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Features, Humor, Opinion

Ugly Elves & Inflatable Orcs: Rankin/Bass’ 1977 ‘The Hobbit’ Reviewed

03.23.10 | Kunochan | 23 Comments

hobbit77_188x265Author JRR Tolkien believed that we each have a great sacrifice to make, for the betterment of all humanity. Frodo bore the Ring, for the sake of The Shire; Aragorn walked the Paths of the Dead, for the sake of the Free Peoples; and I watched Rankin/Bass Productions’ 1977 animated television production of The Hobbit, for you, my readers.

You’re welcome. Do I get to sail to Tol Eressëa now?

I had not watched The Hobbit since I saw it as a ten-year-old in 1977, and I must honestly say it’s nowhere near as bad as I remembered. But before I get into an overall critique of the movie as art, some background information – and my patented Sarcastic Plot Synopsis. (By the way, I will repeatedly refer to this 77-minute special as a “movie” or “film,” for lack of widely accepted synonyms for “made-for-television animated video.”)

Tolkien fans (of the Orlando-Bloom-adoring, official-movie-collectible-stainless-steel-Hadhafang-collecting, couldn’t-make-it-all-the-way-through-Fellowship variety, not of the Silmarillion-memorizing, Quenya-learning, visiting-the-Tolkiens’-grave-at-Wolvercote variety) are often unaware there were Tolkien adaptations well before Peter Jackson plonked down his phat The Frighteners cash on a crazy pitch to New Line — stage plays, radio plays, and several animated motion picture and television productions. Tolkien himself fended off a number of ill-conceived film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, including one starring The Beatles as Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin, and another which eliminated 90% of the story by having Frodo and Gandalf fly to Mordor on the backs of Eagles, before selling the film rights to Rings and The Hobbit to United Artists in 1968. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest producer Saul Zaentz acquired those rights in 1976, three years after Tolkien died, and still controls them.

The first of the Zaentz-controlled adaptations to appear was The Hobbit, produced by Rankin/Bass. If you’re a member of Generation X, there are a few things you know – the function of Conjunction Junction; that Janeane Garofalo is the coolest person alive; that Ross, Rachel et al would not have been fans of Hootie nor the Blowfish; and you know Messrs. Rankin and Bass. They produced a number of stop-motion animated TV specials in the 60s and 70s, including the beloved (unless you’re Jewish) Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town. The Hobbit was an early stab by Rankin/Bass at traditional cel animation.

A number of talented film directors and actors lent their voices to the production, particularly John Huston (The Maltese Falcon) as Gandalf, Otto Preminger (Stalag 17) as the Elvenking, Hans Conried (Snidely Whiplash on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show) as Thorin, and Orson Bean (Being John Malkovich, homophobic douchebag) as Bilbo.

The special was first broadcast on NBC on Sunday, November 27, 1977.

And now, my Sarcastic Plot Synopsis, now with Sarcastic Screen Caps!

Sarcastic Plot Synopsis [SPOILER ALERT]

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First of all, why do screenwriters always think they can write better than Tolkien? Do they treat Dickens and Hemingway this way? (Probably.) John Huston as Gandalf handles the narration (it would be more in keeping with the spirit of the book to have Bilbo narrate) – but as soon as “In a hole in the ground there was a Hobbit” is out of his mouth, he veers off into an unnecessary bit of business designed to clarify that our story takes place in the distant past. Really, John? Wizards and dragons are in the past? We couldn’t figure out from the swords, armor, codpieces and corsets that this isn’t Metropolitan Detroit, circa 1973? Thanks for clearing that up.

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But soon enough we’re back to “dry, bare, sandy holes,” and Bilbo Baggins blowing smoke rings on the stoop of Bag End. (We’ll ignore the fact he’s smoking the biggest bong this side of the Marnixstraat – actually, that’s quite fitting, considering the importance of pipe-weed to Hobbits, and of Tolkien to hippies. Besides, the movie was made in 1977.) Rankin and Bass’ Bilbo is at least softened and improved from their original concept art, which made the Master of Bag End out to be some kind of bloated frog-man. Nor is he the Frankenstein-haired Billy Barty of Ralph Bakshi’s execrable two-thirds of The Lord of the Rings.

