The Hobbit (1977) – a Rankin/Bass Production – Starring Orson Bean, Richard Boone, Hans Conried, John Huston, Otto Preminger, Cyril Ritchard, Brother Theodore, Paul Frees, Jack DeLeon, Don Messick, John Stephenson, Glenn Yarbrough, and Thurl Ravenscroft.
As I’ve grown older, my appreciation for Rankin-Bass’ animated version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT has grown with me. I’ve always liked the special, but when I was a kid it was simply because it’s such a great adventure story. THE HOBBIT was the first book that I’d ever read that felt like an adult book. Prior to that, I’d read plenty of books, with an emphasis on series: The Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators, the Narnia books, Thornton W. Burgess’ Old Mother West Wind stories … but then along came a Hobbit.
I bought the book from one of those flimsy fliers selling books that got passed around in elementary school. It was the first time I’d ever read a book that I both thoroughly enjoyed, and realized that I didn’t understand everything that was going on.
I loved it, though, and it felt like “my” book like nothing every had before.
I started watching the Rankin-Bass special early on, too. I was overjoyed that I could not only read my favorite book but watch it, too! It felt like the special had been made just for me, since, after all, THE HOBBIT was “my” book and all.
There were a few things that stood out for me, and watching the special now, thirty years or more after first watching it, I’m touched by how the same parts of the special still resonate:
THE MUSIC: I can’t really say the music here is good because it’s not like I want these songs on my iPod, but darn if they aren’t perfect here. “The Greatest Adventure” is all kinds of awesome, and there’s something incredibly moving about hearing this song play over the opening titles when Bilbo and the dwarfs are sleeping on the final night. There’s a wonderful mix of fear and excitement, of trepidation and anticipation that marks this moment as a true turning point in the life of our intrepid burglar, Bilbo Baggins.
GOLLUM: Good Lord he’s a creepy and terrifying little bugger, isn’t he? The sequence between Bilbo and Gollum is still as powerful now as it was then. It’s a truly amazing, terrifying sequence. When Gollum goes ape-crap when he realizes his precious is missing, and then when he realizes (or at least suspects) that Bilbo has it … unreal. Total freak out. His eyes are the stuff of nightmares.
THE GOBLINS: It’s always a bit stunning to me just how great a job Rankin-Bass has done getting people to make a special with such terrifying bad guys. I’ve never forgotten how awful Gollum is, how big and fat and horrific the goblins are, and most of all …
SMAUG: The great dragon that hordes the gold in the mountain above Lake Town. The back and forth between Bilbo and Smaug is priceless. I love how Bilbo taunts the dragon and I love how great and powerful Smaug is so easily rattled by the presence of a thief. The art makes Smaug seem even more terrifying. His spittle melts gold and the fire he breathes dances as it torments.
The story here isn’t perfectly told as time forces the filmmakers to rush through bits to get as much covered as possible. At times, THE HOBBIT does have that dreadful feel of a Greatest Hits album, as scene piles on scene and Bilbo and the dwarfs go from escaping one conflict to falling right into the next. The ending, with the Battle of Five Armies, is incredibly rushed, and the final meeting between Bilbo and a dying Thorin lacks a real punch because there’s been so little build-up of their relationship through the film. Basically, Thorin just spends the entire movie being a selfish dick and the other dwarfs are little more than background filler.
Still, the truly stunning animation is enough, even now, to help eradicate the negatives. THE HOBBIT has a distinct visual style that has little to do with other Rankin-Bass specials, but is completely perfect for the story here. In parts terrifying and in others thrilling, THE HOBBIT is a dark, exciting, constantly engaging animated film.