Happy 2015 everyone. Wow, do we have a lot of films to look forward to in this New Year and can you believe it is almost February? Of course the docket is full of sequels, including the two that are the top of my list of most anticipated movies of 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Yet this post is not about those movies. This post is about the end of an era. The era of Peter Jackson’s foray into Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
Be forewarned, there will be minor spoilers for the Hobbit films (2012-2014) in this post which fall into our spoiler guideline of 5 years past. So consider yourselves…
Okay, with that out of the way, we can talk about Jackson’s take on the world of Middle Earth. Having read The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit (which are all available here at the Chesapeake Public Library) when I was in middle school, I personally never thought that they were filmable. While some would certainly disagree with me, I found the old rotoscoped and animated films from 70’s to be terrifying. Sure, they told the story and were a huge inspiration for Peter Jackson, but there really is something about bringing Tolkien to life in a physical realm (more on that later).
So when I heard that New Zealander, Peter Jackson, was slated to helm a live action version of all three Lord of the Rings books, I was super psyched. Jackson, who had directed Dead Alive (1992), which as previously mentioned in the Screen Scene blog from October, is one of my favorite horror/comedy films ever. He also directed The Frighteners (1996) with Michael J. Fox and one of Kate Winslet’s first roles in Heavenly Creatures (1994), which details the real life murder committed by author Anne Perry. Yep, mystery writer Anne Perry ACTUALLY murdered someone in real life! This all led me to believe that Tolkien’s work was in good hands. A director that could not only build dramatic tension and heartfelt emotion, but one that could also create the fantastical realm of Middle Earth was on the case.
After filming all three Lord of the Rings films as one epic shoot, Fellowship of the Ring was released in December 2001. Here was the real test. Could Middle Earth be believable? Could a Fantasy film bring in a wide audience? The answer to both of those questions was a resounding, YES!
My expectations were blown out of the water. From the opening scenes in the Shire to the epic conclusion two years later with the Academy Award winning Return of the King (the first and only fantasy film to ever win best picture), Middle Earth drew millions of filmgoers into the works of J. R. R. Tolkien. Much of this can be attributed to the commitment of the cast/crew and their Director.
Real sets were used, costumes were made, the New Zealand wilds constituted the locations, prosthetics were applied to actors to create believable creature effects and cutting edge digital effects (CGI) and motion capture were implemented devastatingly well. All of this complimented the story but never veered towards overshadowing it. While some Tolkien purists may have issues with additions or character changes that Jackson made in the LotR trilogy, they were all done in effort to craft the best experience possible.
Seeing a Lord of the Rings movie became a holiday tradition during those three years of release. I recall being super sick and still going to see the midnight release of The Two Towers at Regal Macarthur. One poor guy was dressed as Gollum, which entailed him only having a small loin cloth in 30 degree weather. Good times. Yet as the Annie Lennox lead Into the West played over the credits, I began looking forward to The Hobbit. As awesome as Lord of the Rings is, I really wanted to see Smaug! The long wait began.
Flash forward through ten years of rights disputes, and director changes and we finally have not one, not two but THREE Hobbit films. I can understand the need to split the story into two parts, in fact each of the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings films are superior to the theatrical release, but three parts seemed like overkill (see Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I (2014) and Part II (2015) for reference). Yet I still had faith in Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth.
While I would have been happy with a Guillermo Del Toro helmed Hobbit movie, I was secretly (well not that secretly) happy that he dropped the project and that Jackson would return. Jackson set out to use the latest cutting edge technology in filmmaking, controversial High Frame Rate (HFR) cameras to revisit Hobbiton and journey to the Lonely Mountain. Shooting at double the standard frame rate for feature films (normal films run at 24 frames per second, HFR runs at 48 frames per second), Jackson sought a level of visual clarity that had yet to be achieved. These new films sounded groundbreaking. Instead, they arrived slightly broken.
Don’t get me wrong, I really liked each of the three Hobbit films, but I would also be lying to myself and you if I said they were on the same level as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The reason for this is not because the book was split into three films, in fact The Battle of Five Armies should have been longer to add in more finality. The reason is not due to the characters and storylines created to appeal to wider audiences (I am talking about you Tauriel). I actually think much of this works for what it is. Nor was the reason due to the concept that HFR technology was a bit jarring to moviegoers, who had become accustomed to seeing film in 24 frames per second. Everyone still had the choice to see the movies at theaters that were playing them in that standard rate. No, the reason is that Middle Earth had been created in a computer more often this time around.
Here is where we return to the classic debate of practical effects versus computer effects. One simply has to look at many of the sets (the Goblin Tunnels), the locations (Mirkwood Forest) and the creature effects (the Orcs, Wargs and Trolls) to see that CGI is rarely as believable as practical effects. The dwarves in The Hobbit look good because they are actual actors wearing fake noses and beards. The dwarf, Dain (Billy Connolly) in The Battle of the Five Armies looks fake because he is not an actor in makeup, rather a CGI creation. Not every computer effect can look as good as Gollum or Smaug (which are breathtaking).
As a viewer, we are often looking (both consciously and subconsciously) to have our belief suspended. When we see practical effects, unless they are terrible, we buy into them being real. When we see CGI, unless it is amazing, we know it is not real. Viewer buy in is lost. This is the reason I am so excited for The Force Awakens; JJ Abrams is relying on practical effects over digital effects. Of course CGI has its place, but over reliance on it can be damning.
Again I want to convey that I did really like all three of The Hobbit films, in fact I loved them. My only wish was for more practical effects and an added focus on the personality of the 12 dwarves. In my mind Thorin (Richard Armitage) and Bilbo (Martin Freeman) rival many of the great performances in the LotR trilogy. Plus, the riddles in the dark portion of An Unexpected Journey and Bilbo’s encounter with Smaug, in The Desolation of Smaug are standout sequences. Both contain a great deal of computer effects.
All of this bring us to the end. I am thankful to have been able to travel to Middle Earth one last time with Peter Jackson and crew. From The Fellowship of the Ring to The Battle of the Five Armies, we have an epic telling of one of the most important works of Fantasy literature ever written. Are they perfect? No, but they are better than I ever thought they could be. So with that being said I leave you with this video.
Enjoy Leonard Nimoy and his delightful ode to Bilbo Baggins. He really is the bravest little Hobbit of them all.