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Gandalf shows up looking acceptable, although an ill-conceived attempt to adhere to Tolkien’s “long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat” gives this Gandalf’s face an unfortunate orangutan-like quality. The first thing out of his mouth is “I’m looking to hire a burglar,” which is like having the first thing out of Verbal Kint’s mouth be “I’m really Keyser Soze and I’m making this shit up.” Okay, it’s not that bad, and I know this movie’s only 77 minutes long, but still. Gandalf’s supposed to be subtle. Is he going to march right up to Beorn and demand turn-down service?

When Bilbo refuses this bizarre offer, Gandalf has a lightning-laden hissy fit that presages Ian McKellen’s 24 years later. The dialogue is peppered with little quotes from the book (“I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means me!”), but the variations from the novel’s dialogue stand out, because they’re expository and not very fluid or clever.

The Dwarves start popping out of bushes and stalking from behind tress with capes over their faces like penny arcade villains, which makes one wonder why they needed a burglar in the first place. The Dwarves are all immediately polite to Bilbo, even Thorin Oakenshield, who introduces everyone himself. I know it’s tough to have character development for 13 Dwarves, but can’t at least one or two have personalities? (Funny, Disney accomplished it with seven. But they were “dwarfs,” not Dwarves.) We have time for the That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates song, but no time for a haughty Thorin? And are Dwarves ventriloquists, that they can all sing with their mouths closed?

Then the Dwarves sing Far over the Misty Mountains cold, a cappella, while they “play” silent violins and tubas. Thorin explains what the Quest of Erebor is all about, with help from Gandalf as narrator; and the movie does a good job of illustrating the downfall of the Dwarven kingdom. (But why do Dwarves all wear cloaks indoors? If anyone could master central heating, it would be Dwarves.) In fact, the movie spends a looong time on just how much treasure the Dwarves made – as if they never forged a double-bend draft shaft, iron tuyere or aftermarket rim. But at least the whole sequence is set to Tolkien’s actual poetry.

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Once Bilbo understands what he’s supposed to do, he executes a wacky comedy swoon, and the character goes from vaguely likable to shamefully detestable all in a moment. Yes, the original book is whimsical in places, but never, ever wacky. There is a difference.

Now we’re nine minutes, or 12% of the way, into this thing and the opening credits finally roll. In all fairness, in the book this is page 31 of 335, or 9.2% along. Still, it feels like I’ve been watching this thing forever, and nothing has happened yet. The theme song is not Tolkien, and it’s idiotic – something about not wasting time, taking control of your life and having great adventures. Bilbo definitely becomes a better person because of his adventure – but as a middle-aged, wealthy hereditary landowner in an agrarian pre-industrial society, he was hardly struggling with unhappiness and poor self-esteem before Gandalf came along.

The credits say “Based on the original version of ‘The Hobbit’ by JRR Tolkien.” What the hell does that mean? Is there some other version with which I’m not familiar?

For some reason, while Bilbo is asleep during the evening between the Unexpected Party and his departure, he dreams he has been crowned king of the Dwarves. I’m not sure what this is supposed to tell us about Bilbo, except maybe that he has delusions of grandeur, or a Napoleon complex that compels him to fantasize about lording over taller races.

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The part of the book with Gandalf shooing Bilbo out of his smial without a pocket-handkerchief is deleted, but Bilbo whines anyway that he brought no sundries. Since we don’t know why he left the house without anything, the unenlightened viewer gets the impression that Bilbo is just an idiot.

So now we get to the Trolls. I neglected to mention that this version of The Hobbit is de-Britishized (a made-up word, but “de-Anglicized” means something else). Nobody has an English accent, although some characters drift in and out of a pseudo-British “hoity-toity” mode of speaking. Everyone is talking in “Historical/Fantasy American,” a stilted form of modern American English used in historical dramas and medieval fantasy films to represent however people would actually be speaking. (Add a Southern twang, whether the story takes place in the South or not, and you have “Cowboy/Western American.”) So instead of the Cockney Trolls of Tolkien, we get mildly retarded Midwesterners.

