Rankin/Bass 1: The Hobbit

hobbit 1977So we are starting off Rankin/Bass month off oddly enough by looking at a non-holiday TV special they made.  It was the first attempt to translate JRR Tolkien’s epic fantasy novels to either big or small screen and while imperfect I enjoyed watching it.

I should state out front a couple of biases I have.  First, I love the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies.  They are in the running for films I’d take with me on a desert island. Second, I hate his Hobbit movies.  I found them deadly dull and without the moral weight of the LOTR movies.  Third, I like the LOTR books, but do not like The Hobbit, which I have never been able to get through. There are no stakes in The Hobbit.  It’s just an adventure and that’s not enough to draw me in  (I’ve never been that into fantasy especially as a kid).  I probably would have liked the Peter Jackson Hobbit films if he had made one or at most two.

All that out of the way, let’s talk about this film. It is traditional sketch style animation and aired on NBC in 1977.  I’d say for a made for TV movie the production values are top notch.  Everything from the voice talent of people like John Huston and Paul Frees to the wonderful music by Jules Bass and Maury Laws is done at a feature film level.  There is also not as much rotoscoping as the Ralph Bakshi LOTR film, which I also see some value in and don’t hate.

hobbit1977The Hobbit of course tells the story of Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit in Middle Earth who goes on an adventure to help his friend Gandalf, the wizard, Thorin and the dwarfs to burgle his way into the Lonely Mountain. The goal is to confront the dragon Smaug and get the treasure in the mountain that belongs to the dwarfs. Along the way they meet elves, a creature known as Gollum, a race of giant spiders, and have a Battle of Five Armies.

hobbit 1977 4Amazingly enough what took Peter Jackson nearly 9 hours and 3 movies to tell, this film tells us in 1 hr 17 minutes!  That’s a huge win in this films column for me! That said, there are times when if I hadn’t seen the Peter Jackson films I might be confused.  The Gollum scene, for instance, makes sense because I know the book and live action films. If I didn’t I might wonder what the heck this strange creature was doing?  It seemed to me this film assumes a cursory understanding of the Tolkein world for all of its viewers which may not be unreasonable given the popularity of the book.

hobbit 1977 8There are also large sections of the book that are left out or are compressed into just a few minutes when I could have used a little bit longer. Particularly towards the end with the battle it felt very rushed.

hobbit 1977 2The music is  wonderful with much of it coming from lyrics in the novel.  Folk singer Glenn Yarbrough has a beautiful tamber to his voice and it was really quite calming whenever his singing would come on screen.  I particularly like The Greatest Adventure.

I will say if you don’t like this kind of folk music you won’t enjoy this film.  It’s very predominant but luckily I do so I enjoyed it.

hobbit 1977 6I appreciated some of the touches that were different than the Jackson films like the take on Gollum voiced by Brother Theodore was totally different than the Andy Serkis version. This is more like a monster with riddles than the more human-like characters we get with Serkis.

hobbit 1977 5I guess enjoyment of this The Hobbit depends on how open you are to something different than the version you are used too.  As I don’t care for the recent Hobbit films I was more than open to this different telling of the story. It’s very sweet and more like a fairytale than an epic quest of good vs evil in LOTR.

That said, there are some scary scenes for very small children such as when they are caught by the giant spiders.  But in general if your kid is dying to see LOTR this may not be a bad option.

Like I said it is sometimes too jam packed and certain elements in the animation feel a little dated but for a made for TV movie from the 70’s I was impressed.  It’s different and overall I liked it.

What about you?  Have you seen this version of The Hobbit?  What’d you think?  Please put in the comments section.

9 thoughts on “Rankin/Bass 1: The Hobbit

  1. I’ve only seen clips of this Hobbit film, and I wasn’t that impressed. Gollum is OK apart from the fact that he doesn’t look like he was once a hobbit, with his claws and frog-like jaw. I’m not sure if Tolkien had decided that about Gollum when he wrote The Hobbit (in the original edition, Gollum actually gives Bilbo the Ring willingly – Tolkien changed this after he wrote LOTR and described the origins of the Ring) but this film came out after LOTR was published. I also don’t like the design of Smaug, though I give them credit for trying to be original and making him look more like a wolf/cat than a reptile.

    As for Jackson’s works, I think two Hobbit films would have worked. I thought the first was handled well but the second and third really suffered from being too stretched. I quite enjoyed the book, too.

    I’m looking forward to when you do Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey – there’s a Rifftrax of that one.

    1. Oh I will definitely have to check that out because I love Rifftrax.
      That’s interesting insight. I’m not that well versed on Tolkein so to me it was just a different take but I can see what you are saying too.

