In the first article I ever wrote for this site, I reviewed a 1966 cartoon loosely derived from The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. Now, this cartoon was actually calculated to be as faithless an adaptation as possible for use as a tool of blackmail, and this eventually led to the existence of a second attempt to adapt The Hobbit to the screen eleven years later, this time by Rankin/Bass, a studio famous for its holiday specials. Many of their other works are really good, but they’re really out of their league here. This, along with two later cartoons, are often considered to make up a sort of half-formed trilogy, and I’ll eventually get around to reviewing the other two.
Live-Tweeting a Bad Cartoon
For fun I recently decided to tweet my thoughts on the 1977 Rankin/Bass adaptation of The Hobbit as I sat through it. I dreaded watching this cartoon, and it was somehow worse than I remembered. After watching the Rankin/Bass version, I can’t understand why so many people seem to think that Peter Jackson’s adapting it into three films was unnecessary. Every moment of this cartoon feels rushed, and with everything wrong with it I couldn’t even hope to write my tweets quickly enough to keep up. The hundred-or-so tweets I had time to write don’t even come close to covering this thing.
Now it’s time to give the cartoon a proper review (so I never have to think about it again!).
No Time For a “Good Morning.”
The book begins when the hobbit Bilbo Baggins is approached by the wizard Gandalf, and the witty dialogue quickly summarizes the characters while being hilarious at the same time. Upon Bilbo offering a simple “Good morning,” Gandalf grills him on exactly what he meant by this. When Gandalf brings up the subject of an adventure, the meaning of “Good morning” quickly becomes that it won’t be good until he’s got rid of the wizard.
Rankin/Bass however, strips the scene to the merest skeleton and sucks out the bone-marrow. Virtually all the dialogue from the book is cut out. Here, Gandalf’s first line of dialogue is
“I am looking to hire a burglar!”
Then Bilbo tells him he’s come to the wrong place, and Gandalf starts shooting lightning out of his staff or something and introduces himself. Bilbo then says,
“Gandalf? Not the wandering wizard?”
No mention of Gandalf’s fireworks, which in the book are the only thing the hobbits actually know about him. No mention either of Bilbo’s Tookish heritage, the very reason Gandalf has chosen Bilbo to be his burglar.
An Immediate Throng
Immediately, thirteen dwarves arrive at once and introduce themselves, mispronouncing at least a few of their names in the process. In the book, Bilbo slams the door in Gandalf’s face, and Gandalf carves a mark in Bilbo’s door. The next day, the dwarves begin arriving by ones and twos at his hobbit hole, each one saying “at your service,” except for Thorin, their leader, who says nothing of service. Of course, the cartoon is so rushed that it can’t slow down for even a moment to set the tone for a scene. To be that little bit more insulting, the Thorin of the cartoon is among the very few dwarves to say “at your service.” Mind you, he does say it several times later in the book, but only when he’s in a vulnerable position; Bilbo, needless to say, doesn’t pose a threat to Thorin.
He may look more like the Thorin of the book than Richard Armitage, but whereas Peter Jackson’s version portrays his character very closely to the book, the appearance is the only faithful thing about the cartoon’s portrayal. In the book, the main introduction we get to Thorin’s character is when he hears of his father’s death. In the Peter Jackson movie, the main introduction is when he witnesses the destruction of his home. In the cartoon, however, we are given no real introduction and he’s essentially just another one of the thirteen dwarves.
Thorin, upon hearing of his father’s death at the hand of the Necromancer, says,
“We have paid the goblins of Moria; we must give thought to the Necromancer!”
This line from Chapter One perfectly illustrates the anger that largely defines Thorin’s character, but in the cartoon there is no such anger. Everything that makes Thorin Thorin is gone in the cartoon; we’re never even told the name of Thorin’s grandfather Thror (he’s just referred to as “Under the Mountain”), and his father Thrain is never even mentioned. We’re never told that Kíli and Fíli are Thorin’s nephews, which makes many plot-points later on less powerful.
Pronunciation, Contracts, and the Fall of Erebor
The dwarves explain in spoken verse the fall of Erebor, and I can only assume this is because they were too lazy to record the actors actually singing the song. Whereas the few bits they actually sing of Misty Mountains aren’t terrible, the cartoon’s rendition of Blunt the Knives is truly horrible. Then comes one of the greatest annoyances; everyone in this cartoon pronounces Smaug’s name “Smog.” I realize that many people make this mistake, but when you make a movie you’re meant to do your bloody research! Had Rankin/Bass taken five minutes to check the appendix on pronunciation, they would have seen that it should be pronounced /smaʊɡ/ and not /smɒɡ/!