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The talking purse, one of the coolest things in The Hobbit (although Legendarium purists get tied up in knots explaining the magic behind it, and some even insist Bilbo “made it up”), is gone. In the book, Bilbo escapes while the Trolls quarrel; here, they simply let him go for no reason.

The whole Troll encounter is simplified to the point where it makes no sense. Gandalf doesn’t trick the Trolls with his clever ventriloquism – he just appears out of thin air (literally, as if teleporting), and seems to actually cause the sun to rise with his staff. That’s some magic that would even impress Hermione Granger.

Bilbo locates the Trolls’ cave, which leads me to an aside that really has nothing to do with the animated The Hobbit. Fans of the Legendarium know that the sword Gandalf finds in the cave is none other than Glamdring, the blade of Turgon, the Noldoran king of Gondolin in the First Age during the War of the Jewels. Finding this epic blade in a troll-hoard is like coming across Excalibur at a yard sale. Certainly this monumental bit of improbable good luck will be helpful to Gandalf in the coming War of the Ring. I just think his reaction, and Elrond’s later on, should be a bit less reserved.

Back to the movie: Gandalf, Bilbo and the Dwarves have a weird conversation about what runes are, and what the runes on the swords mean. The point of this is lost on me – I would rather have seen Gandalf trick the Trolls. Then, Gandalf chooses this moment to reveal the existence of Thror’s Map – not back at Bilbo’s house, as in the book, or even at Rivendell; but here, in a cave in The Wild. Sure, why the hell not?

Bizarrely, Bilbo mentions the runes on the map that reveal the Lonely Mountain’s hidden entrance – even though these runes are still invisible, and aren’t on the map when we see it in close-up while Bilbo is speaking. Seriously, anyone watching this adaptation is going to assume Tolkien was an idiot. This is exactly the type of thing the Professor complained about in his letters – filmmakers who make unnecessary, nonsensical changes to the story. Like turning the Dead Men of Dunharrow into wacky green scrubbing bubbles, or Sauron into an evil lighthouse. But I digress.

Thorin is kind of a dick in this scene, which is good.

Bing bang boom, and we teleport to Rivendell. The Elves sing the Tra-la-la-lally song, but the way it’s arranged it sounds like the music from a Pepperidge Farm ad. We never see the singers, and they mispronounce the Dwarves’ names.

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I wouldn’t have any problem with the character design for Elrond Half-elven, except for that weird thing on his head. It’s actually pretty cool looking, and I could imagine Fëanor or Gil-Galad with some kind of floaty magical gem halo. But Elrond? He’s not the king of anything.

Now Elrond reveals the rune letters, making the conversation in the cave completely pointless. He has barely finished talking when –

BAM! We’re in the Misty Mountains, it’s raining, and everyone is scurrying for shelter in the cave that turns out to be the Goblin’s Doorstep. Now, I’m all for a briskly-moving story, but this is ridiculous. I mean, a viewer unfamiliar with the book will have no idea where everyone is, how they got there, or why they’re hiding in a cave. There’s a lot of nonsense elsewhere that could have been cut to make time for some storytelling here. It would be like, I dunno, wasting time on a bizarre subplot about Aragorn falling off a cliff, while leaving the final fate of Saruman on the cutting room floor. But I digress.

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Bilbo has another dream, this time a flashback to the song about What Bilbo Baggins Hates. Why? WHY??? Then the Goblins attack. Somehow all the Dwarves and Gandalf sleep through an unexplained cave-in and the theft of the ponies, but wake up when Bilbo cries out. The Goblins/Orcs here are vaguely ranine (but so are Bilbo and Gollum) – they have giant horns like Texas Longhorns, mouths full of tusks, and cat noses. They don’t look anything like the Orcs in my head – but since Tolkien never describes his Orcs (except “squat” and – ick — “swarthy”), you can really get away with anything here. Even Neurofibromatosis type I.

The Goblins sing the Ho, ho! my lad! song, but with a pop-rock accompaniment that must have inspired the movie A Knight’s Tale.

