If you're one of the three people in the English-speaking world who doesn't know the story of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, you may want an introductory course before going to see Peter Jackson's filmed version of the story. Warner Bros., the distributor of the upcoming movie trilogy (and "Harry Potter," too) is capitalizing on this by re-releasing the previous attempt to bring Tolkien's work to the screen. In the late 1970s, Ralph Bakshi produced an animated version of the first half of the "Rings" trilogy, and the Rankin-Bass studio worked with Warner Bros. to supplement the movie with TV "special feature" versions of "The Hobbit" (the prequel) and "The Return of the King" (the second half of the story, which Bakshi never filmed). Of these three animated features, the best of the bunch is probably their adaptation of "The Hobbit."
The story of "The Hobbit," of course, is well-known: it stars Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who finds himself on a quest to recover a fabulous treasure from the evil dragon Smaug. Bilbo is chosen by the wizard, Gandalf, to accompany a band of Dwarfs (or dwarves, as Tolkien called them) on their journey to the dragon's lair. Along the way, Bilbo and his companions have many adventures, as they meet ugly trolls, friendly Elves, evil goblins, giant spiders, and other monsters from the realm of children's nightmares. Bilbo also discovers a golden ring on his journey, and this ring becomes the centerpiece of the later Lord of the Rings story. But the original story of Bilbo's adventures was written with young children in mind (Tolkien wrote it for his own children), and it works quite well as an animated movie. "The Hobbit" was written as a children's story, and the animated adaptation of the story is one that will appeal to children of nearly all ages. (The youngest ones may not understand it.) It was produced as a TV movie, so it has a minimum of violence; the few times when a character dies, the movie shows it in an abstract way that suggests death but doesn't actually show it. It's a faithful adaptation of the book, and the few changes made to it (the elimination of Beorn the shape-changer, for instance) should only upset hard-core Tolkien fans.
In these days of lavish computer-animated Disney feature films, Japanese anime, and even high-quality Saturday morning cartoons, the animation quality of The Hobbit seems archaic. It's only a couple of steps above the limited-animation fare of most Saturday morning shows of the time, but Rankin-Bass do what they can to overcome those limitations. The pictures are lush and quite evocative of the original Tolkien story, and few people are likely to complain about the lack of movement in any particular scene. The movie's biggest flaw is the way the design follows the "illustrated radio" approach to the animation, in that the dialogue and narration explains and describes the action taking place. In fact, a vinyl LP record of the animated film was released shortly after the TV broadcast, and the album consisted of nothing more than a complete audio recording of the entire movie. You could listen to the record and understand everything going on, using only the album cover as a guide. The quality of the animation would have increased considerably if the studio had taken more risks and let the images carry the story more; but this was a common fault of the vast majority of made-for-TV cartoons of the 1970s and 1980s.
But the important thing to ask when considering any filmed adaptation of a book isn't whether it's an accurate representation of the book. The real question is, "Is it an entertaining movie?" And fortunately for the viewer, this particular movie answers that question with a satisfying "yes." In spite of the flaws in the animation, The Hobbit manages to be a good adaptation of Tolkien's novel as well as being a decent movie. The story doesn't feel rushed or forced, and the voice actors are nearly perfect for their roles. Orson Bean gives a lively performance as Bilbo. John Huston (yes, the same John Huston) evokes the image of a wise, old wizard; while Hans Conreid (a veteran of the Jay Ward studio!) is suitably haughty as Thorin Oakenshield. The theme song, 'The Greatest Adventure,' was catchy enough to be accepted by Tolkien's fans, and the other songs (taken directly from the book) are also sung in a decent fashion. (They're more acceptable than the ones in the BBC radio play adaptation of the book.)
Most important of all, the animated Hobbit stands on its own as a movie…which is more than can be said about Bakshi's Lord of the Rings or Rankin-Bass's other followup, The Return of the King. The faults in Bakshi's animated production have been pointed out numerous times (the heavy dependence on rotoscoping, slow-moving plot, poor characterizations), while Return picks up in the middle of the story and leaves out several major plot developments, causing confusion and making it difficult to enjoy the two movies as halves of one story. I'm hoping against hope that Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films will be satisfying as movies, rather than simply as adaptations of Tolkien's books. But whether or not they turn out to be a success, you can still prepare yourself for them with this animated version of The Hobbit. While not the greatest adaptation of Tolkien's story ever made, it's certainly a treat for young and old viewers alike.