There have been plenty of big and controversial directorial changes in tentpole movies that drastically changed the final product. Edgar Wright almost made Ant-Man. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were halfway through Solo: A Star Wars Story before bowing out. Then there’s Guillermo del Toro’s The Hobbit. After two years in pre-production on the project, the Oscar-winning director of The Shape of Water walked away, leaving Peter Jackson to finish what became a trilogy of successful yet critically underwhelming blockbusters.
A decade after his departure from The Hobbit, Del Toro is finally releasing his first proper fantasy project: the new Netflix animated series, Wizards. The conclusion of the larger Tales of Arcadia universe, which includes Trollhunters and 3Below, Wizards takes us back in time to Arthurian times to tell a fantasy epic of the fight between good and evil. Wizards also feels suspiciously close to what we know del Toro wanted his Middle Earth tale to look and feel like.
[Ed. note: This story contains spoilers for Wizards.]
An Unexpected Party
The description that gets brought up the most when describing del Toro’s unique vision on Tolkien is “fairy tale.” For The Hobbit, the director said he wanted the film to be set in a “world that is slightly more golden at the beginning, a very innocent environment.” He viewed it as a children’s story that would turn darker as it progresses, with greed the loss of innocence as major themes for the two movies.
Wizards is unapologetically a children’s story, but it isn’t afraid to get dark. In the first episode, we travel back in time to a golden age in fairy tales and legends: the time of King Arthur and Camelot.
We quickly learn that things are not as shiny as we think. The typically heroic King Arthur is now a xenophobic authoritarian on a mission to imprison and destroy the magical creatures that roam the forests around Camelot. By framing the story from the perspective of those who are hurt by the status quo, del Toro turns the act of disobedience into something heroic. This reflects the story of The Hobbit itself, and how Bilbo’s single most heroic act in the entire story becomes his refusal to hand over the Arkenstone to Thorin Oakenshield — after recognizing that he and the other dwarves are wrong to hoard the treasure instead of sharing it.
Indeed, del Toro considered Bilbo’s moral journey to be the crux of the story, as he said during a Q&A where he explained how moved he was when re-reading the book and discovering through Bilbo’s eyes “the illusory nature of possession, the sins of hoarding and the banality of war — whether in the Western Front or at a Valley in Middle Earth.”
When it comes to Wizards, the moral crux of the story becomes Morgana going against her brother Arthur’s wishes and fighting for the trolls he wants to kill, while Arthur’s greed and wanting to eradicate anything that’s different from him becoming his evil deed, like Thorin when he decides to keep the treasure for himself.
Flies and Spiders
In wanting to make The Hobbit feel more like a fairy tale and distance it from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, del Toro expressed a keen interest in wanting some of the monsters “to be majestic.” For del Toro, who shares a deep love of monsters and credits them for saving his life, it is only natural that he would want to make the many creatures of Middle Earth more than scary creepers lurking in the dark. He even wanted to severely change the design of the Wargs in The Hobbit, the monstrous beasts orcs ride into battle. “I wanted the Wargs to have a certain beauty so that you don’t have a massively clear definition: what is beautiful is good and what is ugly is not,” del Toro said.
When it comes to Wizards, del Toro goes to great lengths to avoid clear archetypes of good and evil, especially when it comes to trolls and other magical creatures. Just like in Pan’s Labyrinth, the “real world” of Wizards is more simplistic and archetypical. Arthur and his knights look like Mr. Incredible, with huge torsos and tiny legs. Meanwhile, the trolls, even if very cartoonish, are more detailed, imperfect, with more realistic bodies. The fairy tale and the magical creatures, Wizards seems to argue, are where reality lies.
