Although I barely made it, there was once a time when fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy novels didn’t have Peter Jackson’s epic realization of The Lord of the Rings, bringing with it pop-culture notoriety and serious consideration of the work on which all D&D campaigns are officially or unofficially based. Truthfully, we didn’t have much besides handcrafted long-stemmed pipes, license to giggle about mushrooms, the occasional BBC radio adaptation, and this animated version of The Hobbit. For all that the Rankin/Bass made-for-TV movie is incurably silly, often nonsensical, capriciously animated and stuffed with musical interludes, it succeeds on simple terms, telling a children’s tale of magic, adventure, and friendship.
The story, too, is a simple one, albeit with strange sounding names. Hobbit and homebody Bilbo Baggins is recruited by the wizard Gandalf and a bunch of dwarves to be their burglar and help them steal back their gold from the evil dragon Smaug. The company journeys through troll caves, goblin lairs, spider-infested forests, Elven fortresses, down rivers, and finally through a secret door on the Lonely Mountain, to confront the monstrous beast within and the jealous forces without; in the process, of course, Bilbo finds his courage, gains a newfound appreciation of the outside world, and acquires an extremely useful magic ring with absolutely no consequences attached to it.
Whatever else it is, The Hobbit is kind of a timestamp of the late seventies, with its folk-singer approach to song and sometimes nods to psychedelia, and thus has huge potential for nostalgic viewing and drinking game fun.
But it is an engaging children’s film. The movie moves very quickly, clocking in at only 79 minutes, and so magical creatures just appear and wondrous things just happen; no justification needs to be given for all the many adventures that befall Bilbo. It’s thematically very clear and its message conveyed well. Bilbo finds that, although he is small, size is no bar to great deeds, that greed has its cost and friendship its reward. Molded specifically for kids, The Hobbit still has an astonishing amount of nobility and poetry in its tone, managed by Gandalf’s imperial voiceovers and Bilbo’s journal entries (a clever deviation to from the books to speed up events). In its own way, the movie captures the lightly entertaining and yet deeply fascinating spirit of the novel.
However, the animation veers, from the gorgeous watercolor landscapes that do justice to the majesty of Middle Earth to the frankly odd, such as the dwarvish and elvish armor that look like crumpled lampshades. But if I had to describe it in one word, it would be wrinkly. There are so many lines on every object and every character that, while it does evoke classic illustrations of Arthurian fantasy, the style comes off as hyperbolic and careless. The dwarves’ impossible noses and withered faces make them look like a tiny pack of Wandering Jew stereotypes. Bilbo’s proportions are suspect. He looks like a bowling ball, and Gollum, although impressively voice acted by Brother Theodore and given fantastic, creepy eyes, looks like a frog. But the real losers here are the elves, who, except for Elrond (his mannish genes must be incredibly dominant), all kind of look like raisins.
The Hobbit’s focus on being a children’s tale fails it, too, in the animation of the action sequences. Kaleidoscopic effects obscure violence, which is kind of clever, but turning Sting into a Sonic Screwdriver makes the action go by a little too fast. The battle of five armies kind of looks like a clash of dried sea-monkeys, and really only a few shots of Smaug breathing fire are genuinely thrilling. Everything else looks silly.
Let’s talk about the voice acting for a minute because that’s an area where the film is uneven, too. Not one but two great directors lent their aural abilities to The Hobbit. John Huston plays Gandalf and Otto Preminger the elf king Thranduil. Huston intones with far more mystery and power than Ian McKellan’s take on the Grey Wanderer, yet it works for this movie, in which Gandalf’s wizardry is far more majestic in general. Still, some of Gandalf’s humor doesn’t quiet come off through his reading, especially the many puns he makes with the word ‘ring.’
Preminger, on the other hand, reads lines like Thranduil is a farcical SS commander. He comes off as abrupt and ridiculous, his thick German accent taking you out of the film completely. It’s hilarious if you’ve ever watched Anatomy of a Murder or Bunny Lake is Missing to hear this master of suspense shout, “Take them away until they feel inclined to tell the truth!” Although Bilbo is fine, hearing the gasping voices of the dwarves too many times will grate your nerves, too.
The other really uneven element in the movie is the songs. Tolkien wrote many, poetic interludes conveying backstory or mood through rhyme, and reading the book, you get the sense they’re there more his amusement than for yours. Yet The Hobbit is absolutely stuffed with these songs, often using them in montage to move the story forward, as a bridge over plot points. That they’re sometimes used effectively do not make them good, nor do they improve the movie by their total saturation. Really, the only place a song works is with an original, “The Greatest Adventure,” played in the contemplative moment Bilbo looks out over Mirkwood.
If you’re looking for great animation or narrative coherence, look elsewhere, but the Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit is highly mockable and still pretty entertaining, perfect for a movie night with your friends, your eight-year-old cousin, or both.
Take a Drink: whenever Thorin makes a terrible decision.
Take a Drink: for all the songs.
Take a Drink: whenever Sting glows blue.
Take a Drink of Water: whenever Gandalf disappears/reappears, because seriously, this flick is only like an hour long.
Take a Drink: whenever you hear the cool Ring sound-effect.