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Okay, see if you can explain to me what happens next. The Goblins capture the Dwarves and Bilbo, and take them to see the Great Goblin, who looks like Boss Nass in an earl’s coronet. The Great Goblin is about to literally bite Thorin’s head off when Gandalf yells “Stop!” There’s a Laser Floyd light show that the Goblins stare at blankly, and then Glamdring appears floating in the air by itself. Glamdring fires a laser bolt at the Great Goblin, who – I shit you not – flies off into nothingness exactly like a deflating balloon, shrinking and thinning as he spirals off into the dark.

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Everyone runs, chased by the Goblins, who are apparently upset by the puncturing of their helium-filled leader. And Bilbo… falls down a bottomless pit.

Rankin: Let’s see. Okay, page 114 – Bilbo bumps his head in the dark and gets separated from the Dwarves.
Bass: That’s boring. Let’s have him fall down a bottomless pit.
Rankin: How would he survive the fall? Why didn’t any of the others fall down the pit? If Gandalf knew Bilbo was in trouble, wouldn’t he send off the Dwarves and stay behind to help the Hobbit?
Bass: It’s a kids’ movie. It doesn’t have to make sense! Kids are stupid!

Since Balin stays behind to look for Bilbo, it’s clear that (1) the Goblins are no longer chasing them and (2) Gandalf could have used his teleporting, invisibility, balloon-popping and sun-controlling powers to do something. But that’s not what happens.

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Now Bilbo finds the Ring, and we meet Gollum.

The Rankin/Bass Gollum looks pretty good. He is very appealingly ugly in a movie where every character is ugly, even the Elves. Late Night with David Letterman mainstay Brother Theodore, a “performance artist” (which is what they call you when no one understands why what you do is supposed to be entertaining), provided the voice. His work on Gollum was probably pretty good, but now that Andy Serkis has absolutely nailed it and owned the character forever, no other version is going to be very satisfying. I am disappointed that Mr. Theodore’s idea of making the “gollum” noise is to just say “gollum.” You know, Serkis was willing to blow out his throat for his craft, just like Kurt Cobain.

Here, there’s no real reason for Gollum to propose the riddle contest. In the book, it’s a delaying tactic, until he can learn more about Bilbo and determine whether he is dangerous, or merely tasty. The Gollum of The Hobbit is meant to be less dangerous and disturbing than the baby-eating psychopath of The Lord of the Rings – but his ultimate goal is to kill and eat Bilbo, even before he knows that the Hobbit has his Precious.

Now we get another of those WTF moments that suggest Messrs. Bass and Rankin were partaking a tad too freely of wacky tobacky. Taking the original book’s riddles out of order, Gollum poses the “Wind” riddle and Bilbo counters with “Egg.” Then the camera wanders off into the caverns while an unseen choir slowly intones the “Dark” riddle. This seems to take about eight minutes, although it may have been less, and makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Gollum then recites the “Time” riddle, albeit with the delivery of Master Thespian performing Hamlet’s soliloquy. Bilbo gets it right by accident, just as in the book; but he asks “What have I got in my pocket?” intentionally here, which makes him a cheater, according to the rules. Gollum doesn’t even try to guess – he just runs off the get his Precious, which of course is missing.

Bilbo tries on the Ring, and in Gollum’s inexplicably well-lighted cave the Halfling can see he has turned invisible – actually, about 85% transparent, so the moronic little kiddies who watched NBC on Sunday nights, begging to stay up for McMillan and Wife on the NBC Mystery Movie, didn’t wonder where he went. Sting does not become invisible, which is a little problematic. Actually, Sting makes Bilbo transparent; without it he’s invisible – sometimes. The invisibility in this version of The Hobbit is about as reliably logical as the kryptonite in the Superman movies, or the Cylon “plan” on Battlestar Galactica.

The Leap in the Dark is a humorous throwaway, not the dramatic and memorable moment it was in the book. Indeed, this movie has no dramatic moments, and few memorable ones.

From the point Bilbo meets Gollum, the movie spends eight-and-a-half minutes on their encounter, which doesn’t seem long until you realize it’s another 12% of the running time. I think Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum is not only the most memorable part of The Hobbit, it’s also the pivot point for Bilbo’s personal story arc. This is where the timid, conservative Hobbit of the first half begins to transform into the brave, heroic Hobbit of the second. This is not just because he finds his magic Ring, or survives the encounter with Gollum. Bilbo manages to get out of a terrifying situation – trapped all alone in a maze of Goblin-infested tunnels, deep beneath the mountains, far from home – and he does it through his own level-headedness and bravery. So it’s okay if we spend some time on it. I’m talking to you, Guillermo.

