Tolkien Geek

Blogging J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" and other aimless pursuits.


"The Hobbit" cartoon: what's wrong with it?

[Editor's Note: this was originally published in 2005 before I even got started on the LOTR project. I thought that since I was in the midst of blogging The Hobbit - From Book To Script in anticipation of the coming Peter Jackson films that I would move this to the newest section]

I mentioned in my last post that I was not thrilled with the Rankin/Bass one-hour cartoon version of "The Hobbit". This was not always the case.

When I was about ten years old this was my only exposure to Tolkien. It was cheesy, yes. The animation was crap, agreed. But what else was there? In fact, up until Peter Jackson's films, the template for Gandalf that was seared onto my brain was John Huston's voice and the badly animated wizard that appeared in this film.

A couple of years later, an illustrated version of the book - it was probably Houghlin-Mifflin - was published and I bought it. The pictures were taken right from this awful version. But it helped me visualize the world of Middle-Earth and better appreciate the story.

But looking back, I have many criticisms. First and foremost, are the elves. These buggers look like pixies from the worst fairy tales you've ever seen and King Thranduil was voiced by Otto Preminger. Seeing the king of the wood-elves and hearing a bad German accent does not jibe with anything Tolkien had intended in writing this story.

Then there was the strange sight of goblins singing show-tunes as they dragged their drawf prisoners down under the Misty Mountains (and later under the trees with the wargs). Ugh.

I must admit, I refer to the tunes in this movie when I come to the poetry in the book. "O Tra-la-la-lally, down here in the valley" and "Far over the Misty Mountains cold..." and all that. It comes in handy as I read it to my son. But even a nine-year old can tell when the melodies are almost identical from song to song.

But perhaps the worst image that stuck in my mind and screwed up my imagination reading the book is the way they presented Gollum. Gollum (aka Smeagol) was supposed to have been a Hobbit once. But they present him as this slimy little frog-man that is more annoying than anything else. Voiced by some German weirdo named Brother Theodore, Gollum seemed as inhuman as he could possibly be portrayed. It was this presentation of the character that undermined by appreciation of the story arc of Gollum presented in "The Lord of the Rings". I mean, I couldn't understand why Bilbo didn't just beat the snot out of this little wretch. After all he was only a frog-thing.

Back to Gandalf for a moment. I always thought that John Huston's voice was the end-all be-all of the Tolkien's wizard. Of all the character portrayals of the Jackson films, Gandalf was the one I was most skeptical about. But happily I can say that Ian McKellan's Gandalf is absolutely THE standard by which any performance has to be judged. If they ever film "The Hobbit", they must use McKellan as the old wizard or the whole project will fall apart.

Anyway, I suppose if you've read the books and seen the movies, watching this version isn't all that bad. But I'm doing my damnedest to keep this version away from my kids until they have seen the Jackson version. Although it's tough, my goal is to hold off each of my sons until they're at least twelve. Any sooner might just fill their heads with enough terrible images to give them nightmares for years to come.

UPDATE: After five years I finally decided to get around to working on the Hobbit, which started with this post


At 11:56 PM, Blogger The WordSmith from Nantucket said...

Aww....I actually still love the animated version of The Hobbit. Even to this day....cheese and all.

It was my first exposure to the world of fantasy. Seeing this as a kid in the 70's inspired me to actually read the book. I don't recall anyone having vcrs at the time,and I'd spend many lunch breaks in the library at jr. high checking out the slide projection version of The Hobbit.

I absolutely love John Huston's storytelling voice and he is still my standard for the way Gandalf speaks.

The animation looks rather like Japanese anime from the 70's, and doesn't bother me. You have to look at it from the context of the times, as well. Of course, animations nowadays make its visual style obsolete.

The music I love. I think it captures the spirit of the book, in that Tolkien infused it with song; the songs come out melodically syrupy, but it doesn't bother me at all, since this is more or less aimed at kids. I liked the fact that they actually used Tolkien's lyrics. Glen Yarbrough's warbling voice doesn't bother me either.

Return of the King was much worse; but even there, I like a couple of the ballads, including its version of "Roads Go Ever On".

I like the mood of these films. Think about it in relation to the 70's, and I think these animations really stood apart from other cartoons of that era.

