The Hobbit movies are not bad. They just look bad.

For me, the verdict’s still out on whether Peter Jackson’s “The Hob­bit” tril­ogy was a suc­cess. It cer­tainly struck a chord with audi­ences who, as if drawn to the One Ring’s irre­sistible allure, couldn’t resist return­ing to Mid­dle Earth for yet another adven­ture drenched in nos­tal­gia, and I for one stand in full admit­tance of my gulli­bil­ity— when it comes to hob­bits and elves, for­get Gol­lum, I’ll fol­low Peter Jack­son to Mor­dor and back again. But as I rem­i­nisce on the films, the last of which, “The Bat­tle of the Five Armies”, was released in Decem­ber 2014, I have to admit: there’s some­thing that really bug­gers me.

It’s not the acting—Martin Free­man per­fectly captured—or rather, cre­ated— the man­ner­isms and char­ac­ter of Bilbo Bag­gins, and Richard Armitage, though he doesn’t look much like a dwarf, is noble and haunted as Thorin, the leader of the dwarf com­pany who recruits Bilbo to go reclaim their king­dom  from the dragon Smaug. I’m prob­a­bly one of the only peo­ple who appre­icated the addi­tion of Evan­ge­line Lilly’s char­ac­ter. And it’s not the story—Jackson could have a dozen dwarves traipse around New Zealand for four hours and I’d still watch it. Say, that sounds like a movie called The Hob­bit.…

No, what almost ruins the movies for me is quite sim­ple:  I don’t believe it. Not because the act­ing was lousy or the story par­tic­u­larly con­vo­luted, but because it doesn’t look any­thing like  The Lord of the Rings.   In those movies, there was more than a mere pre­tense of real­ity in the fan­tasy world of Mid­dle Earth—the land­scape is gritty and tough when needed, with­out any embell­ish­ment. In The Hob­bit movies, how­ever every pixel of the frame seems to gleam unnat­u­rally, tinged with the lumi­nous residue of CGI; some characters—like Azog the Defiler, the evil Orc—seem to have been born out of this artificiality.

Does this have any­thing to do with Peter Jackson’s much maligned exper­i­men­ta­tion with 48 frames per sec­ond (in 3D, no less)? I admit to being totally igno­rant to that con­tro­ver­sial aspect of The Hob­bit. But I do know that there’s a prob­lem when the lit­tle grassy hills of the Shire, exces­sively green and lush,  seems to come straight out of con­cept art for Oz the Great and Pow­er­ful, or when every­one glows sil­ver dur­ing moon­lit night scenes. There’s an even big­ger prob­lem when you can’t tell if there is actu­ally an actor under the scarred alabaster hide of Azog—and if there is, the finer qual­i­ties of his per­for­mance seem to have dis­ap­peared in post-production. What hap­pened to the won­der­fully tan­gi­ble qual­i­ties of, say, the Uruk Hai, the hell-spawned dread­locked louts over whose vicious fea­tures the cam­era could con­fi­dently linger as they bared their yel­low teeth and grunted out beau­ties like “We’ve have noth­ing but mag­goty bread for three stinkin’ days!”

To under­score my point, I’ve taken two screen­shots from each of the DVD ver­sions of two films: An Unex­pected Jour­ney and The Fel­low­ship of the Ring to com­pare the visual changes between the two. Does the more vivid col­oriza­tion serve to rep­re­sent a younger, more inno­cent Mid­dle Earth, not yet tainted by the evils of Mor­dor? Or did the Hob­bit movies just go through the same fil­ter process as every other Hol­ly­wood block­buster? I’ll go with the latter.

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The first photo is  from the begin­ning of “The Hob­bit”, Frodo’s clothes and even the mail­box are gauzy and smooth, like a paint­ing. The light is dif­fused, the fields yel­lower. Observe in the sec­ond pic­ture, how­ever, taken from the begin­ning of “The Lord of the Rings”—both scenes actu­ally occur only a few hours apart—how much sun­nier it is, the sharp­ness of the wagon and the hills and the blades of grass. It looks real. It feels real

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These two pho­tos both depict bat­tles that hap­pened a long time ago, in the “dark times,” so to speak., and I also picked them because they are totally fan­tas­ti­cal.  The first one  depicts the Bat­tle of Dagor­lad (as seen in the pro­logue to The Fel­low­ship of the Ring) and the color palette is murky and dark.  We can’t see much in the sweep­ing shots, which is prob­a­bly a good thing, because befit­ting the large scale of the bat­tle and our brief glimpse at it, a lot of CGI is used. It still looks pretty damn good. In con­trast, the sec­ond photo depicts the Bat­tle of Azan­ul­bizar, as remem­bered by Balin when Thorin’s hate for Orcs neces­si­tates explain­ing. Look at the color. It can’t be…it looks like Peter Jack­son fell prey to an cer­tain insid­i­ous color scheme (teal and orange) much favored by Hol­ly­wood but that pre­vi­ously was found in Michael Bay movies, not Mid­dle Earth.

Will movies ever look like The Lord of the Rings again? It was sad­den­ing to see dig­i­tal col­oriz­ing, among other things, take hold in The Hob­bit, because the beauty of Peter Jackson’s inter­pre­ta­tion of Tolkien’s uni­verse was that it was real—the wilder­ness of New Zealand didn’t need much tin­ker­ing or manip­u­la­tion to become the world inhab­ited by Orcs and Elves. There are some scenes in the Hob­bit tril­ogy that seemed less painted on by the color crew but they were few and far in between. And it seems that indeed, less is more: t’s ironic that the The Bat­tle of Five Armies, which depended so much on CGI wiz­ardry to cre­ate the emo­tional drama of the film, wasn’t even rec­og­nized when the Oscar nom­i­na­tions were announced.