Unfortunately, here we get another one of Rankin and Bass’ bizarre editorial decisions. Bilbo leaps over Gollum – and we fade to Bilbo explaining to the Dwarves and Gandalf how he escaped. Apparently, the Goblins cease to exist, the mountains cease to exist, and Bilbo possesses a magical GPS device that leads him back to the Dwarves wherever they might be. (I know, in the book he relocates his companions by sheer luck – but at least we see it happen, and he plays a trick on them as well.)

In the book, Gandalf guesses there is more to Bilbo’s story than the Hobbit is sharing. But movie Gandalf somehow knows about the Ring; I guess that goes with his other godlike powers.

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Now the Goblins and Wargs appear. Someone – not the Goblins, perhaps the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus – sings the Fifteen Birds in Five Fir Trees song. This happens before anyone attacks, before we see any fir trees, before anyone is set on fire. It’s like breaking into the “Munchkinland Song” while Dorothy is still flying around in her house. Well, at least they’re keeping the songs – right, Peter Jackson?

Gandalf creates his Pinecone Grenades of Death, for once using a magical power he actually has in the book. (Is it still a “pinecone” if it’s from a fir tree? Tolkien seems to think so, and he wrote the Oxford English Dictionary, so whom am I to argue? (Actually, he was a temporary sub-editor on the first edition of the OED, working on the history and etymology of words of Germanic origin beginning with the letter “W” — fer reals. Anyway.)) The Goblins set fire to the trees, in an effort to make the song make sense, and our heroes are about to die (it seems that Narya, the Elven Ring of Fire, gives Gandalf the power to cause fires, but not to put them out).

Here Tolkien turns to his commonly-used deus ex accipitridae, the heroic giant Eagles of Manwë Súlimo, who rescue our heroes here, and at the Battle of Five Armies, and at Orthanc, the Fall of Orodruin, the Fall of Gondolin, and the War of Wrath. If you’re a good guy in Middle Earth, you can fight any battle you want, and rest assured the Eagles will show up when things go badly. They will NOT, however, carry you and your friends to Mordor to drop a Ring in a Crack.

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While Rankin and Bass were faithful with their giant wolves, they couldn’t just do the right thing by Eagles. Once again, Gandalf pulls a magic power out of his ass, and summons the Eagles. (In the book, the Eagles made a habit of keeping an eye on the evil Goblins, and were drawn by the fire.)

The Eagles take everyone straight to the eaves of Mirkwood, leaving poor Beorn the Skin-changer out in the cold with Tom Bombadil, Radagast, Glorfindel, and every other important character left out of a Tolkien adaptation.

Gandalf leaves on his “pressing business to the South,” which will undoubtedly take up an hour of Guillermo del Toro’s version. Then he teleports away! WTF?

The movie uses the device of having Gandalf ask Bilbo to keep a journal of his further adventures (“so I can point out your missteps,” Gandalf says, the only original dialogue in this adaptation that is (a) funny and (b) true to the character). This lets Bilbo narrate the movie from here on, although things were going fine without a narrator, so I’m not sure what the point was.

In Mirkwood, Bilbo declares that he will call his journal “There and Back Again.” At this point in the story, “and Back Again” is fairly presumptuous. Hell, he hasn’t even accomplished “There” yet.

There’s a nice moment when Bilbo climbs to the top of the trees, sees the black butterflies in the sunlight, and tears up. It’s poorly animated, but it’s well done as an emotional beat. The whole point of the original scene, that Bilbo thinks the edge of the forest is nowhere near when it is in fact quite close, is cut; as is Bombur’s encounter with the enchanted stream.

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Back to the realm of drug-fueled weirdness: Bilbo is attacked by a cackling giant “spider,” a thing with a spider’s body but the head of that guy who sold you mescaline at a Grateful Dead show in 1968. Bilbo points his sword at the spider, and the chimeric creature dissolves into a swirling kaleidoscopic image. Now the fight is apparently over, as we don’t see the spider again. Suuure.