At 8:54 PM, Blogger clint said...

I had exactly the same response to Gollum -- plus he gave me nightmares when I first saw the movie (I was quite a bit younger than twelve). The LOTR version makes a great deal more sense as a character.

The only song that stayed with me over the years, for some reason, was "Where there's a whip *&! there's a way."

I was all set to inform you (perhaps even pompously) that Ian McKellan was dead -- but of course, this turns out to be a nasty rumor, started perhaps when the actor playing Dumbledore in a completely different wizardly movie died.

However, having investigated enough to find that out -- I can tell you that Ian McKellen would absolutely love to play the role, if Peter Jennings can be convinced to direct The Hobbit -- preferably as a tv serial to go into more plot detail. (source)

At 9:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think they could do The Hobbit as a two and half or two hour and forty five minute movie.

BTW Peter Jennings IS dead.

At 12:25 AM, Blogger Mike's America said...

The Hobbit cartoon is offensive to Hobbits who will now burn the embassy of the country which produced it.

At 7:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good one, Mike. LOL!

At 9:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey all. i'm 15 and i read the book wen i was only ten. not having great imagination, i wasnt able to create a picture of everything...i prayed for a movie to come out and it finally did an year later! woo hoo! i recently saw the cartoon version and got extremely pissed off! yeh...true...the cover showed a picture of gollum the 'frong-thing'...looks like a creature from wind in the willows! hehe, and i hid the dvd at the back of all the no one wud ever see it! ooo, and i saw the trailer of the HOBBIT...supposedly coming out this year :S why on earth is Jackson releasing it AFTER the LOTR trilogy??? and is there really a Hobbit movie??

At 7:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's definitely a desire on the part of NewLine Cinema to do a movie of "The Hobbit" but there's nothing concrete in the works yet. Peter Jackson has been busy with "King Kong" and other projects. But I believe he's interested in doing it.

Here's a website that is championing the cause:

Jackson did the LOTR because that was his ambition. He probably had no idea he would be successful in ever doing it. Of the two books, he felt more strongly about the LOTR.

At 4:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One scene in particular from the cartoon "The Hobbit" always bothered me. This is when Bilbo asks Gollum about the ring. In the book, he wasn't actually asking the question "What have I got in my pocket?" to Gollum but, instead, to himself. In the cartoon, he asks it strait out. It shows a different intent, and it reflects differently on Bilbo's character. One way is an accidental yet fortunate happenstance while the other is a cunning ploy against the rules of riddling.

At 10:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, it seems the creators did a lot to "dumb down" the story and make it more whimsical. The treatment of the Elves is atrocious.

Many of the imagery in that version set awful templates for me while reading LOTR.

At 8:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like the Rankin Bass Hobbit's portrayal of Middle Earth, Gandalf, Gollum, Bilbo, etc., way more than the Jackson LOTR trilogy.

Even when it veered from Tolkien's intentions, I liked it: the wood elves and Gollum being the best examples of this, though some think that Tolkien would not have minded the Gollum portrayal.

The Rivendell song: Tra-la-la-lally
Gollum screaming: "Not fair for it to ask us what its got in its nasty little pockets!"
The Trolls...straight out of 19th century fairy tale illustration (John Bauer's, in particular), with Japanese animation: a great mashup.

And, more importantly, more tonally, and impossible to specify: the quaintness of the story, the gentle way it unfolds, the serenity, the punctuated thrills, the development of Bilbo.

The movie, on the other hand, is made by consensus, appealing to everyone with its budget. It is too contrived. The pipe smoking scene in Fellowship is really really contrived. Gandalf blowing the dust off the tome is so self-aware and recursive that it is cringeworthy.

There is no development, nothing. The cartoon, for all its faults, is absolutely charming and was created at am ephemeral time when swords and sorcery was just creeping into the zeitgeist. This really made a difference and made this irreproducible.

At 2:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I completely agree with Paul R. Rankin-Bass could harldy do computer animations in the 70s. They stayed with Tolkien's story, while Jackson wrecked it with his changes. Arwen stays in Middle Earth because she has a vision of the child whe'll have with Aragorn? What's that about? And how about that silly side door at Helm's Deep, created by Jackson just so that Aragorn and Gimli could sneak out and set up the dopey line about dwarf tossing.