Moving on, Gandalf forces Bilbo to sign the adventuring contract, leaving no room for the scene where Bilbo awakens to find the dwarves gone and quickly signs the contract, running to the Green Dragon Inn to join them. Because he’s never given the choice in the cartoon, the first turning point of the story is lost.
The Greatest Adventure
It is at this point that this thing becomes painful, and it’s not just because the pacing becomes somehow even more rushed. No! It’s because this is when we first hear the horrible song that’s going to serve as the incessant main theme of this cartoon!
“The Greatest Adventure,” for that is the song’s name, is bloody awful; it exemplifies ’70s corniness, and although it doesn’t start off too bad, it gets grating in not too long.
The late Glenn Yarbrough has a marvellous voice, but it’s painfully out of place in even this cartoonish imitation of Middle-Earth. There’s also something, well… off about the lyrics. To make matters worse, this song plays constantly throughout this film as if to annoy the audience. These songs are sadly destined to become worse over the course of the cartoon trilogy, and those masochists among you may want to look up the one titled “Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom.”
Roast Mutton and Rushed Pacing
When I live-tweeted my experience watching this cartoon, I hadn’t even time enough to type a brief tweet before it had given me two or three more things to complain about. Everything about this cartoon is so rushed that I couldn’t even hope to mention everything wrong with it. If anything good can be said of this cartoon, it’s that it serves as proof that Peter Jackson’s decision to make The Hobbit into three long movies was entirely justified, because this one-movie adaptation is one of the most rushed and poorly-paced movies I’ve ever seen.
The scene with the trolls happens, but it ends in what seems like a half-minute—just like almost every other scene in this! All substance and comedy is absent due to the rushed pacing, so there’s no mention of barn owls. The 1966 cartoon is better paced than this. The company finds the trolls’ hoard and takes whatever they can use, and only now does Gandalf present Thror’s map. No mention is made of Thror or Thrain and the scene essentially goes nowhere.
The Animation Worsens
The only thing one notices here is that there’s something off about the animation, which will grow steadily worse as it goes on. All the characters’ noses look the same, for one thing. Bilbo, of course, looks nothing like Tolkien’s drawings, and for some reason he has round ears; hobbits are supposed to have pointy ears. Worse still is that all the main actors sound like they’re from North America! Jake Gyllenhaal tried using an American accent when he auditioned for the role of Frodo in Peter Jackson’s adaptation, and he rightly didn’t get the part. This movie, on the other hand, shows a clear preference for American accents.
A Short Rest
The voices of the elves sound more dwarvish or hobbitish than elvish, but that’s nothing compared to Elrond (and later Thranduil). In Peter Jackson’s adaptation, Hugo Weaving looks exactly as I remember Elrond being described in the book. He’s described as looking neither old nor young, and that’s precisely how he looks in Peter Jackson’s films. In the cartoon, however, he most certainly looks old and weary. He reads the moon runes on Thror’s—I mean, Under-the-Mountain’s—map. Instead of “the last light of Durin’s Day” shining upon the keyhole, the cartoon speaks only of the “last light of the setting sun.” Why am I not surprised?
Over Hill and Underwhelmed
The cartoon’s version of Clap Snap the Black Crack is unbelievably bad, as is their version of Fifteen Birds in Five Fir Trees. The instrumentation is composed almost entirely of ‘70s synthesizers, and the rhythm they chose is just awful. The design of the orcs themselves isn’t good either.
Brother Theodore as Gollum
Riddles in the Dark was the best scene in An Unexpected Journey because it just shone that little bit brighter than all the other great scenes. By contrast, Riddles in the Dark is the best scene in the cartoon because it’s the only scene in it that can be called well-made by any stretch. It’s certainly the only scene here with any sense of pacing whatsoever. Brother Theodore gives the only really good performance in the cartoon, and of all the characters in this cartoon, Gollum seems closest to the book.
