Hi there, Prankster here. Just got back from the big LOTR exhibit at Casa Loma in TO and thought I’d share my thoughts. I don't have a camera, so there aren't any pictures, but pictures wouldn't really convey the experience anyway. It's not just about the visuals, it's about the environment.
Casa Loma is a “medieval style” castle (actually built in 1911) that is one of Toronto’s landmarks. It’s not really real, but it definitely is old and creates the illusion of a castle. There are unadorned brick walls, high spires, narrow passageways and fanciful architecture. It’s very large, too; the rooms that are actually displaying LOTR props actually make up a fairly small percentage of the building. The setting is certainly appropriate. Casa Loma is not designed to be slick and modern, and the exhibit is actually not entirely user-friendly. Some of the displays are tucked away in remote attic rooms or located along cramped corridors with weak lighting. What’s more, the whole building is crammed full of antiques and furniture that more or less fits the theme, so at some points you have a hard time distinguishing between the LOTR props and the “everyday” exhibits.
And that’s what was so cool about this. Almost NOTHING that I saw there looked like a movie prop. There’s so much that could have been made out of cardboard or left undetailed without harming the movie a bit, but EVERY SINGLE ITEM is carved, forged or modelled with absolutely scary attention to detail. It all looks practical, and it all looks ancient. I couldn’t shake the feeling that they’d pillaged archaeological sites instead of building props. What I saw felt mostly like a real “museum of Middle-Earth”. I think this is very cool, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they shipped it around to other countries in whatever happens to be the local equivalent of a medieval castle. Really, New Line and Wingnut are making this into more than just a series of movies; they’re approaching the kind of immersive entertainment that only Walt Disney has achieved.
A quick overview. I started in the “smoking room”, appropriately enough the home of the Bag End relics. Right away what I saw, except for the small scale, was very much like the kind of Victorian/Edwardian furniture that populates the real castle the rest of the year. It looks very real, only a few items are obviously “alien” like the pipes (Hobbits seem to have a thing for crazy pipes.) Right away, here’s the One Ring, looking very innocuous…
Further in, rather incongruously, there are some Mordor relics, including Sauron’s main banner. Here’s where I saw the first really cool sign that the movies are going to be completely crammed full of details and easter eggs for the fans. Hanging from the banner (not actually a banner…one of those giant poles armies hold up, you know the kind) are nine battered, rusty crowns. As in, the nine crowns of the Ringwraiths. Sauron enslaved nine mighty Men with his rings, giving them power in exchange for their souls, and eventually making him his ghostly slaves. So here are his trophies to commemorate that loathsome triumph. It’s not described or anything, I just drew that conclusion from the presence of the nine crowns, but man. It’s the kind of thing that immediately makes you dislike Sauron. There are so many clever touches like that, I’m sure I didn’t catch half of them.
Upstairs there’s a rather dull corridor lined with portraits of the cast in costume, including one of an Orc who showed up several times…I guess it’s “Lurtz”. Except I thought Lurtz was bluish-black skinned, this one is pasty white, had a tattoo on his forehead and resembled a Cenobyte. Anyway, he’s some kind of important Orc.
Then up a creaky flight of stairs into the dingy attic. I was very aware at this point that I was in an old castle; at one point I had to duck under the beams. The poster we’ve seen HERE is starting to show up everywhere, and the runic writing of the ring is projected in red on the floor—very cool. Now I see props from the Prancing Pony and Bree, and—more impressively—some dwarven artefacts from Moria. Everything the dwarves made is blocky, angular, squarish, even the pottery. There are some stills blown up to massive size of the statues and carvings in Moria, which definitely looks like a forgotten cavern—not some “Star Trek” set but a real rubble-strewn uneven terrain. There are fossilized Orcs and dwarven helmets and axes, all of it looking hundreds of years old. I want to stress that again—at times I forgot I wasn’t in a real museum, looking at real Dwarven artefacts. Well, there aren’t any real dwarven artefacts. So I was seeing the closest we’ll ever get, I guess.
Now the fun part. Down through a LOOOONG tunnel to the stables, where the bulk of the props reside. All along this tunnel are concept sketches by Lee and Howe, and stills from the film in giant poster size. Furthermore, a lot of it is real architectural blueprints for the sets they built. Some very nice pictures of the front of Hobbit holes, the signpost of the Green Dragon and suchlike. The fact that it’s mostly black and white and apparently in pencil (originally) instead of full-blown concept art disappoints me initially, but in fact it preserves the mystique. Some of the designs are incredible, I can’t wait to see them in living colour. In particular we get a glimpse of Rivendell, a whole sprawling elf community & castle, which looks great. Then there’s a drawing of a seated couple amongst some trees with odd outcroppings…it almost looks like they’re indoors. For a second I thought it was Aragorn and Arwen, but then it hit me: it’s Celeborn and Galadriel in their throne room. This is confirmed by the next few bits of art: Lothlorien. Wow. One drawing is the shot we saw in the very first (internet) trailer, but believe me that this is the LEAST impressive picture. Lothlorien is an elf community in the trees, but it sure as heck isn’t an Ewok village. It looks like a Bavarian castle made out of icycles, hung around a basic structure like Christmas tree ornaments. I can’t give the sense of it, exactly, but it really evoked an effective sense of “elvishness”.
