RETROREVIEWS #23: THE HOBBIT (1977)

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MAY 30, 2013 SCREENING: THE HOBBIT (1977)

At last, I decided to take a look at the original adaptation of The Hobbit – namely the classic 1977 animated version by Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass. This was a television special that originally aired on NBC and clocks in at under 80 minutes. It seems strange when we consider what Hollywood has done with The Hobbit today – turned it into a massive, 3 part, 9+ hour epic that is continually being released and released in 2D, 3D, IMAX, Real D, and with the third part not even in theaters at the time of this writing. So how does the modest little original cartoon TV movie stack up when compared to its storied predecessor? Quite well, actually.

Rankin/Bass are best known for their stop motion Christmas specials from the ’60s and ’70s, such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) and Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970 ). It should come as no surprise, then, that 1977’s The Hobbit is thoroughly G-rated and aimed mostly at children. I didn’t have a problem with that – the novel predated The Lord of the Rings and was seen mainly as “childrens literature” before its epic successor was released, and The Hobbit differs from Rankin/Bass’s more lighthearted Christmas fare because quite a few scenes in The Hobbit are creepy and macabre.

Even as a kid, I found the animated Hobbit to be a little silly at times, and it doesn’t quite work as well on film when Bilbo is yelling dialogue in awe along the lines of “By golly, It’s Gandalf!” whenever the character randomly appears and saves the day. Still, an adult I can actually appreciate Rankin/Bass’s adaptation more. Rather than turn it into a zany Saturday morning kid’s cartoon with slapstick and contemporary references, the animated Hobbit is very faithful the source material – perhaps a bit too faithful at times! Despite being a low budget cartoon, it’s helped by a stellar voice cast. The most prominent example is John Huston as Gandalf. His voice is so distinct that he seems to be playing John Huston at times, but nobody quite has the gravitas as he does in the role of Gandalf, not even Ian McKellen. (By comparison, the Gandalf in Ralph Baski’s more adult orientated animated The Lord of the Rings is good, but forgettable). 1977’s The Hobbit also contains probably the most chilling and effective version of Gollum that I’ve seen on screen. Oddly enough, the animators depicted him as a sort of amphibian-man, (which wasn’t true to the original novel) but he’s voiced by Brother Theodore and speaks in a hoarse, psychotic, depressing wail that is deeply upsetting to listen to. Nobody says “Thief, Thief, Thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!” quite like the original 1977 version, and its still the best.

Still, there are some parts of the film didn’t quite work for me. While the voice of Smaug the Dragon is done well enough in the animated film, he’s drawn to be cat-like for some reason and it didn’t seem to fit that world, along with the strange, frog-like appearance of Gollum. The elves also didn’t match their literary appearance, and the film seems doesn’t flow very smoothly at times – going from overly cutesy to dark and dreadful in the same scenes.

One element that probably gets overlooked but was done very well was the music. The “Misty Mountains” song is the animated film is almost as good as the epic Howard Shore version in the 2012 live action movie. The rest of the tracks also work well and help tell the narrative – from “Down to Goblin Town” to “Gollum’s Riddle”. The dwarfs chanting “That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates” gets criticized for being too campy and childish, but guess what? It’s from the book itself, but de empathized in the 2012 movie where countless other antics at Bilbo’s home are substituted instead.

Perhaps both a blessing and a curse is the film’s lighting fast running time. Sometimes its gets tedious having to sit through hours and hours of Peter Jacksons’ epic to see The Hobbit unfold over three movies, so it can be a relief to see the story cut to the chase and tell it all in under two hours. The Hobbit doesn’t feel rushed, but at the same time, it can be disjointed because the events occur so directly without some back story about them. You’d think the original 1977 movie would now be readily available since the Peter Jackson version came out, but the opposite seems to be the case – perhaps New Line Cinema doesn’t want audiences to compare the two? I recommend you try get a copy of the Rankin/Bass Hobbit and do so anyway. It’s no Peter Jackson, but there’s a lot to like about the original cartoon.

*** out of ****

 

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