This charming film worked its magic on me many a time when I was a little kid who understood neither its context nor its subtext. At the time I hadn't even heard of The Lord of the Rings, and I hadn't recognized the archetypal nature of Tolkein's universe. The movie was my first brush with elves, dwarfs, goblins, hobbits, and Gollum. I was fascinated. I could sense that The Hobbit was part of something larger, and there was something captivating about its tone from the opening narration.
Recently I revisited the film, and let's just say that I saw it through new eyes. And rather than finding that it merely held up well, I came to appreciate it even more and on multiple levels. I don't care if it abridged or even modified Tolkein's epic; if it's good, it's good. (Consider it "inspired by" the book if you must.) Here's why I give it 9 stars:
1. The voice acting. These are some of the best voices I've heard in English-language animation. It turns out that a few of them are heavy hitters. To me, the standouts are: Gandalf (John Huston), noble, authoritative, and wise; Bilbo (Orson Bean), mellow, gracious, and (more on this later) smooth; and Gollum (Brother Theodore), tortured, twisted, and temperamental. Not a bad use of star power.
2. The fundamental lightheartedness. The film is, of course, meant to appeal primarily to children, and it's a good example of how this can be done without diminishing palatability to adults. Essentially, rather than sacrificing meaningful content, Rankin and Bass only gloss over the _presentation_ of mature elements (danger, fear, violence). For example, when Bilbo defeats the giant spiders, the damage from his dagger thrusts is symbolized by images of the spiders' heads spinning. When he hesitates on the way towards confronting Smaug, we hear of his doubts, but his inner monologue is given a calm and reasonable voice. We know he's thinking (not for the first time on this quest), "I may very well be walking to my death," but why scare the kids by making such realities palpable? Another benefit of the absence of truly dark moments in the film is that the audience is always primed for humor. This comes in handy since the movie has numerous amusing or funny elements, intentional or otherwise. (Try thinking of Gandalf as a benevolent questmaster, for instance. The film lends itself to this "reading" because of his teacherly demeanor and conveniently timed appearances, departures, and revelations -- it's as if he's trying to set the ideal difficulty level for the little guys, or for a good story.) Overall, The Hobbit is a very fun movie. I consider it more of a comedy than anything else.
3. The animation. (Or should I say anime, as it was done in Japan?) While of course dated, it's more quaint than outmoded. There's something charmingly British about it. Maybe the production team based the film's landscapes and character designs on Tolkein's own illustrations. I wouldn't be surprised.
4. The cinematography. The Hobbit shines in this department, too. Two good examples come to mind. First, consider the opening credits. In many movies these are shown at the beginning, superimposed on landscape shots and the like so as not to distract viewers from anything too important. Here Rankin and Bass present the opening credits the night after the first scene, in which Bilbo is enlisted by Gandalf and the dwarfs. The credits provide a transition from night to day and are accompanied by images of Bilbo's uneasy dreams and by the uplifting theme song. The dream sequence is beautifully "shot," and the contrast between it and the inspirational lyrics artfully expresses Bilbo's conflicted attitude towards suddenly leaving his life behind for the promise and peril of adventure. Second, there's the famous riddle scene, in which Bilbo and Gollum try to stump each other. After a couple of exchanges, the camera zooms out and pans around the cavern, and a haunting choral interlude sings one of the riddles and conveys the passage of a considerable amount of time. Then the scene shifts back to the adversaries and their final confrontation.
5. Bilbo Baggins. (Best porn name ever.) Much of the amusement I derive from the film is due to its portrayal of this little big man. In short, he's a badass, and I don't just mean for a hobbit. Despite getting pushed around by the condescending king of the dwarfs, Bilbo takes it in stride and calmly saves them on many an occasion. Like James Bond he confounds his enemies by never losing his cool, and he's got a British accent. Unlike James Bond his enemies include goblins, giant spiders, and a dragon, in addition to crazy Russians (i.e., the hard-drinking and xenophobic wood elves, who have Russianesque accents to boot). One of his best moments is when, after playing along with the riddle game for quite some time, he asks Gollum "what have I got in my pocket?" and pretends to be taken aback when Gollum objects. Bilbo ironically invokes the rules, which are stacked against him but say nothing about what constitutes a legitimate riddle. The name's Baggins. Bilbo Baggins.
6. The songs. These work wonders for the film's tone. Maury Laws wrote some great melodies. Glenn Yarbrough has an ideal voice for the contemplative folk ballads, and various choirs are used to good effect, particularly in the goblin battle chants. Notably, most of the lyrics come directly from poems and songs that Tolkein included in the novel.
I think I've spilled enough ink about a cartoon that you may vaguely remember, if at all, as a cheesy adaptation of a vastly superior book. But hey, I'm trying to convince you otherwise. If you're into this sort of thing, The Hobbit is worth (re)visiting.
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