Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, December 1, 2014

Recent Watches: The Hobbit (1977)

Most young people today are probably introduced to J.R.R. Tolkien and the world of Middle-earth through Peter Jackson’s sweeping, epic, and very long film adaptations. And, yeah, sure, those are fine. However, I first became acquainted with hobbits, elves, wizards n’ shit through the 1977 animated adaptation of “The Hobbit.” Originally produced for television, the film was created by Rankin-Bass, the studio best known for those classic Christmas specials. It was also, amazingly, the first screen adaptation of Tolkien’s work. Though it’s reputation varies among Middle-earth scholars, it’s always been a favorite of mine. During my brief fantasy phase, along with the similarly themed “Flight of Dragons” and “The Last Unicorn,” it was a film I watched frequently.

The animated film condenses the plot of Tolkien’s seminal work of fantasy fiction slightly. The Arkenstone, always a tedious plot device, and the were-bear, an inessential character, are ejected. Otherwise, “The Hobbit” gets right to the point. Literally in its opening minutes, Gandalf the Grey appears outside Bilbo Baggins’ hobbit-hole, asking him if he wants to go on an adventure. Thorin’s dwarves march out, introduce themselves, and explain the parameters of their quest. And all of this before the opening credits. The animated film captures the essential elements of Tolkien’s novel: The trolls, the goblins, Gollum, the elves, the spider, the barrel riding, the bad ass dragon, and the war of the five armies. Amazingly, it never feels rushed or truncated. A story that has taken Peter Jackson nine hours to tell, Rankin-Bass effectively handled in 77 minutes.

For being a television production, “The Hobbit” is beautifully animated at times. The sequences of the goblins dragging the dwarves into the caves or Smaug flapping out of his mountain stronghold are gorgeously animated, dynamic and exciting. Other times, “The Hobbit” looks a bit more stale. There are a few too many scenes of characters standing around and talking. However, considering its humble origin, it looks excellent, especially on the remastered DVD. The character designs are interesting, as they seemingly recall the old wood cuttings and paintings that inspired Tolkien in the first place. The round, squat Biblo is the iconic version of the character in my eyes. Gollum is reimagined here as a pathetic, frog-like creature, with a reptilian jaw and slopping posture. The design certainly emphasizes his lack of humanity. The goblins are similarly inhuman, with horns, grey skin, huge fish eyes, and massive jaws. They are designed first as monsters then natural creations, which I can’t say I mind. The dwarves, and Gandalf to a lesser degree, are less interesting. The dwarves are mostly obscured by their big beards and funny hats. The green-skinned, Martian-like wood elves are cool in my book too. The only problem I have with Smaug is the odd, cat-like face and whiskers he was given for some reason.

The film also has a strong vocal cast. John Huston was as perfectly cast as Gandalf back then as Ian McKellan was now. Huston’s reverberating, iconic voice is fantastically suited to the iconic wizard, giving him both a warm, parental quality and a strong, booming strength. Orson Bean, whose name even sounds like a hobbit, summarizes everything you associate with Bilbo Baggins. He has a whimsy in his voice, captures the character’s longing for simpler times, while also establishing his inner strength. Otto Preminger, acclaimed director and occasional Batman villain, provides a distinct personality to the king of the Wood Elves. Preminger’s voice is immediately recognizable and that iconic quality goes a long way.  The only cast decision I really question is cowboy actor Richard Boone as Smaug. Boone is fine, and certainly has an intimidating quality to his voice, but I’m not sure he’s quite powerful enough for Smaug.

People hated the songs in the live action “Hobbit” movies, perhaps missing the point that Tolkien’s original book is full of music. There’s a lot of songs in “The Hobbit.” My favorites are the two songs the goblins sing. Both are powered by the baritone of the original Tony the Tiger, former Melloman, and owner of one of the greatest names ever, Thurl Ravenscroft. “Funny Little Things” and “Down, Down to Goblin Town” are both awesome, catchy with voluminous melodies. The rendition of “Misty Mountains Cold” isn’t as haunting as perhaps it should be but I like how it mingles sung lyrics with spoken words. Many of the other songs aren’t as memorable as these but “The Hobbit’s” soundtrack is another strong element of the film.

The television version of “The Hobbit” defuses the potential ponderous quality of Tolkien’s novel. It’s pure fun, composed of epic adventure, monster fighting, people tapping into unexpected bravery, and opts out of the hugely long war scenes. As in the source material, the dwarves aren’t developed much as characters and there’s some coincidence, with Bilbo discovering a magic ring right when its useful or Bard having his indestructible lucky arrow right there. Still, I’m obviously a fan of “The Hobbit.” Without exaggeration, I can say it’s probably my favorite to ever come out of the various cinematic adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels. [7/10]

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