Bilbo saves the Dwarves by throwing a single rock at a single spider – it also spins out of existence. Obviously by this point, Rankin & Bass were just phoning it in. And why does Bilbo put on the Ring to throw a rock? What purpose does that serve?

Some more spiders give chase, in the worst animation in the whole movie. Until the butterfly scene, the animation here was pretty good, for television. Were they running out of money? Time? Weed?

Now things turn from bad to awful. Bilbo says, “I think I can hold them off. Run to the Wood Elves’ clearing.” Really, Rankin and Bass? The Wood Elves’ clearing that has never been mentioned or established before? The one Bilbo and the Dwarves couldn’t possibly know about? That Wood Elves’ clearing?

Sigh. Bilbo waves Sting around, the spiders spin and disappear, yadda yadda. If Rankin and Bass don’t care anymore, why should we?

Bilbo watches as the Dwarves are captured by the Wood Elves, who unlike the Rivendell Elves haven’t invented pants.

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During a montage featuring the Roll-roll-roll-roll song, Bilbo saves the Dwarves, following the book closely enough. This could have been very dramatic and exciting, but we get a montage instead. You know, because Peter Jackson could have saved a lot of time by making the Battle of the Pelennor Fields a musical montage, perhaps set to Enya’s haunting “May It Be” – or what is in this case a jaunty sea shanty.

Everyone arrives at Lake-town, where we learn Men haven’t invented pants either. I don’t remember Tolkien specifying an Age of Pantlessness, although there is some interesting material about Dúnedain hosiery in Volume 13 of The History of Middle Earth, “Morgoth’s Trousers.”

We meet Bard the Bowman, fresh off his starring role in Smokey and the Bandit – we know he’s a bowman because he wears his quiver all the time, even in town when there are no dragons attacking. Then Bilbo and the Dwarves are off to the Lonely Mountain, where the Thrush helps then find the secret door. It’s all time compressed, but at least they don’t teleport there.

The Thrush accompanies Bilbo down to Smaug’s lair – because obviously, the Thrush needed more of a story arc. Bilbo gives himself a little pep talk in the tunnel, and then goes in to encounter the dragon.

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Smaug is 75% dragon, 20% lion, and 5% ’57 Chevy Impala. For some reason, Smaug has headlamps for eyes, which show us, in a visually over-the-top manner, where he’s looking. One wonders if this inspired Peter Jackson to depict Sauron as an evil lighthouse.

Here Smaug is one of those strange six-limbed dragons, with four regular limbs and then two bat wings sprouting from a random location on his back. Yet he has proper little claws on his wings, as if they were forelimbs. Yes, I know dragons are magical creatures freed from the rules of Darwinian evolution – still, all these regular creatures with wings stuck on them (dragons, angels, pegasi) baffle me. Just turn the forelimbs into wings like nature does – although I admit that leads to a pretty funky Pegasus, and even funkier angels.

Smaug is voiced by character actor and Have Gun – Will Travel star Richard Boone, who portrays the smooth and cunning dragon of the book as a phlegmatic Brooklyn cab driver. Orson Bean utterly fails to convince us that Bilbo is the least bit scared, or even concerned, about being flambéed and eaten. Perhaps Bean was too concerned with making sure gays can’t marry in California to concentrate on his performance.

Instead of the riddles and dangerous verbal gambits from the book, we get an acid-slavering Smaug who loses his patience right away and has a conniption. The Smaug of the book is the student of Glaurung, the consummate liar and manipulator of The Silmarillion. The Smaug of the book guesses as much as could possibly be guessed from Bilbo’s incautious riddles, and manages to plant in the Hobbit’s head doubts about the loyalty of his Dwarven companies.

This Smaug skips all that, although he still gives part of Smaug’s boasting speech (“My armour is like tenfold shields…”) and smashes up a fair bit of his lair demonstrating his Thunderbolt Tail and Death Breath.

