Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination — The Hobbit

The Hobbit
screenplay by Romeo Muller, directed and produced by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr

The Original Animated Masterpiece

Originally published in 1937, the Hobbit has been a classic of children’s literature for generations.  A funny little tale about a strange creature named Bilbo, who goes on a quest with dwarves and a wizard to slay a dragon, it’s enchanted fans for decades.  On it’s fortieth anniversary, animation underdog Rankin & Bass studios decided to bring the tale to life.

Rankin & Bass, much like Jay Ward Productions, is an oft-forgotten chapter in animation history.  Few people outside animation fandom know the name, but everybody knows their work.  Rankin & Bass studios were the ones responsible for just about every stop-motion Christmas movie you love (yes, including the Rudolf movies), many of the animated Christmas movies (including Frosty the Snowman), some of the most iconic fantasy cartoons of all time (namely The Last Unicorn and the Flight of Dragons), as well as perinnel 1980s classic, Thundercats.

But in the 1970s, Rankin & Bass was still primarily known for making holiday films.  Undertaking a non-holiday project was unexpected, and taking on a beloved classic such as the Hobbit was considered monumental.  To everyone’s amazement, they would knock it out of the park.

Story – 5 out of 5
Just about anyone who has ever read probably knows the story of the Hobbit, if for no other reason than the Peter Jackson incarnations currently appearing in theaters.  This critique then is more about the screenplay of the movie itself, which is expertly done.  Great pains were gone to in order to add nothing that wasn’t already in the source material, and very little was cut (Beorn and the Arkenstone being among the few things that got the axe).  The pacing is perfect, upbeat and constantly moving but still giving the impression of a long and winding adventure.  Purists of the Hobbit may likely enjoy this outing more than the Jacksonian films for the efforts to change as little as possible.

Art – 5 out of 5
Simply put; gorgeous.  Arthur Rackham’s art is rich and textured but not unwieldy.  The subdued earth tones of the dwarves and the hobbits are countered with the celestial imagery of the elves and the monstrous depictions of the goblins.  Everything looks appropriately fantastic and the image of Smaug is quite simply the definitive dragon for an entire generation of fantasy fans.

Animation – 4 out of 5
The animation is quite good, but not overwhelming.  There’s a lot of adventure in the movie, but few ‘action’ scenes.  Violence is handled very tastefully, meant to shock and scare little kids without outright traumatizing them (see the Death of the Goblin King).  Overall, it supports the beautiful artwork masterfully.

Characters – 3 out of 5
There’s really only one ‘character’ in this depiction of the Hobbit and that’s Bilbo.  Thorin, Gandalf, and others aren’t given much of the way of motivations or personality.  The other dwarves, especially, are little more than just there.  Bilbo, standing front and center, however, vividly but subtly shows the transformation the quest puts him through.

Acting – 5 out of 5
Orson Bean’s depiction of Bilbo Baggins is excellent.  He brings the character beautifully to life, but without overpowering the narrative itself.  Hans Conreid and John Huston are perfect as the gruff Thorin and the mysterious Gandalf respectively.  Otto Preminger adds a very unique but distinctive touch to the unnamed elf king.  Cyril Ritchard as Elrond is appropriately warm yet haunting, while Brother Theodore is perfect as the creepy Gollum.  But the crowning achievement is Richard Boone as Smaug in one of the greatest voice acting performances of all time.

Overall – 5 out of 5
This is one of those legendary films that somehow manages to fall to the wayside for no really identifiable reason.  Only Disney was making anything even remotely comparable to a film of this majesty (it would be almost a decade before Don Bluth films would release An American Tale).  This is visually gorgeous and would be the definitive animated fantasy movie for ages.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say Rankin & Bass’ Hobbit is the greatest animated movie of all time, but I would assert that it has a strong case to be in the Top Ten.

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