Though he’s no Andy Serkis, Brother Theodore does a really good job with the role. He does a great job portraying Gollum’s unstable madness, hampered only by the limited movement of the animation. Not even Brother Theodore’s fantastic performance could save the script, however. My main problem with this version of Gollum is that he refers to his ring as “my magic ring,” as opposed to calling it “Precious” as in the book. His plural nouns are sometimes wrong, such as when he says “Eggs!” instead of “Eggses!” but again that’s not Brother Theodore’s fault but that of Rankin and Bass.
“What Has It Got in Its Nasty Little Pocketses?”
Both Bilbo and Gollum were deprived of character development when a disembodied voice sang out half the riddles and answers in the interest of getting the scene done quickly. The worst thing about the riddle game, however, is when Bilbo asks his final question: “What have I got in my pocket?” In the book, Bilbo merely muttered it to himself, and the insane Gollum mistook it for an unfair riddle. Here, however, he thinks of the idea and deliberately shouts out the “riddle,” confident that he’s beaten Gollum. Gollum doesn’t even ask for “three guessesses” in this version!
One also notices during this scene that Bilbo hasn’t shown any signs of fear during this film. He appears nonchalant about every danger he faces, which not only goes against the foundations of Tolkienian heroism, but also against the basics of storytelling. If the characters don’t care what happens, the audience can’t care, and Cartoon Bilbo’s lack of fear makes it very hard to feel suspense during these scenes. That Bilbo’s character design is so unsettling, even downright creepy, doesn’t help.
I Do Not Pity Him
Worse than all this is that the single most important part of the scene is entirely absent; the moment when Bilbo contemplates killing Gollum in order to escape. Bilbo, invisible because of the ring, sees Gollum barring his way out and thinks of killing him with his sword; then his compassion for Gollum stays his hand, and he leaps over Gollum’s head in an act of mercy that would go on to define modern heroism. In the cartoon, he never considers it and simply jumps clean over him, shouting “Ta-ta!” Somehow, this is the best scene in the cartoon; all the others manage to be even worse!
…And Into the Fire!
The company is reunited and we are subjected to the aforementioned horrible ‘70s rendition of Fifteen Birds in Five Fir Trees to accompany what at times looks like Paddy the Pelican-style animation. Then the instrumental version of The Greatest Adventure starts playing as they’re saved by the eagles. I honestly wasn’t bothered in the slightest by Peter Jackson’s decision to omit Tom Bombadil. The cartoon, on the other hand, decided to omit Beorn and go straight to Mirkwood without delay, which annoyed me greatly.
This brings me back to the “at your service” line; the only point in the book where Thorin says “at your service”to anyone is when he comes to the home of Beorn, who could have killed him in a second if offended. Bag End is neither the time nor the place to have Thorin say “at your service.” Between this and all that came before it, the cartoon has given Thorin virtually no character development, and we know no more about him than we do about any of the other dwarves. In fact, we learn more about an obscure dwarf like Dori in the book than we do about Thorin in the cartoon.
Exposition and Spiders
The trek through Mirkwood is accompanied not only by the ever-annoying The Greatest Adventure, but also by poorly-acted narration that saves Rankin/Bass the trouble of animating actual scenes. The animation should be telling us what the characters are feeling—not a bad casting decision narrating in a monotone. After Bilbo fights the giant spiders, the dwarves get captured by orcs. Wait—orcs‽ Well, there’s a deviation from the book!
As it turns out, what I mistook for orcs are meant to be this film’s horrible designs for the elves. King Thranduil, a high elf, looks more like an orc than the orcs do in this thing.
The animation continues to get worse with each scene! It’s like the opposite of the first episode of Avatar, where the animation starts off amazing and just gets even better until it reaches the high standard of the rest of the show. Here, the animation starts off alright for a ‘70s cartoon and then gets gradually more unpleasant to look at.
When the barrels reach Lake-Town, it seems that Bard’s already in charge because the Master’s nowhere to be seen in this thing, and it becomes quickly apparent that the cartoon is never going to refer to it as Esgaroth. Thorin introduces himself, and because of his American accent he pronounces his name “Tharin.” And yes; they do keep calling the dragon Smog. I think it’s even more annoying than in the ’66 cartoon where they call him Slag.
