Last night at midnight and this weekend there will be plenty of people lining up to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and creating lots of memories about the first time they saw the movie. (Most likely there will be at least one person in a Gandalf costume involved.) Personally I can't remember the first time I saw The Hobbit but it had a huge impact on my childhood. No, not Peter Jackson's new multi-part epic, I'm talking about something that, to people of a certain age, will always be the one true Hobbit to rule them all: the Rankin/Bass animated classic.
Like I said, I don't remember the first time I saw it, but it had to be on TV. When I was a kid (and I'm dating myself here) it was before VCRs and back when my mother used to use a tape recorder set up in the living room to tape the sound of her favorite shows when she would miss them. She now worships her DVR. It first aired on NBC in 1977 and launched a book and record soundtrack all its own. I definitely had the record and, along with Pete's Dragon, Mary Poppins, The Black Hole, and other late '70s children's fare, it was in constant rotation on my Fisher-Price turntable.
Actually the record is what a remember the most, with it's squat hobbit with round eyes and short curly hair that looked a lot like my grandmother's (may she, but not her bad haircut, rest in peace). There was also a board game that I was so fond of playing the foldable board was starting to split in the middle, rending asunder the hoard of gold in Smaug's lair. But my love for this little animated guy with the magic life definitely got me to read the book at a young age and got me all excited about future adaptations of Tolkein's work, including Jackson's original work.
I must have seen the animated special at some time (maybe after we finally got a VCR in the mid-'80s). It still holds up today, in fact. Though produced by Rankin/Bass, best known for their children's holiday specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer it was animated by Topcraft, a precursor to Hayao Miyazaki's influential Japanimation factory Studio Ghibli. The animation is, for the time, slightly off. It was more vivid than most '70s American cartoons and more detailed. It didn't try at all to ape the real world but the creatures and the landscapes they inhabited were something completely other-worldly. This Middle Earth, which my young mind rather literally imagined as being in the center of the planet, was delightfully foreign. Gollum, here something that looks like a bundle of peas connected by toothpicks, doesn't have the psychotic menace of Andy Serkis in a motion-capture suit. The dwarves look like a bunch of old men and garden gnomes rather than a bombastic race of arms merchants. The cartoon certainly lacked Jackson's hunger for realism, nor did it have the special effects means to achieve it, all the better for spurring on the imagination of a child.
The story was also something children can appreciate as well. Here is a world where the rules do not apply. Gandalf appears and disappears. There are rings that make you invisible, a dragon that lives on a heap of treasure, and goblins just waiting at every turn to try to run a sword through you. None of it was scary, especially, because it was so alien. Mostly it just made me want to live there, a realm where anything was possible and everything was magical. If I could be a hobbit, I could have an adventure past the playroom, I could follow Bilbo somewhere other than on a cardboard playing surface that was controlled by two dice in a cup.
The original Hobbit is completely faithful to the book, not adding in anything that didn't happen though it did take out some incidents, which is remarkably different from the piling on of stories Jackson employed to blow this short, simple book up into three movies. It also employs many of Tolkein's lyrics for its original songs, which are one of the movie's few problems. While some of the songs are great, the central theme is as hokey as, well, a '70s cartoon song. I would like to think that young Brian hated them too, but maybe I'm just foisting my own taste on a memory of my younger self.
Even though I'm older, I'll still be one of those people lining up this weekend to catch An Unexpected Journey, though Bilbo's journey may not be that unexpected to someone like me. Just because there is a new version doesn't mean we should forget about the original (which is available on Netflix and for download and rental on iTunes). In fact, at 75 minutes, it might be the ideal length for children. That is if you want your children to grow up to be dreamers who love a riddle and whose memories are created by magic rather than technology.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
[Photo Credit: NBC (2)]
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