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.
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.
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.