Director: Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin, Jr.
Cast: Orson Bean, Richard Boone, Hans Conreid, John Huston, Otto Preminger, Cyril Ritchard, Theodore, Glenn Yarbrough, Paul Frees, John Stephenson, Don Messick, Jack DeLeon
Screenplay: Romeo Muller
77 mins. Rated TV-PG.
It’s still interesting to me to hear that most film fans, even fans of the Peter Jackson films or the J.R.R. Tolkien novels, are unaware that they were previously adapted: The Lord of the Rings into two animated films of drastically different tones in The Lord of the Rings and The Return of the King, and The Hobbit into the film we are going to talk about today. I’m not talking about short films or student films or experimental pieces like Leonard Nimoy’s Bilbo Baggins song (it exists). No, it’s a TV movie released in the 1970s from those guys that made all your favorite Christmas specials, but now, over 40 years later, there’s are some interesting comparisons and contrasts to Jackson’s films. They are uniquely opposite interpretations in execution and finished product, but these older, almost forgotten takes on Middle Earth still carry a lot of weight.
You know the story, but I’ll remind you again. In the Shire, there lives a comfortable enough Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Orson Bean, Being John Malkovitch, InnerSpace) who is rather happy with his cozy uneventful existence, as many Hobbits are, and he is looking for no reason to change it. Everything changes, though, when he is visited by a wizard, Gandalf the Grey (John Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Chinatown), who enlists his burglary skills (of which he has none) to help Thorin Oakenshield (Hans Conreid, Peter Pan, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T) and his band of dwarves to reclaim their home and their dwarven treasure from the villainous and greedy dragon, Smaug (Richard Boone, Vicki, Hombre). Along this journey, Bilbo will encounter trolls, goblins, and a frightening creature by the name of Gollum (Theodore, The ‘Burbs, Nocturna) who carries a nifty magic ring.
The first noticeable difference between this film and Jackson’s trilogy is just that. One is a film running just under 80 minutes, and the other is a three-part film series that comes in (extended cuts and all) at just over nine hours! For many people, Jackson’s Hobbit films are bloated and stuffed with pieces that were unnecessary. They believe that the films are simply too long and undeserving of a full trilogy of films to tell their story. To that extreme, I’ll throw back The Hobbit 1977, a film that I believe loses a lot of its grandness in swiftly running through events like a checklist. This Hobbit interpretation is too short. I personally like the heft of Jackson’s trilogy (yes, flawed as they are, if I enjoy a world, I could live there forever), but I will attest that neither adaptation perfected the length of their story to match Tolkien’s.
There’s also the animation aspect. I’ve always preferred live-action, but the Rankin/Bass animation of this version is rather endearing and warm. There’s a certain charm to the animation style of The Hobbit (though I also prefer Bakshi’s batshit crazy Lord of the Rings animation style), and it works to better effect here than in The Return of the King.
I like the voice cast of our central players. Orson Bean is a positively inspired choice for Bilbo Baggins, and John Huston’s take on Gandalf works wonders (it’s also different enough from Ian McKellan’s take on the character to allow both versions to flourish nicely). The consistently unusual performer Theodore does fine work as Gollum in a role that I wouldn’t have thought to work from a performance angle. I’m just not a fan of the flat characterizations of the company of dwarves. Don Messick (The Last Unicorn, Pufnstuf) and Jack DeLeon (Temptress, Allyson is Watching) voice most of the dwarves and we just don’t get much time to care that they’re on the journey with us. It asks the question of why we care about anyone else on the journey except for Bilbo, Thorin, and Gandalf. Not enough time is delegated to any of the secondary dwarves in this adaptation, but they are there anyway because that’s how the book did it. I understand as well that the book didn’t always give a lot of attention to the secondary dwarves, but if you can’t make them compelling characters, just don’t put them in the movie. It’s an adaptation, not a translation.
Among all that, I still quite liked The Hobbit. It’s a good family-based version of events, and without the Jackson films to compare with, it’s cute and warm and enjoyable. Sure, it’s a nearly forgotten take on Middle Earth, but I find that I keep coming back to it, flaws and all, and enjoying myself. I think you could too.
-Kyle A. Goethe
For my review of Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, click here.
For my review of Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr.’s The Return of the King, click here.