There’s also a pic of Gandalf trapped on top of Orthanc, with a big moth in the foreground; another of him riding Gwaihir (looks like he’s a bald eagle) and a sketch of a dungeon in, surprisingly, Barad-Dur with two figures who I can’t make out (they looked like dwarves…I have no idea what this pic is about.)
Further on there are sounds of horror and growling coming from speakers, and I arrive in an Orcish dungeon. Here we have orcish artefacts and even an actual orc costume, posed like a Halloween standup over a forge. Lots of cruel barbed instruments, shoddily made weapons and patchwork leather armour, plus some effectively intimidating helmets.
The next room seems like nothing more than a blank wall…then suddenly the lights shift and the glowing runes of Moria Gate shine out, looking just as they do in the book. Neat effect, even up close it’s hard to see the glowing filigree until the lighting is right.
The pics continue up the wall. There’s a disembodied stone head which I thought was in the third book, but maybe it’s something else. The four-eagle statue at Amon Hen. More impressive shots of Rivendell. They continue in such a way that you have to sort of go up the stairs backwards to see them, so I don’t turn around until I’m at the top of the stairs, then…
There’s a BOAT in here! Not Galadriel’s swan boat, sadly (That would be TOO big) but the boat that took Aragorn, Frodo and Sam down the Anduin. It’s the biggest prop at Casa Loma, and as ever it looked real and effective. The cost must have been huge; these aren’t disposable, fake movie props, this boat had to actually float. Plus it’s elvish, which means it has to look elegant and graceful, and somehow, despite being an old rowboat, it does.
This whole room, the biggest one yet, is devoted to elvish artefacts…which of course makes it the meat of the tour. In most of the bastardized fantasy novels that plod drearily in LOTR’s footsteps, elves are like a cross between Ewoks and Robin Hood’s Merry Men. In Tolkien’s world, though, elves are the superadvanced engineers, architects and craftsmen who used to reign over a whole world of vast cities and magical mountains and forests. The elves in LOTR are just a fragment of their former glory, and they’re fading fast; the destruction of the rings will finish them off. This is reflected in the autumnal colours that provide a recurring motif. The Mirkwood elves, of whom Legolas is one, are indeed forest-dwellers, but they’re a lesser tribe. The really High elves, the Noldor, represented by Elrond and Arwen at Rivendell, and seen in flashback in their full power, have a delicate, beautiful and highly advanced technology. It looks like traditional medieval artefacts, mostly, but done in a really elegant Art Deco or Art Nouveau style. There are horns, glassware, forge tools, weapons (including bows and arrows, of course), all beautifully made, delicately engraved with runes and with organic, sweeping lines.
We also see tapestries and costumes (seems like Galadriel’s got a thing for white). And high on the walls are mounted murals, obviously done by Howe and Lee, which will presumably grace the walls of Rivendell. They depict scenes from the Silmarillion, which is kind of like the Bible to the Elves. I recognized Fingolfin (greatest king of the Noldor) fighting Morgoth (basically the Devil) one-on-one in his last, hopeless battle; Earendil, sailing West to beg the gods to deliver the world from evil; and of course, Celebrimbor forging the Rings of Power. I wonder if these pictures are going to play a part in explaining the elaborate history of the elves that plays an important part in the story.
Down a corridor are what used to be the horse pens, now (appropriately?) used for Saruman’s furniture and costumes. His writing-desk is covered with elvish manuscripts, some of which are translated into English (the story of Ar-Pharazon and the downfall of Numenor…is there a link there, I wonder?) and his typical “evil sorceror” props, including some nasty creature pickled in a jar. Included are two large orbs, one black and marbled, the other white and clear. I assume these represent the Palantir in its glowing and non-glowing states.
Finally there are some of the most distinctive props in the film. The Witch-King’s sword and helmet. The hobbit costumes. Boromir’s horn. Legolas’s bow. Gandalf’s sword, Glamdring, his staff, and his hat. Bilbo’s autobiography, “There and Back Again”, also known as the Red Book of Westmarch, or just plain old “The Hobbit.” My favourite prop, an elvish telescope (yes, it looked really cool, more like a sundial with sculpted glass than a modern telescope). And the hobbit sword Sting. One thing I missed, though, was Anduril, Aragorn’s sword.
I saved one thing til the end. At the end of the long tunnel were two concept paintings, side by side and obviously mirroring each other. One shows a single hobbity figure, presumably Frodo (or maybe Bilbo), staring out over the beautiful green countryside of the Shire. The second shows two caped figures, which were obviously Sam and Frodo, staring over a much different landscape—a windswept plain that leads up to the huge, desolate, black mountains of what can only be Mordor.
I believe that these are the opening and closing shots of The Fellowship of the Rings, and the level of resonance in those two shots gives me hope that the movie has been made with as much care as the props and sets I saw today. The props themselves, arranged and displayed with not all that much artistry, already tell a story and invite you effortlessly into their world.
I know the hype around this film is getting intense, and pretty much nothing could live up to it at this point…but I still think this could be something special. I look forward to the “Two Towers” exhibit that I’m sure will be popping up next year. And I’m also sure that, after Dec 19th, New Line will be bringing these artefacts to a castle near you. Go check em out. And thanks, PJ and co., for giving us a chance to get closer to Middle-Earth than I would have thought possible.