    2. And I agree with you on Jackson movies should have been 2 not 3. I was so bored waiting for Smaug to appear in 2.

    1. Nope. Just like with Scrooge Month I’m not doing grades. Giving myself a little break for the holidays.

  2. My feelings on the Rankin Bass Hobbit has fluctuated over the years. When I first saw it I considered it a faithful adaptation with just too much weirdness shoehorned in and felt almost too trimmed down and small for Middle-earth. I liked most of the voice acting, the art style, the songs and the music, especially ‘The Greatest Adventure’ which I still put on every once in a while. Overall, it’s a solid companion piece to the original book. I went on to see the Rankin Bass ‘Return of the King’ and felt it was too stripped down and too far removed from the tone of the actual ‘Return of the King’ book to enjoy it. And the less said about the Ralph Bakshi ‘Lord of the Rings’, the better. Part of me wishes it had gotten the big screen treatment like ‘The Last Unicorn’, as the book would have been popular enough to encourage families to come and see it. Now with hindsight, I actually respect it even more as its own self-contained entity.

    With that said, even after reading all the downer reviews, rants and mixed opinions, it’s always a knife in the gut to read the words “hate”, “Hobbit” and “Peter Jackson” in the same sentence. The last three years were filled with bitterness, resentment and mixed feelings if you were a Tolkien fan who wanted to give every chance you could while the entire fandom crumbles around you. I was an apologist for some time, but now my feelings have cooled and gained more perspective on the situation. There are legit criticisms, but they should not have been taken to such a hate-filled extreme. I agree that they should have been two films and it would have felt more impactful and less stretched out. I still hope that we can see that version someday.

    I also wonder if you’ve seen/read the recent news about how much Warner Bros and MGM tampered with the production of The Hobbit and forcing Jackson to insert the controversial love triangle and the splitting of the two films into a trilogy, which led to the productions themselves being rushed and not as heavily planned as Lord of the Rings were. He didn’t have anywhere near as much time. WB only gave Jackson six months of pre-production and told him to start filming immediately afterwards or else. And before production could even begin, Jackson was hospitalized in January 2011 for a perforated stomach ulcer, which forced production and filming to be halted for a month. If he didn’t step in, WB was prepared to replace him with either Brett Ratner, Neill Blomkamp or David Dobkin. In a way, its a relief that they aren’t a total and utter disaster.

    1. Sorry I didn’t mean to be a knife in the gut to the Tolkien fans. I totally see what you are saying and I probably should have defended my issues instead of just saying I hated it. Maybe I will have to do more thorough reviews one of these days. I just found them so slow moving like it takes nearly 2 hours to get to Smaugh in the second movie. That was tough for me. But like I said about the book The Hobbit is really a big adventure where the LOTR has so much more weight to the story and what is going on. The fate of the world and good vs evil lies in the ring. That draws me in so much more than the story of the Hobbit even in book form.

      I hard something about Jackson ‘winging it’ on the films but it doesn’t quite add up to me because he was a producer when Guillermo del Toro was directing them, so it’s not like he wasn’t involved in the creation of the film from the beginning. Then they made him the director and changed everything around. So he may have only had 6 months as director but he was involved in pre-production much longer. In the end movies like Ant-Man or Good Dinosaur may have problems in production but they came through with solid films and that’s what you have to judge it by. I see the value in the Hobbit franchise but I do not like them.

      Anyway, about this film, it is definitely a compressed version of the story, which was a problem. But like you said it’s not a bad watch. I really do like the music and the animation is fine. For a made for TV movie it’s pretty good.

      1. Maybe I went too far with the “knife in the gut” metaphor, for which I apologise. It was an extension of my personal feelings on the matter which saw a lot of ups and downs over the years. You’ll probably find quite a few book fans who agree with you that the Jackson films were disappointing.

        With Jackson, he stepped in as director once Del Toro left and when that happened they couldn’t make the film the way Del Toro was going to make it, so they had to revise the whole production . I can’t see Jackson directing with Del Toro’s style. The ‘winging it’ aspect mainly refers to the second half of ‘Desolation of Smaug’ and ‘The Battle of Five Armies’, which explains a lot of the problems in said films. I haven’t seen Ant-Man yet (and honestly haven’t felt compelled to do so), but I do agree that The Good Dinosaur was a solid and enjoyable film in spite of the production woes it faced.

      2. Ant-Man really turned out fun. I recommend it. Maybe one of these days I will have to rewatch The Hobbit movies but the first time I found them very boring but I can see why they might appeal to you. Like I said, I’m not a super big fantasy person and so it is perhaps amazing I like the LOTR films as much as I do. Kind of an oddity for me. Thanks so much for sharing your POV.

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