There and back again, with Andrew Osmond
Almost exactly thirty-five years before Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit (well, a third of it) hit cinemas this Christmas, Bilbo Baggins’s furry feet were being drawn by Japanese animators. True, the animators were working for hire; not for treasure-hunting, dragon-bothering dwarves, but for Americans. But it was on a plum project: the most expensive TV cartoon ever made to that date, with a $3 million budget, five years in the making. So gather round, children! Many ages ago, when this ancient planet was not quite so ancient, long before man recorded his history, it was the time of Middle-Earth, when Man shared his days with elves, dwarves, wizards, goblins, dragons and hobbits…
The Hobbit’s producers were Arthur Rankin Jr., who handled the film’s design, and Jules Bass, who adapted Tolkien’s songs; their studio was Rankin/Bass. 1977 was an especially good time to be working on a Tolkien animation. It was the year of the original Star Wars, which drew on many of the same myths and tropes. It was also the year of a “new” Tolkien book, four years after its author’s death. The Silmarillion, a collection of writings about Middle-Earth’s history, had sold close to a million copies when Rankin-Bass’s Hobbit aired on NBC in November.
Behind The Hobbit cartoon lies an obscure history of great interest to anime fans. Rankin and Bass founded their studio (originally called Videocraft) in 1960. From the very start, they looked to Japan to supply them with animation. This was before Astro Boy; painful as it is to modern sensibilities, Rankin’s attention was grabbed by an award-winning Japanese cartoon called Chibikuro Sambo no Tora Taiji (1956), or Little Black Sambo’s Tiger Conquest, based on the picture-book character. Rankin approached its director, Tadahito Mochinaga, to animate a stop-motion series called The New Adventures of Pinnochio.
Broadcast in 1960, Pinnocchio was the first in a long line of Japanese-animated Rankin/Bass works, involving several different anime studios. The youngest of these was TopCraft (sometimes written Top Craft), which came into being in 1972 under its founder, Toru Hara. Hara had already worked with Rankin/Bass, as an employee of Japan’s Toei studio, where he oversaw the animation of the cartoon, The King Kong Show.
The TopCraft studio was contracted to make The Hobbit. If you come to it expecting a distinctively anime interpretation of Tolkien, then you’ll be disappointed. The Hobbit was animated specifically for American audiences, much as South Korean studios draw for many of today’s “American” and “Japanese” animations. In the case of The Hobbit, the production design was determined by Rankin, who was inspired by Tolkien’s illustrations, maps and prose descriptions, and also by the art of the great fairytale illustrator, Arthur Rackham.
Hara is credited as animation coordinator, while the animation supervisor and character co-designer is Tsuguyuki Kubo, who also had character design roles on Rankin/Bass specials such as ’Twas the Night before Christmas and Frosty’s Winter Wonderland. He was also a character designer on the original Thundercats. The credited animators included Hidetoshi Kaneko, later a prolific art director on everything from Doomed Megalopolis to Trigun; Yoshiyuki (aka Yukiyoshi) Hane, who’d work on Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Only Yesterday; and Kazuyuki Kobayashi, whose credits include Nausicaa, Laputa and Yu-Gi-Oh! 3D: Bonds Beyond Time.
The backgrounds were by Minoru Nishida, art director on the anime segment of Kill Bill, who also provided backgrounds for The Return of the King and The Last Unicorn, below. Animation co-director Katsuhisa Yamada had the same role on Unicorn and later directed an Urusei Yatsura film, Always My Darling.
The images in The Hobbit can be fairly called mixed. The opening images of Bilbo’s cosy hobbit hole, complete with round green door, would be recognised by Tolkien fans anywhere. The presentation of Elrond as a bearded Spock type would raise more eyebrows; so would the blue-skinned, spindly-limbed wood elves, and Gollum as a cross between a giant frog and a 1970s Doctor Who alien.
On the other hand, the film uses many of Tolkien’s songs, deftly employing them to advance the story, and there are evocative bits of direction. The viewpoint moves dreamily around the skeletal architecture of the dank cavern while Bilbo and Gollum duel with riddles; later, Bilbo climbs up into the foliage of Mirkwood and breaks through into sun and blue sky. It’s not a beautiful film, but the best moments have an authentically handmade, homely feel, far from Peter Jackson’s blockbuster spectacle.
