Fans of the movie adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings saga are likely aware that the new Hobbit movie trilogy, the first of which, An Unexpected Journey opens in theaters on Friday, was intended to be completed with Guillermo del Toro at the helm as director. Any fan of del Toro knows that while his love for creating fantasy movies has produced passionate and vibrant images onscreen, his take on the genre is very different from subsequent director and mega-producer Peter Jackson. This kind of behind-the-scenes scenario looked like it could resemble a bitter family drama as much as anything magical.
One major difference between the two filmmakers is that del Toro has a mixed attitude about the use of CGI effects in movies. While directing The Hobbit he told fan site, theonering.net, “We really want to take the state-of-the-art animatronics and take a leap ten years into the future with the technology.” Wait, did he say the ‘A’ word? Lord of the Rings got no animatronics! Isn’t that for babies?
Actually, I’m not going to front—this is why I’m looking forward to seeing it! As the story goes, del Toro left The Hobbit project in 2010 and was quoted in the Los Angeles Times admitting, “these are very complicated movies, economically and politically.” His influence may still remain prominent in the first Hobbit movie. He wrote much of the screenplay and had a huge hand in the designs of its worlds, creatures, and characters.
Most of my favorite fantasy movies made supreme use of animatronics, as well as costumed actors and hand-crafted studio sets. I really enjoyed the Lord of the Rings movies for their complex retelling of the stories and for the sweeping natural landscape shots, mostly in beautiful Kiwi country (New Zealand), but the dependence on CGI sometimes felt like an onslaught. Everything that wasn’t human, Elvish, Dwarvish or Hobbit was pixelated and sometimes just a little unnatural in terms of look and feel. I’m with del Toro when he says, “[CGI] is a tool, I don’t think it should be overused.”
I can be fair to CGI, though. Its evolution has exceeded even our very own imaginations. We also have the technology to thank for the utter revival of the fantasy movie genre. Before the heavily-computerized Fellowship of the Ring showed up in 2001, there was over a decade where almost no fantasy movie gained wide popularity. This was after the 1980s, when sorcery and quests experienced a golden age on-screen. The string of movies from this time are now classics: Excalibur (1981), The Dark Crystal (1982), two Conan movies (1982 and 1984), The Never Ending Story (1984), Legend (1985), Labyrinth (1986), The Princess Bride (1987), Willow (1988), and Hook (1991). Before that and afterward until 2001, I’m confident in saying nothing that wasn’t Disney reached similar popularity.
Visual representation during the ‘80s period of fantasy movies was an art. The majestic, giant dog-like animatronic dragon in The Never Ending Story, Falcor, flew through green-screened clouds and in front of golden sunsets with grace, and this lighthearted beast was even seen swooping down marvelously through city alleys between skyscrapers to chase annoying bullies into garbage dumpsters. In Legend, Tim Curry starred opposite of Tom Cruise as Darkness and frightened my little ass half to death with his red body, red face and ram-like demon horns. Jim Henson of Muppets fame never made anything look cheesy that he didn’t want to, and the same goes for his fantasy adventure, The Dark Crystal, where every scene is a painstaking stage set and all the characters are puppets! It’s wondrous, but it’s also funny, not because it looks ridiculous, but because Muppets are probably the most hilarious thing out there.
Natural special effects have a really good track record of their own. Guillermo del Toro knows it too. His stunning Pan’s Labyrinth included very little use of CGI. Either way though, it’s not an all or nothing proposition. Special effects of any kind often become more special when they’re used in moderation and when the story arc, acting, cinematography, and all other elements of the movie have created a more meaningful context for a breathtaking computerized fortress in Rivendell or a wave of vicious orcs rushing into battle.
It will be interesting to see what the balance is in the Hobbit movies and where the Jackson/del Toro collaboration results in brilliance, or in blunders (hopefully nowhere). I for one look forward to the possibilities of Beorn growing real bear fur and trolls sitting around a cooking fire casting giant, actual shadows behind them. But, I might just rage if they can’t get true smoke to blow out of Smaug’s nose. Washington just passed Initiative 502—we’re ready for this.