Review: Rankin-Bass "The Hobbit" and "Return of the King" Remastered DVDs - Classics Revisited
It’s always nice to discover that an old cartoon from your childhood holds up to your fond nostalgic feelings for it. The Rankin-Bass adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit proves to be one of those cartoons. The TV special, first aired in the late 1970’s, was my personal introduction to Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and while the special has several elements that mark it as a product of its time, the bulk of the special has aged exceptionally well, and adapts Tolkien’s beloved book beautifully.
In Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, hobbits are humanoids about half as tall as an average man, with hairy feet and tending to be plump. The title character of The Hobbit is Bilbo Baggins (voiced by Orson Bean), whose quiet life is suddenly disrupted by a visit from the mysterious wizard Gandalf (a majestic John Huston) and 13 dwarves determined to win back their home and treasure hoard from the dreaded dragon Smaug (Richard Boone). Before Bilbo knows it, he’s off on a grand journey across the rich wilds of Middle-Earth, confronting trolls, goblins, a reptilian grotesque named Gollum (from whom Bilbo inadvertently steals a ring that turns its wearer invisible), giant spiders, a tribe of belligerent wood elves, and finally the great dragon Smaug himself.
Romeo Muller’s adaptation of The Hobbit is excellent, hewing very closely to Tolkien’s original text and making very smart choices about what to drop and simplify for its running time and target audience (it was the 70’s, which meant cartoons were always “for kids”). In interviews at the time, co-producer and co-director Arthur Rankin, Jr., insisted that “There is no material in this film that did not come from the original Tolkien book,” and the movie keeps his promise (as opposed to, say, taking a character mentioned once in passing in the book and giving him a full speaking role and a chase sequence involving a chariot pulled by giant rabbits). The adaptation is mated to beautiful artwork in both the painted backgrounds, a hybrid of Tolkien’s illustrations and the paintings of Arthur Rackham; and in the animation, which was the first of many collaborations between Rankin-Bass and the Japanese animation studio Topcraft (which would eventually evolve into Studio Ghibli). At the time, the character design and animation drew some criticism, since it was so radically different from conventional American animation. Today, of course, anime has penetrated American animation to such a degree, both as an import and as a stylistic influence, that The Hobbit now seems ahead of its time.
The best designs are easily those for Gollum and Smaug, both of whom are singularly captivating and exude entirely different kinds of menace to Bilbo and his companions. These designs are also greatly aided by the voice performances of Theodore as Gollum and Richard Boone as Smaug. Both characters’ dialogue is taken nearly verbatim from Tolkien’s text, and each actor is masterful at bringing their characters to vivid, memorable life. Theodore balances the menace and self-loathing in Gollum’s dialogue, matching or arguably bettering Andy Serkis’ performance in the live-action movies. Boone’s rich baritone brings an articulate elegance to Smaug’s riddling with Bilbo, at least until the dragon’s wrath truly rises, at which point Boone’s roars of anger are a perfect match to Smaug’s fit of destructive rage. I enjoy the earthiness of Orson Bean’s Bilbo, though I had never noticed the subtle change in his performance from the beginning of the movie to the end, matching Bilbo’s own journey. Last but not least, John Huston’s Gandalf is absolutely pitch-perfect, rightly the definitive performance as Gandalf until Ian McKellen’s memorable take in the live-action movies.
The flaws to The Hobbit are minor, and relatively easy to ignore. While actors like Paul Frees, Don Messick, and John Stephenson were consummate professionals and on the short list of the definitive cartoon voice actors for a generation, their familiarity works against them in this movie. Their tones are so familiar that hearing them speak makes one think that characters from other cartoons stumbled onto the wrong drawing board but read some lines anyway. The adaptation’s faithfulness to Tolkien also extends to his poetry and songs, many of which are adapted into songs for the movie. I was always able to skip over them in the books without feeling like I was missing out on much. No such luck here, where the musical adaptations force themselves in, sometimes even drifting into unintentional comedy. The most effective is probably a poem read by Gandalf early in the film, where Huston’s rich, evocative voice elevates a trivial poem to genuine magic. I’m of two minds about the folk songs by Glenn Yarbrough, including the theme song “The Greatest Adventure,” which is one of the very few deviations from Tolkien’s words. They can be evocative and occasionally even touching, but I find his opening theme song feels like it runs about 20 minutes too long (and yes, I’m aware it’s only a 2 minute song).