When the Thrush Knocks
The company leaves Lake-Town and climbs The Lonely Mountain, and I feel I must mention that although the animation is quite terrible by this point, the watercolour backgrounds are consistently pleasant throughout most of the cartoon. American Bilbo narrates all this to make the lazy animators’ lives easier. The thrush knocks a snail against a rock, and “the last light of the setting sun” shines upon the keyhole, allowing them to open the door without it being Durin’s Day. The animation of Bilbo’s face is horrifying.
“Smog” the Yankee-Lynx
Thorin sends Bilbo into Erebor, and instead of Balin going in with him, Rankin/Bass decided that the thrush should accompany Bilbo. Instead of a seasoned veteran, the cartoon gives him a freaking songbird! Oh, why did I have to mention songs? Yes, The Greatest Adventure starts playing again!
And here we come to the worst voice-actor of the main cast! “Smog” the Terrible is voiced by Richard Boone, an American actor best known for his roles in Westerns. Smog, a furry dragon who looks like a lynx, has a thick Arkansas cowboy accent in what’s supposed to be Middle-Earth! In a film where almost every accent is horribly out of place, Smog’s accent seizes the prize for being the worst of them. I keep expecting the dragon to pull out a revolver and shout, “Yee-haw!”
Fearless Cartoon Bilbo
Just as was the case when Bilbo played his riddle-game with Gollum in this cartoon, the poorly-animated burglar shows no fear around Smog and almost seems to be getting off on the danger. I know Yankee-Lynx “Smog” looks like a cat and isn’t very intimidating, but still! Almost every line he’s said since the start of this thing has sounded light-hearted and cheerful. There’s no suspense, no immersion, and nothing else to give this cartoon any worth. You’d think that Smog’s southern twang would be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but it turns out this thing can still get worse.
Bard, A Robot of Lake-Town
You’ll remember I said that “Smog” was the worst actor of the main cast. Well, now we come to the worst actor of this entire cartoon! Bard the Bowman, who’s already in charge of Esgaroth in the cartoon, doesn’t just have an American accent; his acting also happens to be terrible! He sounds like a malfunctioning voice synthesizer!
A dalek could play Bard more convincingly.
No Arkenstone—No Plot
After the poorly-acted bowman kills Yankee-Lynx Smog, despite there being no mention of his ancestor Lord Girion of Dale, we cut to inside the city of Erebor. Whereas in the book it’s clear that Thorin is falling to some sort of mental illness, the most we’re given here is a joke where one of the dwarves puts on a crown and shouts, “Look! Now I am king!” and Thorin says,
“Stop! There is only one king under the mountain, and I am he!”
In the book, Thorin threatened to kill any of his companions who found the Arkenstone and withheld it, showing that he was starting to lose his grip. This, I’m sorry to say, brings us to what I consider to be the root of the worst parts of this cartoon; the Arkenstone, the driving force behind the story’s main conflict, is omitted entirely.
The World’s Heaviest Shirt of Mithril?
For some reason Bilbo is given heavy dwarven armour instead of his iconic mithril shirt, and he even complains that it’s heavy and uncomfortable. Bilbo’s decision to withhold the Arkenstone from Thorin and give it to Bard so he might bargain for his share of the treasure is omitted, of course, and so begins what I assume is meant to be the kiddie equivalent to the exchange at the gatehouse.
The Battle of Five Poorly Animated Armies
The Battle of Five Armies happens, and since Gandalf never saves Bilbo from an enraged Thorin and doesn’t even exchange a word with the hobbit, his appearance is largely pointless in the cartoon. For some reason Thranduil says to Thorin,
“Your people are like brothers unto mine,”
Now, that statement is simply untrue. Moving on, Bilbo shrugs off his armour, which is an incredibly stupid move. Again, he’s supposed to be wearing an inconspicuous shirt of mithril under his clothes, but this cartoon just can’t do anything right, so why should this be an exception? The battle proceeds in just as light-hearted a manner as the rest of this abomination, and nothing has any emotional weight. The cheap ‘70s animation only makes things worse.
The Battle Draws to a Close
This abomination’s almost over. I can do this. Just breathe…
As the battle ends, the story nears what should be a scene heavy with emotion. Thorin’s nephews—his only heirs—have been slaughtered in the battle against Bolg’s host (though the cartoon never mentions Bolg), and Thorin himself lies dying of his wounds. In short, the tragic dwarf king has lost everything. This final conclusion to the tale is, in the book, truly devastating.