Arthur may look like a superhero, but he is clearly a villain to the defenseless gnomes and fairies that he is imprisoning for existing. Likewise, Morgana is anything but an ugly and evil witch, initially using her power to protect those who cannot protect themselves. Even the more primal and archetypal villains of the Arcane Order aren’t without sympathy. Del Toro turns this ancient evil into a force that is looking not to outright destroy Earth, but to bring magic back into a world that has waged war against that which it does not understand. And if you want more specific similarities in design, a New Yorker piece from 2011 describes del Toro’s journal containing designs for The Hobbit which included “an armor-plated troll that curls into a ball of metal plates” which brings to mind Aarghaumont (or AAARRRGGHH!!!) and how he curls into an armored ball when fighting.
Fire and Water
Of all the magical creatures in Middle-Earth, Guillermo del Toro seemed to have paid extra attention to the biggest one of all: Smaug the dragon. In multiple interviews, del Toro teased the arduous process of designing the great usurper of the Lonely Mountain, and how he wanted to separate Smaug from every other dragon ever made from very early on in production. In a profile on the New Yorker, writer Daniel Zalewski notes that one of del Toro’s designs for Smaug “looked like an image of a double-bitted medieval hatchet” which the filmmaker described as “like a flying axe.” The way del Toro imagined it, Smaug would be unusually thin and quite long, more like a snake or “like a water bird” with small legs like T-Rex arms which would allow the creature to change aspects in closeups.
Though not exactly like what is described above, the dragons of Wizards show that del Toro managed to find a way to make dragons look unique for the show. Early on we meet Douxie’s familiar and companion, a cat named Archie. Though very much a house cat in look and personality, Archie is a shapeshifter that can transform into a dragon at will — he gets wings and spikes going down its back, while remaining a furry cat otherwise. Towards the end of the show, we meet Archie’s father, Charlemagne the Devourer.
This dragon, much like Archie, is covered in fur, resembling a cat more than a lizard, with what look like horns going down the outside of its jaw, unusually long slithery, and with a bifurcated tail like a mermaid, while still maintaining scaly arms. Though not necessarily the most inventive dragon ever made, it does resemble the Rankin/Bass version of Smaug from 1977 The Hobbit which is basically a dragon with the face of a cat.
There and back again
From the earliest talks of making a live-action The Hobbit, the plan was to divide the film into two parts, with part two serving to connect the vastly different portrayal of Middle Earth from The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. In 2006, Peter Jackson showed excitement about the possibility of the second Hobbit movie to cover “Gollum’s sneaking into Mordor and Aragorn protecting The Shire.” Meanwhile, del Toro talked extensively about using the sequel to see events from the first movie “but from a different point of view,” as well as showing scenes from the story that we didn’t see in the first film, and show the world getting darker as we get closer to The Fellowship of the Ring.
Of course, it is easy to assume del Toro is referring to the appendices that show Gandalf and the White Council fighting the Necromancer (as seen in the final films) rather than literally repeating the same events from a different perspective. That being said, the result is not entirely different from what Wizards does by traveling back in time. The first half of the season is devoted to showing us the creation of the first Trollhunter and the epic battle against Gunmar and Morgana that kickstarted the whole story of Tales of Arcadia in the first place. We see how AAARRRGGHH!!! turned good and left Gunmar, how Morgana became evil and fought Merlin, and none of it happens in the way we were told. Morgana turned evil, sure, but because she got tired of seeing Arthur wage war on innocent creatures. Even Gunmar was more than just an evil monster, becoming a revolutionary leader for his people in the face of annihilation by a foreign invader.
The second part of the series leaves the medieval time period behind to return to the present, connecting Wizards to both Trollhunters and 3Below in both look and tone. Just as Guillermo del Toro wanted to bring the entire cast of Lord of the Rings back for the second part of The Hobbit, the second half of Wizards bring back characters from all three shows for one last fight, which sees the world go from a fantasy setting to a grittier, more grounded mix of sci-fi and magical realism.
We will probably never see what Guillermo del Toro’s take on The Hobbit would have looked like, but Wizards gives you the next best thing — a dark fairy tale with epic battles, magical creatures that are both menacing yet beautiful and sympathetic, all told through del Toro’s unique visual and storytelling style.