Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Hobbit: A fun and worthy film, warts and all

Confession: I like The Hobbit. The 1977 Rankin/Bass animated film, that is.

I'm interested to know if anyone else holds this film in high regard. I do, although I fully expect to have some tomatoes flung my way for admitting as much.

That is not to say that The Hobbit is flawless. It has its bad moments and a few warts, too. But for what it is--a children's film, limited by 1970's animation and the constraints of time--it's actually a pretty solid little movie.

The Hobbit screams 1970's period piece, from its Glenn Yarbrough warblings ("The greatest adventure, is what lies ahead") to its choppy and in some places creaky animation. It's also not so easy to follow: I came to The Hobbit as a youth having already read J.R.R. Tolkien's novel, but I would imagine that, from the perspective of a viewer with no exposure to the story, it could seem a bit confusing. Amazingly, it checks in at only 78 minutes, but in places it feels rushed.

I've compiled a list of likes and dislikes regarding this film, but as you will see the former list outweighs the latter.


The voicework. This is perhaps the film's greatest strength. Orson Bean (Bilbo), Hans Conreid (Thorin), Brother Theodore (Gollum), are very good, and Richard Boone (Smaug) and John Huston (Gandalf) are brilliant. As great as Ian McKellen is in Lord of the Rings, Huston's smoky, grandfatherly, and kind-yet-strong delivery is an absolutely perfect, spot-on representation of what I thought Gandalf should sound like.

Bilbo. Okay, he looks a bit weird (what's up with the perm?), but the movie does his character justice. We meet the stay-at-home, food and tobacco loving Bilbo at the film's outset, and over the course of the film something Tookish stirs in him. For the most part, the film is able to capture this critical awakening. Duty above comfort and acts of heroism by the small, unimportant folk is what The Hobbit and even The Lord of the Rings is really all about, after all.

Smaug. I hope the upcoming film does the same justice to Smaug as does Rankin/Bass. Smaug is still probably my favorite dragon ever put to film (Dragonslayer does a nice job as well) and, as a child at least, I found him to be truly terrifying. And The Hobbit gets bonus points for retaining the line, "My armor is like tenfold shields, my teeth are like swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath--death!" Good stuff.

The music (most of it). An admission I fully expect to be crucified over, but I'll come out and say it: I enjoy "Fifteen birds in five fir trees" "Roll them down the hole," and, God help me, even "The Greatest Adventure." And of course the dwarves singing "Far o'er the Misty Mountains old, to dungeons deep and caverns cold" at Bag End is pure awesomeness. In fact, I hope the forthcoming Del Toro version retains this song. But there are some duds: I freely admit that "Tra la la lally, here down in the valley, a-ha," is awful.

The bits of Tolkien. No surprise that all the great lines in the film are either straight from Tolkien or slightly modified from the book. "To go and see the great mountains, to hear the pine trees and waterfalls, to wear a sword instead of a walking stick," is one; "Child of the kindly West, I have come to know, if more of us valued your ways: food and cheer above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world," is another.

The maps. You can tell the writer/director loved Tolkien's maps, which is a good thing. The movie starts with a shot of Eriador, panning in on the Shire. Later Bilbo, Gandalf, and Thorin, pore over Thror's map in detail, and both maps appear to be exact reproduction from the books. The film also keeps Elrond's discovery of the moon letters on Thror's map.

Gollum. Andy Serkis was great in The Lord of the Rings, but the Rankin/Bass Gollum has a lot going for him. He's more menacing and even less hobbitish here, and his pale, orb-like eyes hew closer to the look described in the book than does the Serkis Gollum. Riddles in the Dark works pretty well, and the hateful look in Gollum's eyes after Bilbo makes off with his ring remains chilling, 70's animation and all.


The wood elves. These are absolutely hideous. Gray, ugly, with flat noses and spidery-thin limbs? Where did this art decision come from? This description is nowhere to be found in the book, and the end result is a race of woodland creatures who make the goblins seems downright comely in comparison. I have no idea why this choice was made, given that Elrond looks pretty good.

Most of the dwarves. Thorin was well-depicted, but what's up with Nori and Ori? Why are they wearing scarves that cover half their face, and why are they eerily silent? And the introduction of the dwarves is lame--we get a quick run-down of their names instead of great scene in the book, which has Gandalf cleverly introducing them all by twos and threes so as not to overwhelm Bilbo all at once.

No Beorn. Beorn suffered the same fate as Tom Bombadil did in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, written out of the script or left on the cutting room floor. I know that removing Beorn is an easy cut, but he's one of my favorite minor characters in the book and actually plays a very significant role in the Battle of the Five Armies. I truly hope he makes Del Toro's version.

The Battle of Five Armies. This is the film's biggest weakness, in my opinion. There is no sense of the scope of the massive, climactic event of the book as the animators resort to the cheap trick of using clouds of dust (with what looks like fleas struggling in their midst) to obscure the events of this memorable scene. When Bilbo receives his knock on the head, it's over, and we don't even get flashbacks or the events retold by Gandalf after the fact. This also robs Thorin of his moment on the battlefield. Poor, poor.

Still, flaws and all, overall I very much enjoy The Hobbit. It's comforting to know that, even if Del Toro's version flops, I'll have my old Rankin/Bass VHS tape to pop in the VCR.


noisms said...

A nice review; I'll definitely have to root that one out. I take it you're also a fan of the original animated Lord of the Rings film?

(I just stumbled across your blog from somewhere else, and like what I've read so far.)

trollsmyth said...

I have a weakness for the Rankin/Bass Hobbit as well. And a bit of one for their version of "Return of the King" as well.

I love the way most of the dwarves are depicted: lean and weathered, like tree roots. And their goblins were what the goblins in my oldest games of D&D were like.

Still, I haven't seen the film in years. I must admit, I'm a tad worried the reality won't live up to my memories.

- Brian

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Noisms, thanks for stopping by!

I like the original Lord of the Rings animated film as a curiousity piece, but it really doesn't work for me as a coherent film. There's too much weirdness and it ends abruptly. The Hobbit at least has a beginning, middle, and end. I like some of Bakshi's elements (the Ringwraiths, some of the visuals), but overall it's really a mess.

Brian Murphy said...

Hey Trollsmyth, I actually tried to watch the Rankin/Bass ROTK a while back (I think after Jackson's Two Towers hit the theatres), and found it almost unwatchable. It was that bad. But I wouldn't worry about The Hobbit--I rewatched it recently and it holds up pretty well. You can actually find it broken up in 10 parts on Youtube if you want to relive some old memories.

Falze said...

I actually just finished watching the bizarro Lord Of The Rings and Return Of The King pairing last week. I'm still waiting to get The Hobbit from Blockbuster Online - it's been listed as 'long wait' for months. I think The Hobbit, with Smaug, clobbers both of the others. I like the way they portray Bard and keep to the original pretty much with the bird and the missing scale and all.

Terry L said...

I loved the Rankin/Bass stuff as a kid. I imagine it'd still give the nostalgia vibe if I saw it again.

John said...

Hello! I came upon this essay while looking for something else (fancy that), and I just wanted to let you know that you're not alone. I quite enjoyed R/B's The Hobbit and I think it's about as good as an interpretation as you'd ever get from a made-for-TV special. While I miss Beorn, my only real complaint is the abbreviated and rather altered conflict at the end, including the Battle of Five Armies. Bilbo's theft of the Arkenstone is just as important, thematically, as his theft of the cup from Smaug's hoard, in my opinion.

-The Gneech