Considering all the things that The Hobbit did right, it’s especially disappointing to see the Rankin-Bass adaptation of The Return of the King fail so miserably at the exact same things. Part of the problem is in scale: The Hobbit is a small book and can edited down to a kids’ cartoon. As the last chapter of an epic three times larger than The Hobbit and aimed squarely at adults, The Return of the King has to do much more and simply doesn’t have enough time, even with an additional 20 minutes vs. The Hobbit. This means that way too much of the dialogue in the special is expository, as characters recite facts, figures, and all the background material that Tolkien spent two Hobbit-sized books to spell out, just so viewers can be aware of what’s going on. It doesn’t succeed at making anything more comprehensible, and I suspect that those unfamiliar with the books will be utterly baffled by the plot. Unfortunately, the non-expository sections alternate between interminable travel scenes as Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee struggle through the dark land of Mordor, and interminable battle scenes as forces of light and darkness battle over the white city of Gondor. Both become tedious too quickly.
Most remarkably, Return of the King breaks the very point that Arthur Rankin, Jr. took such pride in for The Hobbit, fabricating numerous plot points and scenes that are far, far inferior than the worst material that Tolkien produced. If the script will lose Tolkien neophytes, fans will either be bored or infuriated at the changes, many of which wreck the story’s timeline beyond repair. Yet another problem is the music. If I failed to gain affection for Tolkien’s poetry and songs as adapted into actual songs in The Hobbit, at least they were taken from the source material. Return of the King adds numerous songs that have no foundation in Tolkien at all, and every single one of them is spectacularly awful. The one about orcs singing “When there’s a whip, there’s a way,” breaks through the bad barrier to become unintentionally hilarious, but it’s the exception and not the rule. Especially grating is Glenn Yarbrough’s song about “Nine-Fingered Frodo” which serves as theme song and intrudes periodically throughout the movie; his distinctive vibrato as he sings about “Dooooom!” wears out its welcome almost immediately, so it’s unfortunate that it keeps recurring throughout the film. The one bright spot is that most of the character designs are quite good, and the movie does right by Eowyn (easily besting the poor Peter Jackson live-action version). However, by and large Return of the King is a complete waste of time, and justly forgotten in comparison to its prequel.
Both these movies have been out of print for a few years, and I’m not entirely sure why Warner Bros. waited until now to re-release them, considering the the Middle-Earth mania triggered by Peter Jackson’s movies. Both DVDs present the movies in their original full-frame aspect ratio with mono soundtracks. Both look and sound superb considering their age, with only a few scenes in The Hobbit looking a little worn or grainy. I don’t have the old DVDs to compare, but I think it would be difficult to get much better than these discs. Unfortunately, it seems that missing audio chronicled on the last DVD release is still missing on this re-issue, making me think that the video master for the original broadcast and older VHS releases is now lost. I was a little surprised that the trend towards abandoning forced trailers on disc insertion was propagated to these discs, but it’s a welcome import. Bonus features are disappointing. The “vintage featurette” on Tolkien and the filmmakers promised on the packaging is limited to text screens about Tolkien himself and the adaptation of The Hobbit; it’s even more disappointing to see the exact same material on both discs, meaning there is no information about Return of the King at all. Each disc also comes with some medieval-themed cartoons from Warner Bros’ classic library. “Knight-mare Hare,” “Knighty Knight Bugs,” and “Rabbit Hood” come with The Hobbit, while “Good Knight Droopy” and “Jerry Hood and His Merry Meeces” comes with Return of the King.
In the 1970’s, fantasy was not the mainstream entertainment that it has become today, and the state of special effects meant that animation was the only medium that had any chance of adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s work. Of the three different animated adaptations of Tolkien’s work, The Hobbit is easily the most successful and continues to be the one most worthy of attention from modern audiences. On the other hand, Return of the King is an execrable adaptation, worse by far than Ralph Bakshi’s distinctively flawed feature The Lord of the Rings. Warner Home Video has done a service by re-releasing these deluxe edition DVDs now: by bringing a classic of TV animation back into print with The Hobbit and by producing an excellent cautionary tale on how adaptations can go horribly, awfully wrong with Return of the King.