The leisurely moments stand out because the story is mostly told in a desperate rush. The film is less than 80 minutes long, and the writers plunge from one key moment to the rest. (TopCraft was used to condensing classics; one of its first productions for Rankin/Bass was a forty-minute version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.) Given the tight time, one can only be impressed at how much of The Hobbit’s busy plot survives: trolls, goblins, Gollum, wargs, eagles, spiders, barrels, plus one dragon (an impressive crimson lout, voiced by Western star Richard Boone). The main omissions are Beorn, the Arkenstone subplot and the endless runaround with the wood-elves’ travelling feast.
The climactic Battle of the Five Armies is lame, making the budget’s limitations painfully obvious, but at least Rankin/Bass cared enough to try A perceptive online review notes that the Battle is the one part to depart notably from Tolkien’s text, with Bilbo playing a decidedly passive, peacenik role (as opposed to the mediator of the book), while fewer of the characters survive the conflict. Whether this reflects a post-Vietnam ethos, or the personal views of adapter Romeo Muller, is anyone’s guess.
Orson Bean, voicing an agreeably sturdy Bilbo, is likely to provoke Who he? comments today. The big names in the voice cast are Boone as Smaug and two esteemed live-action directors. John Huston (Angelica’s father, who once put John Wayne into Meiji-era Japan in The Barbarian and the Geisha) voices a rather flavourless Gandalf. Far battier is Otto Preminger, who voices the king of the exotic wood elves a la Bela Lugosi. The show-stealer, though, is an American comedian with the Tolkienish name of Brother Theodore, playing Gollum with a guttural enthusiasm to rival Andy Serkis.
Many of the actors and artists returned in The Hobbit’s misconceived sequel, The Return of the King. Another feature-length TV special, it was broadcast in 1980, after Ralph Bakshi’s rival The Lord of the Rings cartoon, which halted midway through The Two Towers at the Battle of Helm’s Deep; Part Two was never made. One might think that Rankin/Bass made Return of the King to capitalise on the unfinished Bakshi film. In fact, a 1977 article claims that Rankin always meant to adapt Return of the King, perhaps reasoning that if he could only adapt part of the epic, the end would be the most sensible.
“This is all so confusing!” groans an aged Bilbo early in the film, and viewers would agree. Unlike The Hobbit, which is rushed but clear, Return of the King is hopelessly clumsy, spoiling the outcome in its first moments and never making us care how we get there. After clotted explanations, the story jumps in at the beginning of Return (the book, not Jackson’s film), with Bilbo’s heir Frodo imprisoned in Cirith Ungol. British thespian Roddy McDowall offers amusement as a salt-of-the-earth Samwise, but the film is sunk by its dreadful dialogue, storytelling and especially songs. However, the TopCraft artists still do fine work – the sulphurous backgrounds are powerful, and the duel between Eowyn and the Witch-king is a highlight.
Both films are available as R1 DVDs (some purported British DVDs on Amazon UK look very suspicious). Warner Brothers, which holds the rights to both, had the cheek to bundle them with Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings in a pseudo-trilogy box-set in 2001. British viewers, though, are likelier to know Rankin/Bass’s later fantasy collaborations with TopCraft, which are frankly better. Both appeared in 1982: The Last Unicorn, based on the classic novel by Peter Beagle, and The Flight of Dragons, loosely based on The Dragon and the George by Gordon R. Dickson. Of them, The Last Unicorn showcases TopCraft’s storybook art at its best.
Two years later, TopCraft made its most famous film, Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Ironically, just as TopCraft’s part in The Hobbit and its successors was overshadowed by Rankin/Bass, so its part in Nausicaa was overshadowed by Studio Ghibli, which didn’t exist when the film was made. Ghibli was founded as a consequence of Nausicaa’s success, and now claims the film as its own. Indeed, some of TopCraft’s staff left to join Ghibli, including Toru Hara, who became the studio’s first CEO.
What remained of TopCraft carried on under the name Pacific Animation Corp (PAC), which made one last big animation for Rankin/Bass; the original ThunderCats series. In 1988, PAC was bought out by Disney and become Walt Disney Animation Japan, helping to animate Gummi Bears, Gargoyles and many others before closing in 2004. But let’s close this history by returning to Bilbo and the ’70s Hobbit that British viewers of a certain age are may remember. Here’s a fragment of Jackanory from 1979, featuring – with respect to Orson Bean, Ian Holm and Martin Freeman – the definitive Bilbo, Bernard Cribbins.
Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is out worldwide this week, but we suspect you already knew that.