Seven… Soon To Be Six
The cartoon manages somehow to screw even this up. Bilbo awakens from a blow to the head that I couldn’t tell had happened because of the bad animation. He sees Bombur crawling towards him and asks what happened. Bombur tells him that they won and then… dies? Well, that didn’t happen in the book. To the sound of horribly cheerful and ill-fitting music, Gandalf tells Bilbo that of their original thirteen remain only seven, and of Thorin,
“Soon there will be only six.”
First of all, this wording makes him seem like an asshole! Secondly, this is one of the things that really secure this cartoon’s place as an abomination. Instead of being given the names of the fallen like we are in the book, we’re simply given a hollow, soulless number. I’d complain that the number itself is in fact wrong, but that’s the least of this thing’s problems at the moment. Kíli and Fíli’s names aren’t mentioned as being among the dead, and to make things worse we’re never told that they’re the sons of his sister, so we’re given no inkling that Thorin’s house has been essentially wiped out.
If the idea is simply to make us feel sad, then the cartoon needs to actually list the names of the dead—and don’t play cheerful music while you do it! Bombur isn’t Thorin’s sister-son, so even his death isn’t going to have quite the same impact on Thorin.
Courage and Wisdom… Just Not in The Cartoon!
As for the death scene itself, the cartoon words parts of it faithfully to the book, but for all the reasons I’ve already listed, it’s not nearly as powerful. When Thorin says, “Farewell, good thief,” it’s almost nonsensical because Bilbo never stole anything at any point in the cartoon. The animation also contributes to the scene’s failure, as does the line,
“I wish to part in friendship and would take back my words at the gate.”
In the book, Thorin refers to his “words and deeds at the gate,” because, again, he tried to throw Bilbo from the ramparts. Just thinking about Thorin’s death in the book brings tears to my eyes, but the rushed pace of the cartoon leaves no time to connect with the characters. The conflict that this scene resolved in the book simply doesn’t exist here, and the scene falls flat in its absence.
If You Really Understood That Ring
Immediately following Thorin’s death, the cartoon cuts jarringly to Bilbo’s return to the Shire, skipping the funeral entirely. The auction is omitted, and Bilbo goes right back to his armchair without any trouble. That’s not the problem with this scene, though. The problem is that Gandalf tells Bilbo,
“If you really understood that ring, as someday members of your family not yet born will, then you’d realize that this story has not ended, but is only beginning!”
Oh, bloody… As dreadful as this cartoon was, I hadn’t expected it to end on such a demented sequel-bait. I don’t think there’s enough time to list all the things wrong with this. Why does Gandalf know about the Ring? I mean, of course he knows it’s a ring of power, but why would the thought even cross his mind that it might be the One Ring? He’s not supposed to suspect that for another sixty years. If he knows it’s the One, then why’s he okay with Bilbo wearing it? If he already knows how dangerous it is, then he should warn him never to put it on under any circumstances? When he begins in the book to suspect that the ring might be the One Ring, he tells Frodo to keep it hidden and never put it on.
Of All the Worst Things That Could Happen…
I hadn’t expected anything good, but the Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit is worse than I remembered. Apart from Brother Theodore’s short-lived performance as Gollum, there is precious little that’s positive to say about it. I think most of its problems come from two main roots. Firstly, the book upon which it’s based was written more with war veterans in mind than children, yet Rankin/Bass did everything in their power to make this cartoon as child-friendly as possible. In spite of having removed all the dark themes and making the tone as light-hearted as they could, they also omitted every ounce of comedy from the story, making the cartoon worthless on both counts.
This Is the… Worst… Possible… Thing!
After watching this, I have lost what little respect I had for the claim that Peter Jackson went overboard with making three films, because to call the pacing of this cartoon rushed would be an understatement. Among the brief, emotionless scenes, I’d no inkling of what was supposed to be going on in this cartoon (and I’ve lost count how many times I’ve read the book without any trouble). Every moment from the book that builds character is cut for time here. Apart from Riddles in the Dark, I can’t think of a single scene that lasted much more than a minute. The commercial breaks only rub shrapnel into the wound.
The 1977 Rankin/Bass adaptation of The Hobbit is nothing more than a sad attempt to turn one of the great works of literature into a made-for-TV kids’ cartoon, and it is a great relief that I’ll never have to watch this thing again.