Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Hobbit: In Which I Bring My Inner Child Into the Thunderdome

Note before I begin this: I'd like to take a moment to issue a big thank you/apologies to my girlfriend who proofread on this article. She has a lot of strong feelings about this movie. To the point I even offered an out on doing the proof on this. She still opted to do so anyway.
The response...well...

So yeah...again, big thanks and apologies for riding this one out. When I try and take on the other two next year, again, the offer remains on the table for me to get someone else to proof. Just sayin'

I promised there would be another connected piece to go with the release of Jackson's second feature.
It's not a review of that movie. Not yet, anyway- That will come tomorrow (partially cause I'm still mulling over my thoughts on it.)

In the meantime, I decided to finally follow up up on a statement I made the better part of a year ago during my write-up on my favorite bad movies. At the time, I had included Bakshi's problematic adaptation as a placeholder when I had a last minute change of heart. I later acknowledged this and expressed my interest in revisiting the movie to give it a fair chance to stand on its own merits. This is not the time for it, but I got to thinking - given their ultimately checkered reputation on the internet, why not give each of the varied animated attempts to adapt Tolkien its fair day in court?

Of course, this was a challenge since, as the title suggests, I have a lot of childhood memories associated with these films. So I had to get myself into a suitable mindset in order to be able to look at these objectively. This marks my first attempt, using the 1977 made-for-TV version produced by the people at Rankin-Bass during one of their downtimes from largely cornering the market for Christmas specials.

"...and this is Thorin, and Dopey, and Bashful and--you know what, you're really not gonna remember half of these guys later anyway. No sense spending too much time worrying about it."

As I said before, this is one of those titles that has a really strange standing in the eyes of viewers, particularly on the web. I've seen people really love and REALLY hate this movie. In some circles, animated Tolkien is treated as being the equivalent of that cousin no one talks about at the family reunions because he's still in lock-up for things he allegedly may or may not have done to a beached whale while riding a cocktail of grain alcohol and bath salts.
...OK, maybe that's a bit much, but you get my point; This title's reputation somewhat precedes it.

Personally, even looking at this nowadays, and disregarding any sense of nostalgia (which took a fair amount of mental preparation) I'm just gonna say it outright - I really don't think this adaptation is anywhere near as bad as people make it out to be (Editor's note: LIIIIIIIIES). Yes, it has some problems - notably the fact that it barrels through the story with its foot pretty firmly on the gas- despite that, it still manages to hit all of the important points without feeling like it's missing the point. Probably the one big complaint I've heard leveled at this as an adaptation is that the movie is 'too kiddy'. And to be honest, one I've always found a little bit strange when one considers that Tolkien wrote this particular story for children. I mean, if this were The Silmarillion, or their later attempt at The Return of the King, I could see the point. For this particular story though, I never really felt this particular adaptation soft-balled it or softened things up too much. It's an adventure story made with younger readers in mind, and so the film version keeps itself accessible for young viewers. With one strange exception- This may be one of those rare cases I've ever heard of where an adaptation actually kills off more characters than the original story, by a sizable number, and is still considered the "kidder" version of the account.

Yes, it's a PG-rated murderous mob, but it still IS a murderous mob...

And because I know someone's going to bring them up - the complaints about the singing also struck me as particularly odd. With one exception, all of the songs were featured in the original book, so I can't rightly see why keeping them in is somehow a detriment. You can dislike the way the film translated them, certainly, but many of the complaints seem to take umbrage with the fact there are songs in their Tolkien adaptation to begin with (in which case, I wonder just how familiar they are with the books to begin with.) That said, as far as this front goes, I personally don't really have much problem with them. I do have an exception, though- The one area where there is something of a drawback in the music here, at least to me, goes to the songs involving the goblins in the story. Now, again, they keep the same lyrics, and their own, they're actually somewhat catchy tunes (care of Jules Bass.) Which is kind of the problem. Given the reputation goblins have in the story, you'd expect their music to sound crude, mocking, even a bit horrific. Then you have said tunes being sung by the legendary Thurl Ravenscroft (whom many are more likely to recognize as the baritone voice behind 'You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch') and what should be two rather horrible songs by design become catchy despite themselves. Much of the rest of the soundtrack isn't too bad, and there's even a couple of nice standouts, but those two tracks stand as a mix of both 'it works' and 'but it really isn't supposed to.'

