On Hobbits and a Matter of Design, Part 1

24Feb14

hobbit_shadows

It’s no secret that I’m disappointed with Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth. So far I’ve been let down by The Hobbit trilogy. The first film, An Unexpected Journey, left so little impression on me that I honestly forgot that it existed until I saw a display case advertising it at a local Wal-Mart. The sequel, The Desolation of Smaug, was a more entertaining viewing experience in the moment, but the more I reflected upon it, the more the movie withered beneath my pitiless glare.

I don’t want to kvetch about the story elements that displeased me. Other critics have already examined the narrative with a fine-toothed comb, cataloging all of the flaws and inconsistencies, all of the shortcuts and embellishments and studio-logic that gave the films their current shape. Instead, I’d rather discuss where these movies stumble in terms of creating a convincing visual aesthetic, because I believe one of the greatest weaknesses of these films stems from a matter of design.

First, let’s take a look at what I consider the definitive Hobbit film, the 1977 television animation by Rankin / Bass. Specifically, let’s look at some of the most horrifying monsters to ever leave a scar on my childish psyche.

goblin01

The Goblins in animated form.

Seriously, just look at those freaking things. They’re the stuff of nightmares. These goblins are gruesome chimera, full of familiar elements combined in ways that are horrible and strange. They have vertically slit pupils like those of a cat, but their ears are shaped like the docked ears of a large dog. Their skin is leprous and warty and gray yet also vaguely reptilian. They have horns like a hoofed herbivore, but also tusks and fangs. Are these details merely ornamental? Are they used for strange mating rituals? Self-defense? The goblins’ jaws are huge, and if you look closely enough you can see that their throats are bifurcated. What possible purpose could this serve? Do the goblins have multiple, separate digestive tracks? How utterly foreign, how grotesque and bizarre!

The goblins’ clothing stands in contrast to their slovenly, misshapen appearance. Their cloaks and tunics are clean and well-maintained. Their clothes have simple, elegant designs and minimal ornamentation. This suggests a level of industry, a degree of sophistication, perhaps even a touch of vanity.¹ These goblins aren’t just naked apes. They possess a culture and a cruel intelligence, and this makes them all the more terrifying. Which is more frightening? A brutish beast (with no concern for personal hygiene) that merely wants to eat you? Or a monster with a bit of a fussy, fastidious nature, one that is likely to skin you alive but also liable to make a handsome handbag out of the resultant pelt?

And when the goblins come for you in this film, they come singing. Their basso profundo voices reverberate through the dark and lonesome caverns as the goblins drag you to your doom.

Compare these strange, contradictory creatures to the goblins depicted in An Unexpected Journey:

goblins04

The Goblins, live-action style.

Well, what is there to say about these gobins? They’re basically just tiny, bald, deformed humans. Their ears are pointy, their teeth are misshapen, and their skin is sickly and pale. Their clothing and armor are merely leather straps and rags. Their King is droll and well-spoken, but he still dresses in only a crown and a tattered loincloth. There’s nothing about these goblins that suggests an interesting culture; they don’t even have intriguing tattoos or ritual scarification. In short, these goblins are simply stereotypical savages. It’s a lazy design and – even worse – it’s utterly unmemorable.

For films with budgets as massive as those of The Hobbit trilogy, for films that employ hundreds of artists working innumerable hours to realize a cinematic vision, there’s no excuse for this kind of sloppy design. Compared to the animation techniques of the late 1970s, Jackson and company had access to unprecedented film technology in the creation of the Hobbit films. Makeup, practical effects, computer graphics imagery – all of these techniques were available for the creation of a new and interesting species of goblins. But the most advanced tools and techniques mean very little if they are dedicated to the realization of a wimpy, lifeless, unmotivated design.

This concludes Part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2 and Part 3, where we’ll compare and contrast dwarves and dragons, respectively.

Footnotes:

1.) I realize that the simplicity of the goblins’ garb is most easily explained as an animation factor. It would have been more difficult and more expensive to animate clothing that was dirty or tattered. I nevertheless maintain that this design decision ultimately contributes to creating a more interesting and memorable species of goblin.

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One Response to “On Hobbits and a Matter of Design, Part 1”

  1. One of my favorite movies from my childhood. I love the level of analysis you bring to the individual details. Completely agree that the animated movie set the bar for The Hobbit. I believe this is more appropriate, as well as what Tolkien perhaps would have wanted. The Hobbit should be an access point to the LOTR trilogy; a gateway drug to Middle Earth, if you will. The cartoon captures the magic and song without betraying the source material.


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