We're big fans of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of three films based on J.R.R. Tolkien's classic novel The Hobbit. But just in case you don't want to spend three hours (plus an additional two movies) in Middle-earth, you can experience the same story in a significantly shorter form via the 1977 animated telefilm of The Hobbit.
Produced by Rankin/Bass Productions -- the company behind that stop-motion version of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer as well as a bunch of Saturday morning cartoon shows adults of a certain age still feel nostalgic for -- the Hobbit cartoon premiered on NBC in November of that year and, at least until Jackson's movie came along, remained the sole feature-length film version of Tolkien's novel. (Rankin/Bass would later make a telefilm out of the final installment in The Lord of the Rings series, The Return of the King, which aired on ABC three years after The Hobbit and two years after Ralph Bakshi's failed LoTR animated feature derived from the first two books in the trilogy.) So if you went through a Tolkien phase anytime between 1977 and 2012, chances are high that you've seen this Hobbit at least once or twice... and possibly multiple times, because honestly, it's still a pretty enjoyable movie that mostly does justice to the source material. Here are five reasons why you don't have to feel guilty about re-watching the Rankin/Bass Hobbit instead of seeking out Jackson's version.
It's (Much) Shorter
Here's the biggest difference between the two Hobbits: in An Unexpected Journey, Jackson takes a whopping three hours to cover ground that the Rankin/Bass cut plows through in roughly a thirty minutes. In fact, the first half-hour of Jackson's film, which depicts the titular hobbit Bilbo Baggins being invited on an adventure by Gandalf the Grey and a band of dwarves, is summed up in a five-minute pre-title prologue in the cartoon. While we're generally big proponents of movies that take their time and don't rush through scenes, there are occasions where brevity is the best policy.
It Tells the Whole Story in One Go
Wanna see Martin Freeman's Bilbo stare down the fearsome dragon Smaug in the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor? Well, you're gonna have to wait until December 2013 when the second film, The Desolation of Smaug hits theaters. And then it'll take another year to see how exactly Bilbo makes it back to Bag End in the final installment, 2014's There and Back Again. But there's no waiting period required for the Rankin/Bass Hobbit, which spans Tolkien's entire narrative... albeit with a few major omissions (no Beorn, for example). One warning: if you've never read the book -- or haven't in some time -- and want to be completely surprised by the live-action version's various twists and turns, it may be best to avoid this Hobbit for now seeing as how it's obviously rife with spoilers for the next two movies.
It's More Kid Friendly
First of all, the three-hour runtime alone would be enough to give parents pause about dragging their children to the theater to see An Unexpected Journey. Beyond that, even though Jackson keeps the action fairly bloodless, the set-pieces are pretty intense for young viewers (especially the under 8-set; anyone over that age should be okay) and the supporting cast of CGI Orcs, trolls and goblins aren't exactly cuddly. Granted, the Rankin/Bass version also doesn't render these monsters as Care Bears (for example, the giant spiders that capture the dwarves at one point always freaked me out as a kid), but the old-school 2D animation leads them to resemble storybook characters rather than the three-dimensional, fearsomely detailed baddies dreamed up by the digital artists at Jackson's Weta Workshop.
It Gives Good Gollum
One of the high points of The Hobbit (both in Tolkien's original book and An Unexpected Journey) is the "Riddles in the Dark" section, where Biblo enters into a battle of wits with the loathsome creature, Gollum. Motion capture performer extraordinaire Andy Serkis brought this character to life so memorably in the Lord of the Rings films and he and his familiar rasp are thankfully back for Journey as well. While Serkis is now the definitive Gollum, German comic Brother Theodore (whose monologues made him a popular performer in the '50s and '60s) does an entirely commendable vocal performance -- appropriately guttural and creepy -- in the Rankin/Bass cartoon. (He reprised the role in the studio's Return of the King cartoon as well.) Until Serkis came along, his was the voice I heard in my head whenever I re-read the Gollum passages in The Hobbit andLord of the Rings. (In fact, the cartoon's vocal cast is pretty solid across the board, from Orson Bean's Bilbo to John Huston's Gandalf. The only jarring voice comes from director Otto Preminger, whose thick accent doesn't quite square with the Elvenking he's playing.)
It's Got That Great Theme Song
An Unexpected Journey brings back Howard Shore to write another one of his effectively grand, sweeping score, but we have a soft spot for the gentle folk stylings of Glenn Yarbrough who co-wrote and sang the earwormy theme song, "The Greatest Adventure," which runs throughout the animated Hobbit. (He also sang "Frodo of the Nine Fingers" in Return of the King, another tune that's impossible to get out of your head once you've heard it.) Sure, the lyrics verge on the cheesy side, but it fits the mood of the film -- and the era in which it was made -- quite nicely.
Although The Hobbit is availableon DVD the image and sound quality of the disc leaves much to be desired. You're better off renting it from the iTunes Store until Warner Bros. decides to put out a new DVD or Blu-ray edition, perhaps around the time that An Unexpected Journey hits DVD.
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