Way back in 1977, 37 years ago yesterday, Rankin/Bass aired on television for the first time their animated musical adaptation of The Hobbit. At the time, it was one of the largest, most lavish adaptations of the original J.R.R. Tolkien fantasy novel, even involving the Japanese animation studio Topcraft (where many future members of the famed Studio Ghibli worked).
Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who wishes for nothing more than a warm fire, good food, and a comfortable life, is voluntold to be a burglar for a group of dwarves who wish to retake their home in the far off Lonely Mountain. Of course, there is a catch: their home is currently occupied by the evil and powerful dragon, Smaug. Details, details…
After deciding to assist the dwarves in their quest, Bilbo sets off with them and encounters man-eating trolls, man-killing orcs, and hungry, nasty spiders, and he finds a ring along the way after a battle of riddles with the multi-personality of Gollum. You know, that One Ring.
I think my favorite part of the film is the gorgeous background illustration work, full of watercolor goodness and reminiscent of illustrator Arthur Rackham’s works. Each scene could be framed as art in its own right. The character designs are also delightful, giving a look rarely seen in animated works of that time period (or even now, for that matter).
The whimsical music by Maury Laws gives the film a lighthearted feel, and the lyrics, adapted by Jules Bass from Tolkien’s songs found in the novel, help draw you into the world of Middle Earth. I thought the songs really fit the feel of the book as a fun adventure story, even with the peril and troubles around every tree and mountain along the way. Many of them are very “hum-able”, and you may find them running through your head for a while after watching the film.
The only real drawback to the film is how short it is. While the novel is pretty short, too, the film glosses over quite a number of things in the book which help you gain a better understanding of the plot, and the film is weaker because of that. I suspect they were told to make it under 80 minutes so it would fit into a 2-hour time slot with commercials.
Still, The Hobbit is a classic of animation history, and it belongs in the collection of any fan of animation, Tolkien, or fantasy in general. It’s a solid film despite the problems mentioned above, and I recommend it.
Original Airdate: November 27, 1977 (USA)
TV Parental Guidelines Rating: Not Rated
Alcohol/Drugs: 1 (minor social drinking)
Violence: 2 (fantasy battles, scary orcs and trolls, and a dragon)