“Hello, what’s this?” One often finds unexpected treasures on unplanned journeys that alter the course of destiny. Or maybe it was all preordained? Enter the rich and full harmonics of John Huston’s voice… “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”… now thus this classic journey begins yet again. Long before Peter Jackson’s film adaptations and well before I knew the name J.R.R. Tolkien had any meaning, I enjoyed a cartoon produced by Rankin/Bass and animated by a Japanese studio named Topcraft. It is simply named The Hobbit, just like the original book, and what a grand adventure it was and still is.
“The greatest adventure is what lies ahead…”, or perhaps it is also what has gone before. I have always found animation when done properly, can become the modern mythology that we all need as a society. At least in my case, many of the central core myths and legends are these moving drawn pictures which have shaped my reality, philosophies and life. When animation meets a literary mythical giant, then you have the opportunity for something really special. The Hobbit is an excellent piece of evidence towards this hypothesis. As a kid I had no notion of Tolkien’s legend or reputation and even still I am not the biggest fan, but I do know when a story is more than just an ephemeral experience.
The Hobbit is a classic Joseph Campbell styled ‘Hero’s Journey’ were one leaves a comfortable life of safety and routine to become transformed through an unexpected event, meeting, or situation. Bilbo Baggins is a metaphor for you, or me, and his joining up with Gandalf and the company of dwarves through his adventures of Middle Earth could be yours as well, though maybe not as fantastical. What’s your favorite part of Bilbo’s journey? Meeting Elrond, Bard, or even Smaug? Perhaps the run in and troubles with trolls, or goblins? My favorite, and perhaps for you as well, was the meeting of Gollum and Bilbo’s subsequent finding a shiny ring… my precious. But not just any ring. This ring is the legendary ring of power in the forthcoming Lord of the Rings. Gollum’s voice actor in this version sets a standard in my book for being so odd, eerie, corrupt and psychotic. A brilliant performance that sends shivers down the spine and also makes one want to imitate each intonation out of respect.
The artwork has a storybook quality almost like when you are a kid and each page unfolds with a new image that brings surprise. Or perhaps, an unfolding medieval scroll that has the grit and organic quality that feeds into the imagination. The designs are a combination of Tolkien standard illustrations and the odd character designs that are attributed to much or Rankin/Bass’ output from the late 70s/early 80s. Think The Last Unicorn, Flight of Dragons, or The Wind in the Willows. Almost a hybrid of western and Japanese sensibilities that are grotesque, but appealing in a way. No one looks heroic or fashionable and this again gives the story a little more of a grounded appeal. Almost as if this production did come out of the dirt and rocks of a landscape, very natural.
The grunt of the animation and drawing was accomplished by a studio named Topcraft, which evolved eventually into a fairly well known studio known as Ghibli. Heard of that one, it’s fairly famous and popular? After all, Topcraft was the group that Hayao Miyazaki worked with on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. However, Rankin/Bass had been a client of Topcraft during the 1970s and 1980s and this version of The Hobbit is a prime example of that partnership. Nice work everyone!
Short (as compared to an elongated live action movie trilogy), concise, well animated and with some sing along songs that add charm, the Rankin/Bass versioning of The Hobbit is still a standard go to for many of us. For me it is an early treasure, or perhaps a discovery, from my youth that still holds value into the current day. The Hobbit is one movie that I consider as ‘precious’, yet it does not corrupt like a particular ring. It instead enriches the soul.