At 4:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would have forgiven so much of Jackson's nonsense, had he left in the scouring of the shire - perhaps the most powerful and satisfying part of LOTR. But no.

At 11:00 AM, Blogger DissectionBox said...

Oh, those pictures were hilarious! Especially the elves! And this Gollum looks like a blue squirrel.
Certainly, Peter Jackson's version is the one that always plays in my head. Except for Faramir.

At 10:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

RE: "Gollum (aka Smeagol) was supposed to have been a Hobbit once."

Actually, Gollum was not originally a hobbit, not Smeagol. He was an odd, one-off monster who did have a grandmother, but no connection with hobbits until nearly 20 years after the book's publication. The "Smeagol" connection came as an attempt to connect The Hobbit narrative to the LOTR sequel. The original description of Gollum refers to his colouring as "dark," his skin as "slimy" and adds in the narrator's voice "I don't know where he came from, nor who or what he was." (p 79)

I suppose, the animators had not read LOTR, and simply portrayed Gollum as an amphibian-like creature, understanable given Tolkien's own admission that he (as narrator) did not know "who or what" Gollum was?

At 5:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Mr. Jackson is making a "Hobbit" Movie, I even saw a "Making of" video in youtube of it. I hope they do get around to make at least the "Tale of Beren and Luthien" From the "The Silmarillion.

At 4:34 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Excellent post! I myself have only seen the Cartoon Hobbit once, when I was very young (maybe eight at the time). I didn't remember all that much about it, but your article was a nice reminder.

While I personally really enjoy Jackson's adaptation of the novels, the imagery provided in the cartoon is a really interesting interpretation of the source material. Due to how little I remembered when I saw the movies, Ian McKellen is my mental picture of Gandalf.

I will need to see if I can re-watch the cartoon version so I have a basis for comparison, but speaking from a strictly movie goer perspective, I really enjoyed Jackson's "The Hobbit". I'm greatly looking forward to the second one, even with the other stories woven into the movie.

At 6:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 4:39 PM, Anonymous H. M. Turnbull said...

I really enjoyed your post! I just got over several weeks where I was obligated to analyze that cartoon, so I know how hard it can be to even think about it. For me, the worst thing was how they perverted the scene with Thorin and Bilbo at the gatehouse and made it a "kid-friendly version." Whereas in the book Thorin tried to kill Bilbo for stealing the Arkenstone, the cartoon just has them call each other names. That they gave "Smog" the Terrible an Arkansas cowboy accent just added insult to injury.

At 11:13 PM, Anonymous JGandalf said...

The original Hobbit animated film was released in 1977, I grew up watching it, and it is STILL the SUPERIOR adaptation into film for what it accomplishes that the novel cannot, and what re-releases of the same material in different formats have failed to surpass, in particular; the audio track does not have the same sound effects (such as when Smog is being shot with arrows).

-The songs made for the film provide an atmosphere and depth that simply reading the lyrics written by Tolkien does not convey, except in your own imagination.
When the Orcs are singing about chasing the dwarves, it is more menacing than it seems!

The animated characters are all more impressive than they seem in the novel.

-Gollum in this version has a more disturbing voice and character than even the CGI version could capture, and what many critics fail to realize is how accurately he captures the creature depicted in the novel; his eyes are huge lamps adapted to seeing in the Dark; he was extremely practiced at strangling orcs from behind, and Bilbo would have been throttled if not for Sting, even though they are originally both hobbits.
-Smog, the dragon, is voiced in an appropriately dramatic way, and the scene which unfolds regarding his desolation is a far more interesting and succinct adaptation than the three-part CGI movie which would take at least 6 hours to watch, by comparison.

Save yourself the trouble, and find yourself the original Hobbit film!

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At 8:14 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

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At 10:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're a real soulless piece of shit taking a dump on a whimsical kids' movie with TV animation budget - an adaptation that mind you is more accurate in tone, theme and content than the godawful Jackson Hobbits that came later. Fuck you. I genuinely hope you suffer you hostile, high-horse, rich sack of crap.


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