Draconically Speaking: It Is With Deep Regret…

Draconically-2

It is with deep regret, that I have to say bad things about something so popular, even when it is something I love so much. But if I’m going to be a reviewer of films, DVDs and so on, I have to do so honestly and be unbiased. While I have not yet gotten the Blu-Ray (or DVD, for that matter) of Peter Jackson’s THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (2012), I DID see it in the theatre and I’ve watched it a few times on demand . Why am I speaking on it now? Because in watching it again today, I found another occurrence to find fault with and I feel the need to vent.

As almost any regular reader of DV knows, Ye Olde Dragon is a dyed-in-the-wool Tolkienite; a certified Ringer and collector of same. There are only five or six LOTR action figures that I DON’T have. I have the limited edition Extended versions of Jackson’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS (2001 -2003) that came with extra DVDs and, of course, the Weta produced Argonath, Smeagol & Minas Tirith collectibles. I have the DVDs of the theatrical versions AND the ‘limited edition’ sets that feature BOTH versions of each film. I named two of my cats Sam & Frodo. Is that enough to get the idea?

But today, it was just one more annoyance that tilted it to where I had to collect all my thoughts, both good and bad. I only hope that some of it somehow gets better on the extended version.

Overall, I could once more feel the love and regard that Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Phillipa Bowens feel towards the works of Prof. Tolkien – as was so very evident in their screenplays of the LOTR films – in The Hobbit:AUJ script (aided and abetted by Guillermo Del Toro, who was forced to withdraw from the project after so many delays with clearances and other legalities). Jackson did his best, I’m sure, to try to re-assemble as many of the backstage forces that made LOTR so successful as he could, but there are some glaring differences. No doubt due to being involved with other projects, LOTR veterans Grant Major (Production Design), Ngila Dickson (Costume Design) and Randall William Cook (Weta Digital Animation Design/Supervision) are absent. They’ve had their torches rather nicely passed, though.

There is another keenly felt absence: Alex Funke’s miniatures. The incredibly detailed miniatures (re-christened ‘Big-Atures’ in the LOTR behind the scene featurettes) that so amazingly brought the locations of Middle Earth to life are nowhere to be found here. To me, it’s a palpable difference. The Hobbit‘s scenes don’t have the presence that LOTR‘s did. Jackson has admitted that he misses the physical presence the models take on, but says that it was a necessary step due to the higher frame rate and more so due to the fact that the film was shot in 3D as opposed to processing it into 3D. It made more ‘sense’ to make everything digital.

It may have made more sense, but it took away a lot of the feel for me. It’s all about the way the ‘real’ buildings catch the light and add true depth, even in simple composite shots. There’s a noticeable difference between the look of Rivendell in both films. It’s a shame. This, I think, is my first major peeve in the film – the locations look like a high-priced video game.

The CG Effects actually comprise the majority of my problems with The Hobbit:AUJ. In some instances, it’s almost fun to see certain creatures that you know will be special effects. It hearkens me back to yesteryear when Ray Harryhausen animated the Ymir and the Rhedosaur and various giant Cyclopses. I experienced that feeling with LOTR‘s Cave Troll and Balrog. I felt that with the talking Mountain Trolls of AUJ. It’s for these type monsters that I’m willing to have a suspension of disbelief. It’s if they’re not rendered in even a remotely convincing fashion, enough to distract me from said suspension, that I have a problem with the effects of a movie. Don’t get me wrong – there ARE some amazing things that Weta Digital did – somehow, they made Gollum even better than he was in LOTR:TTT & LOTR:ROTK. Gollum’s eyes are so alive, and his skin and movements are so realistic, it’s almost forgettable that he’s a purely computer generated character.

That’s not the case of the character who is my other major peeve in AUJ – Azog the Defiler, the pale Orc. It’s not that I even mind him being added in with a more prominent role in the story. I understand that certain structural changes need to be made, to accommodate a large audience, as opposed to a ‘niche’ fan-base. No, my problem is with how Azog was realized in the film. To me, he just does NOT have the same realism that Gollum has – nor even a tenth of Gollum’s presence. Azog LOOKS like a video game character. Whether viewing him in 3D or not, he just DOESN’T look real. I’m wondering if making him ‘pale’ is what did it. I do 3D art (nowhere near the level of even the interns at Weta Digital) myself, and I see untextured models all the time. To me, Azog looks untextured. His skin looks like plain white plastic. Bumps and scars yes, but he still looked like plastic.  The Goblin King, who clearly needed to be portrayed digitally due to his size/physique (or lack of one), was rendered more realistically than Azog. The Goblin King was a truly repulsive character, but in addition to a realistic skin, that over sized dewlap moved realistically and his eyes had something of a spark of life in them.

I wonder why they opted to go purely digital with Azog, instead of letting a big guy in prosthetics play him (instead of merely doing the mocap) and digitally adding the claw/hook arm? Actually, they WERE going to go with a physical presence for Azog, but they decided to use that design for Azog’s son, Bolg. They apparently also filmed him being used in fight scenes as Azog. According to an interview with Manu Bennett (The actor who mo-capped Azog), it was a near last minute decision to replace Bolg (played by Conan Stevens) digitally with the mo-capped Azog, just as they replaced Sauron with an armored troll for Aragorn to fight during the ultimate battle at the Black Gate in ROTK. It was because of this last minute change that when the first round of toy prototypes were put on display, the figure identified as Azog, would turn out to be Bolg. Personally, I think they should’ve gone with the original plan.

Bolg
Bolg (Conan Stevens) was originally Azog before it was decided to go with a digital character.

Worse still, I think having him ride a giant CG Warg made it even more obvious that he wasn’t a ‘live’ actor.

The Wargs are actually that ‘last straw’ that caused me to post this today. During a scene where it’s clearly raining hard, Azog’s giant white Warg looks bone dry. The fur on his head and back is actually fluffy and feathered, with the backlighting, as opposed to looking wet and matted down as it should be in the midst of a downpour. Today was the first time I noticed it. The Wargs also looked somewhat unrealistic as well. I know – there are no such creatures, but when you consider that in the ICE AGE movies – though it’s clearly a cartoon – Manny the Mammoth moves like a real elephant, and his fur hangs and moves realistically. This is NOT the case with the Wargs, though they were slightly improved over the ones realized in LOTR.

Story wise, I didn’t have too many problems. The only real fault I found is in the use of the Eagles. Now I know that LOTR fans may be a bit jaded by them after all they did in the trilogy, but for folks who didn’t read the books first – including The Hobbit – they should keep this in mind: In the book, when rescued from the burning trees and Orcs & Wargs, Gwahir – the Lord of the Eagles – had gotten a report of Gandalf being in danger and went to get him out. The Wizard had healed him many years before from a wound received by a hunter’s arrow, and he wanted to reciprocate. I’d have much preferred that – and having Gwahir talk – to having Gandalf send the moth to get him. It wasn’t even that way in the book of FOTR. Gwahir came to Orthanc, finding Gandalf while answering Radaghast’s request to keep a look out for anything unusual at the Tower. I can understand why this happened in FOTR – it would’ve meant introducing another character.

Overall, I DID like The HOBBIT. I was a little disappointed by parts, and angry at others, but I could also have been guilty of expecting it to be another LOTR, which of course, it could never be. I’ll certainly do my best to look at DESOLATION OF SMAUG purely for itself without any expectations. I look forward to it.

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