The Hobbit (1977)
The Hobbit (1977) is a curious beast. It’s a made for television animated film, which despite its budgetary constraints, strives to comprehensively adapted one of the most beloved children’s books of the last century. I remember reading an article about this television adaptation of The Hobbit, in Starburst Magazine during the late seventies. There were rumours that this Rankin/Bass production, which had already premièred on US network television, would gain a European cinema release. This was presumably to cash in on the success of Ralph Bakshi's animated feature film adaptation of The Lord of The Rings. However, this never happened to my knowledge. In fact, The Hobbit was not commercially available in the UK until 2001, when Warner Bros. released it on DVD to capitalise on the success of Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring.
Rankin/Bass productions had a pedigree in bringing traditional and familiar children's material to the small screen, with such titles as Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, so it was not unusual for them to take on such a project. However, a lot of the animation was sub contracted to Japanese studios, which was a standard practise at the time. This subsequently had a major impact on the production design and the aesthetics of the film. Rankin/Bass productions often included songs in their commercial output as it had proven to be a major selling point in the past. Naturally, original Tolkien's work with its abundance of songs and verse, lent itself to this very well. As a result, The Hobbit has a wealth of vocal tracks sung by popular folk singer, Glenn Yarbrough. They’re not to everyone’s taste but they do work, and some do stick quite faithfully to the source text.
The adaptation of the story is very simple. Some of the more complex plot details have been lost, such as the Arkenstone of Thrain, the skin-changer Beorn and the scheming master of Lake Town. Tolkien wrote this story for children and that is the way the film’s screenplay is pitched. The character designs range from the adequate to the bizarre. Gandalf is represented pretty much as you would expect, sticking to the usual old man with a pointy hat trope. Bilbo and the Dwarves reflect a more juvenile friendly interpretation. However, the Trolls and Goblins are not especially scary and lack any real sense of threat. It is in the design of the Elves that this production really fumbles the ball. This race of near perfect creatures with their angelic qualities, are simply ugly and emaciated. Someone definitely failed to understand the source text in this respect. Gollum is also poorly conceived and looks a little like a large Bullfrog. And all I'll say about the dragon Smaug, is that his feline quality is "unusual".
With these shortcomings, are there any positive attributes regarding this production? Well the minimalist water colour backgrounds work well, often drawing on Tolkien’s illustrations themselves. The voice casting has some strong performers, such as John Huston as Gandalf. However, some of the minor characters are played by well-known voice artists Don Messick and John Stephenson. As a result, you do feel that you’re watching an episode of Scooby Doo or The Arabian Nights at times. So where does this leave us? Well it's difficult to be objective, as any adaptation of Professor Tolkien's work tends to be over shadowed by the success of Peter Jackson's two trilogies, which have established an aesthetic standard. Therefore, this older version of The Hobbit suffers as a result, as it flies in the face of this. Overall, it’s a low budget, basic adaptation, with a variety of good and bad animation. It will probably find its most appreciative audience, among children, for whom it was intended.