Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Hobbit (1977)

Come Friday the first of the new trilogy of "Hobbit" films will come upon this world.  For many, it is the most important film event of all of 2013.  For me, that was "Batman 3".  However, Peter Jackson's new epic Hobbit adaptation* is not the only version of the story that exists, there is another.  One from myth and legend, from the strange time known as the Seventies, coming forth from the universe known as animated NBC specials.  The film was made by the animation studio Rankin/Bass, who are best known for creating just about every animated Christmas special, including "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", "The Little Drummer Boy", and "Frosty the Snowman", and would later make "The Last Unicorn", a decent Eighties fantasy cartoon.  Animation was done by Topcraft Studios, a Japanese company that would later create "Nauiscaa and the Valley of the Wind", making it essentially the precursor to Studio Ghibli.

The 1977 "The Hobbit" was also the very first film adaptation of any of J.R.R. Tolkien's works, but would quickly be followed by the 1978 Ralph Bakshi animated feature film, "Lord of the Rings".  "Lord of the Rings" was oringally meant to be called "Lord of the Rings Part 1" since it only covers the first two films in the series.  Unfortunately United Artists refused to include the subtitle, adding considerable confusion.  They also refused to make a sequel since the 1978 "Lord of the Rings" was a box office failure.  Rankin/Bass' finished the Tolkien mythos themselves with their own version of "The Return of the King", airing on ABC in 1980.  Together "The Hobbit", "The Lord of the Rings", and "The Return of the King" make a strange loose trilogy of animated features that more or less cover Tolkien's entire Middle Earth mythos.  I haven't actually seen the other two films, I'll probably save them for the week before the next two Peter Jackson "Hobbit" films in 2013 and 2014, assuming I'm still blogging then.

As a movie, the Rankin/Bass "Hobbit" isn't much more than a historical curiosity at this point.  Assuming all goes well this weekend with Peter Jackson's version, this original film will be made entirely redundant, existing as a strange little cartoon to be seen only by film hipsters (like myself) and the most hardcore of Tolkien fans (unlike myself).  Its a faithful adaptation, capturing the sweet childish wonder that is "The Hobbit", directly capturing all the main scenes in a lean seventy-seven minute running time.  The animation is a bit sketchy, but Rankin/Bass did well to re-imagine Tolkien's poems as musical numbers, giving them a whimsical quality lacking in the text**.  Since it won't take up too much of a your time, I actually recommend giving it a view.

There isn't terribly much to say about this particular film, so this is going to be a very short review.

Unlike Peter Jackson's vast epic adventure movies taking place in the beautiful splendor of New Zealand, this is just a network special, though with a budget of only three million dollars.  The orcs, for example, are not slimy demonic creatures with cockney accents, they're instead fat creatures with giant heads, sharp teeth, and cat eyes, singing a merry song of murder while they attack our heroes.  The dwarves are little bearded old men with giant noses.  There's a group of elves that for some reason are green.  And Smaug, the dragon, has a cat's face.  The most frightening artistic choice is the design for Gollum, who is now a hunchback frog-like creature with two huge blind eyes, and is actually more frightening in this version then he is in the movies.  Of course, the acting is very hammy and silly, this was a special for kids.  The landscapes are the best part, as you'd expect from an animation studio that would evolve into Studio Ghibli.  There's a nice watercolor pallet to the ground, sky, and water.  Its not the most beautiful movie you've ever seen, but it looks decent enough.

However, the problems emerge when it came to animating the people.  There's far too much detail on the faces and hands to match the relatively cheap quality of animation.  Biblo and the rest of the characters all have deep black lines all over their faces, making Bilbo appear to have not slept in about thirty years and turning a few of the dwarves into hideous alien creatures.  The hands are really ugly, with every line on the hand animated with deep black lines, making them look like the hands of a whithered corpse.  Its simply too much detail for that thick of lines.

The acting is more or less decent.  Most notably is John Huston as Gandalf.  Its a bit weird to hear the Tolkien characters speak in an American accent after Peter Jackson casted them all as Brits.  I don't really care for the actor they picked for Gollum, but nothing is below serviceable.  Again, its a kids' movie, from the Seventies.  Its hammy and silly, though this was never supposed to be the grand final adaptation of the story.

I feel like "The Hobbit" is a movie that is impossible to review, or at least to give a final judgment towards.  It comes from such a distant time without really much more ambition than to be a little bit of entertainment for kids on a single weekend.  And with that, it succeeds.  Compared to Peter Jackson's version of Middle Earth, it, of course, feels quaint and strange and childish, but it was supposed to be childish.  There is definitely a small charm here, as I actually felt rather emotionally connected to the character, far more so than I thought.  I was surprisingly sad to see poor Thorin Oakenshield die***, and am glad to have seen this little curiosity.  I didn't expect much, and got more than I wanted, and that's perfectly okay.

Hopefully I'll be able to see "The Hobbit" this weekend, if not even on Friday.  Finals are almost complete, and then I can return to regular Bloggin'.

* Like the rest of the Western World, I am somewhat confused and worried about how good this upcoming Hobbit trilogy is going to be.  "The Hobbit" is a really short book, only about 300 pages, depending on the print size.  Its also very much a children's book, with a very lighthearted and episodic narrative that would be perfect for a bedtime story.  As an adult, I found it pretty dull.  How exactly this can be adapted into three high fantasy epic adventure tales the equal of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is a mystery.  I'm worried that "The Hobbit" has become yet another victim to Hollywood's alarming trend of dividing literary adaptations into two movies for no reason other than to create filler and sell more tickets.  This didn't work for "Harry Potter 7", it didn't work for "Twilight", I don't know if it will work here.  We'll see this weekend, won't we?

** I just skip all of Tolkien's poems when I'm reading "Lord of the Rings" or "The Hobbit".  I'm a philistine, I know, but I really don't care for Tolkien that much as a writer so much as a word builder and creator of a huge fantasy world.  But I think I've covered this before on another footnote in another review, so I'll move on.

*** That's a seventy-year-old spoiler, don't you be bitching that I ruined the movies for you.


  1. OH...MY....GLOB! And here I thought I had imagined the whole thing when I was a kid! My mom had brought me the book when I was 7 and a few weeks after reading it I heard that there was TV movie coming on and I recorded it. I'm totally going to spend the 20 bucks to take me and my lil'bro to see the Hobbit.

    And don't be ashamed Blue. Most works from the early to mid 20th century are hard to digest. The only book That I found a exception for is Grapes of Wrath.

  2. I absolutely adored this version of The Hobbit! I have to admit, I still like it better than the one Peter Jackson did. I also thought it was really odd to take such a small book and make it into 3 long movies. It seems greedy =s They added much that was ridiculous, mainly the stupid white orc -.- The animated version was perfected, true to the book and very well done. So, I believe I will stick with that one =)