to Frodo, then Gandalf, eventually Sam and Aragorn, and it is only halfway through the first movie that we are introduced to the rest of the Fellowship.
At this point, the viewer has already been drawn into Frodo's story. As he meets new characters, so does the viewer, because they feel they are there with him. Contrast this with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012). The young Bilbo is hardly given any screen time before he is quite literally dumped with thirteen dwarves, few of whom are given any substantial dialogue or even character throughout the rest of the nine-hour trilogy.
While obviously, both trilogies had relatively large casts, the first did a better job of managing it. How? By splitting the main characters into different but intertwining journeys. For instance, at the end of the first film, Merry and Pippin are being hauled away by Uruk-hai, Sam and Frodo have left on a boat, Gimli, Legolas and Aragorn are chasing the former pair of Hobbits, and Gandalf and Boromir have both died, although both continue to impact the plot in their ways.
As a result, each character is given ample dialogue and screen time and we see how they react under pressure and in a small group setting, both of which are criteria for effective character development. The Hobbit trilogy struggled to make their characters significant or relatable to the audience in any meaningful way because they had a main cast of 15 characters who stayed together for the majority of the runtime. One of the dwarves, Bombur, never even had one line of dialogue written for him.
Lastly, The Lord of the Rings was meaningful because it told human stories. Did the characters grapple with mass armies of monsters and dragons and ghost soldiers and hooded wraiths and massive beasts? Absolutely.
But did the characters also deal with a son hopelessly trying to win the approval of his father, and of a niece trying to prove her worth and help her uncle, and of a man struggling with his own mortality and knowing his lover will outlast him by millennia, and of the pressure put on the relationship between two friends? Absolutely.
Frankly, The Hobbit movies tell nothing of this caliber or with anywhere near the level of nuance of their predecessors. Subplots felt forced, nuance was abandoned, characters' motivations were one-dimensional, and the characters as a whole felt incomplete.
In conclusion, you are very much allowed to like The Hobbit movies. They were still enjoyable in parts and fun to watch; but in my opinion, nothing will ever come close to achieving the emotional gravitas of The Lord of the Rings.