Bizarrely (again), Bilbo informs Smaug there’s a gap in his breast armor (I suppose so the Thrush can overhear), but Smaug somehow fails to understand, and thinks this is one of the Hobbit’s riddles. How Smaug can fail to understand when Bilbo says “Old fool, there is a large patch in the hollow of your left breast as bare as a snail out of its shell!” is beyond me. That’s pretty clear and non-riddly.

Then because movie Bilbo is functionally retarded and has a death wish, he pulls off his Ring right in front of Smaug, and waves a stolen cup in the dragon’s face. Smaug blasts fire at the Hobbit, who rolls a 20 on his Saving Throw Versus Breath Weapons, and outruns the flames.

Smaug attacks, forces Bilbo and the Dwarves into the tunnel, and is then off to kill the Lake-men. Now if you remember The Hobbit, it was established that a magical, talking variety of bird dwelt in the region of Erebor. The Thrush, which overheard Bilbo tell the Dwarves about the missing armor, rushes off to inform Bard.

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In this version, Bilbo sends the thrush to warn Bard. “Yes you, who are a mere thrush, yet so much more!” Really? How the hell do you know that, Bilbo? When was this established? Maybe Bilbo also tells the moth to go help Gandalf at Isengard.

Smaug attacks Lake-town, and the thrush whispers his secret into Bard’s ear. The Bowman grabs his famous Black Arrow, which here isn’t black and looks like all the other arrows. He rolls a crit and takes down Smaug with one shot.

Meanwhile, back inside the Lonely Mountain, Dwarves who spent half their lives living in the Dwarven city need a map to tell them how to find the Front Gate. Bilbo uses Thror’s map to find the gate, even though we’ve seen it in close-up and it details no interior features. When they arrive, the Armies of Men and Elves are already waiting. Bard shows up wearing a Halloween costume of a Persian from 300. He comes alone, due to the military and diplomatic principle that says animation is expensive.

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The Elvenking then shows up, wearing a Ru-Paul costume and doing his Bela Lugosi accent.

Okay. There’s no Arkenstone. At all. Bilbo does nothing in relation to the Battle of Five Armies except criticize Thorin’s greed and make smartass comments. In fact, rather than getting bonked on the head as in the original, this Bilbo intentionally slips on his Ring and hides from the battle. Then he LIES about having been hit on the head! I am not making this up – Netflix it and see for yourself.

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The final encounter between Thorin and Bilbo is still nice, and even a bit sad. It would have been better if the character of Thorin had ever been developed.

The whole bit with the Sackville-Bagginses is cut out.

The movie ends with a weird bit of dialogue, in which Gandalf predicts the events of The Lord of the Rings and the existence of Frodo Baggins. Of course, animated Gandalf has already established his god-like powers – but this is a bit much.

As another aside, there are a few errors in the DVD extras for The Hobbit, and I am a pedant.

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End of Sarcastic Plot Synopsis

So overall, what can we say about The Hobbit? I think that considering the budget, and the fact this was a relatively short movie for television, Rankin/Bass’ The Hobbit is pretty good. If I wanted to get a young child interested in the book, I might recommend it.

I understand the need to make changes from the original story. For instance, ejecting Beorn the Skin-Changer makes sense – that episode is quite similar to Bilbo’s original encounter with the Dwarves, and is not necessary to the overall story. But many of Rankin and Bass’ changes were just bizarre, and I am at a loss to explain them. Clearly the filmmakers wanted to exercise their artistic license, but even artsy flourishes should have some kind of point. Let me reiterate again that the Great Goblin deflated like a balloon. You saw it – I made a GIF.

Some good things came out of The Hobbit. While the production design and voice recording were done in the United States, a Japanese studio called Topcraft did the actual animation. Several principals from Topcraft went on to help found Studio Ghibli.

On the other hand, the success of The Hobbit on television helped support Saul Zaentz’ delusion that letting indie porn animator Ralph Bakshi create a rotoscoped version of two-thirds of The Lord of the Rings was a good idea.

My next task is to watch, for the first time since 1978, Bakshi’s god-awful monstrosity of a Rings adaptation, Native-American Aragorn and all. It is not going to be better than I remember.

More info: The Hobbit (1977), The Lord of the Rings (1978) and The Original Television Christmas Classics on Amazon; Brother Theodore on Late Night with David Letterman via YouTube.

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