Produced around the same time as animator Ralph Bakshi’s doomed theatrical adaptation The Lord of the Rings (1978), this made-for-TV cartoon presents a truncated version of author J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit, a prequel to his Rings book trilogy. Wrought by Rankin/Bass Productions, best known for their stop-motion Christmas specials of the 1960s and beyond (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, etc.), this take on The Hobbit has a beguiling visual aesthetic but suffers from problems of storytelling and style. In terms of storytelling, the filmmakers condense and/or omit so many events that the narrative becomes choppy, and in terms of style, the filmmakers use songs so prominently that The Hobbit is an outright musical. While it’s true that Tolkein’s book features songs as a recurring device, the melodies exist only in the reader’s mind, and the lyrical passages are balanced with other elements. In the Rankin/Bass Hobbit, musicality dominates to the point of distraction. Given all of these problems, The Hobbit feels frivolous, rushed, and unfocused, which is a shame.
For those unfamiliar with the source material, The Hobbit begins when the wizard Gandalf informs diminutive and friendly hobbit Bilbo Baggins that he’s to accompany a group of dwarves on a treasure hunt through dangerous terrain, with the ultimate destination being the lair of Smaug, a horrible dragon hoarding gold that was stolen generations ago from dwarf royalty. The Rankin/Bass script, penned by Romeo Muller, treats nearly every part of Bilbo’s adventure as a fleeting vignette, lingering at great length only on two colorful episodes—Bilbo’s creepy encounter with the cave-dwelling creature Gollum, and Bilbo’s riddle-filled conversation with the dragon Smaug. To be fair, these are exciting and offbeat scenes, both worthy of close attention, and the ornate illustrations permeating this production nearly compensate for the hiccups in dramaturgy.
The film’s dwarves, elves, goblins, spiders, and such are drawn beautifully, with expressive lines and meticulous details; even though the animation is a bit rudimentary, characterization and texture come across well. The voice cast is mostly adequate, with Orson Bean giving Bilbo warmth, John Huston lending grandeur to Ganadalf, and New York eccentric Brother Theodore providing the requisite perversity for Gollum. (Richard Boone’s flat American tones seem wrong for Smaug, though these things are of course highly subjective.) Given the strengths of this production, one wishes Rankin/Bass had felt compelled to try for a theatrical release, thereby emboldening them to add a half-hour of screen time and let the story breathe. (Though the songs would have been just as irksome.) But then again, thanks to Peter Jackson’s critically drubbed Hobbit trilogy of the 2010s, we’ve seen that too much Hobbit is not necessarily an improvement over too little Hobbit.
The Hobbit: FUNKY