Okay, that took care of one of the major dispute points right there. There certainly are some complaints I can certainly see some validity in, even if I don't find them as bad as others. For example, I can see how the art style of the movie (which as odd fun facts go, was animated by the studio that would later evolve to become Studio Ghibli) would prove off-putting to people. The character designs in particular, with their often overdetailed faces, have been described as anything from ugly to downright disturbing. There are a couple of places where I can kind of see the case, more in the case of individual scenes than an overall look. That said, the aesthetic still fascinates me overall, Particularly where the backgrounds are concerned. They all share in the heavy amount of detailing, but it winds up looking a bit more organic. Even now I'm still actually surprised looking at some of the background art on this, especially on realizing the conditions this movie was made in.

One thing I will give the character designs on this movie - they make for an untapped reserve for reaction faces.

Some of the designs as far as particular creatures within the setting, I can understand the complaints about. I have to single out the Wood Elves. With their green skin and overly wrinkled expressions, they seem to invoke a sort of proto-Yoda with smaller ears and a full-sized frame. Fortunately, they're not a major part of this story, but it's still a bit of an unusual creative call. More prominent, and also rather divisive, is the design the movie offers for the goblins - short, blue-grey skinned with a look that's a mix between bulldogs and frogs. It throws a LOT of people. As far as this movie goes, I still think it works out. Tolkien's descriptions of goblins were pretty scant in the book anyway, so there was some room for interpretation, and the size works out alright given how short most of the cast are. This one is really a big case of personal preference more than anything else. When they come back to the story later...well...we'll get to that in the future.

In fact, a good chunk of the problems with this movie really do seem to be more a product of its origins. With those in mind, for a late 70s made-for-TV project, it actually turned out fairly well. Even more surprising, it's actually aged alright under those circumstances. It's no Akira, but the animation is actually still pretty decent in many moments, with very few really glaring errors in it.

Probably the strongest aspect this movie has going for it is probably the voice cast. Orson Bean as Bilbo is one of those roles I've actually come to appreciate more over the years. While there are a few awkward line reads, he is, by and large, a good fit in the role - especially when one considers that, by design, Bilbo was a 50-year-old homebody. Taking that into account,  Bean's older sounding voice lends itself well to the part. John Huston as Gandalf is one I'm a bit more split on. On the one hand, it's John Huston - the man has one of those voices where even the act of reading the nutritional information on a box of cereal can sound interesting (which sort of makes it creepy when you consider one of his most famous acting roles is still as all-around scumbag Noah Cross in Chinatown.) On the other, his Gandalf feels rather flat at points. Some of the edge of that is taken off by virtue of the John Huston voice, but the fact is, some lines do still fumble a little because of it. If anyone could be seen as the MVP in the cast, it's arguably veteran voice actor Hans Conried as dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield. While a lot of the character's development is sadly lost in the condensed story, Conried still imbues him with a good balance of the nobility of his position and bull-headed stubbornness. He makes the part work well in spite of its bare bones characterization. The rest of the cast are varying degrees of capable, with a lot of veteran voice actors among them. The two others worth much note being Brother Theodore as Gollum, played here starting quiet and slowly growing more manic, and Richard Boone as Smaug (and here's where I invoke the heretic card and say now, on hearing both in fairly short succession, I think I prefer Boone's Smaug to Cumberbatch in some respects.) The only real grievance I can think of in this cast isn't even so much bad as confusing - I'm not really sure why they got Otto Preminger in this for about maybe 20 lines (tops) as the king of the Wood Elves, but it really comes across a rather random piece of casting and doesn't really add much. It doesn't subtract at least, but it still leads me to wonder where the decision came from.

"They're shipping me with WHO?!"

It strikes me as somewhat humorous that, in all, the biggest problem with this adaptation is the inverse of the problem Jackson's adaptation has been having. Where Jackson's version has been argued as having too much time and playing out too many plot threads to fill all of that time, the Rankin-Bass version is too short: condensing the entire book into a scant 78 minutes. With the time it has to work with, it's still a decent adaptation, albeit one with faults as a result of that compress. Most notably, the fact that most of the dwarves are reduced to the role of non-characters. After their introduction, only maybe four really have any sort of relevance to the film, with most of the rest simply being non-speaking. It's a game attempt to try and tell the story, and while it doesn't always work, I still think the end result isn't quite as deserving of the contempt that's been flung upon it as many others seem to think it is.

Looking at this shot, it's very hard to not picture Gollum saying "Get a load of this motherfucker right here..."

Well, this first one actually turned out alright. A few bumps and scrapes, but in general, it's still a decent adaptation.

The next two we may not get to them until next year, simply because I have some other writeups planned for the rest of this month, but rest assured. They will be coming. Just like winter.

Be warned/till then!

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