Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: The Hobbit (1977)
As the great fictional hero Captain Jean-Luc Picard once observed, it is possible to do everything right and still lose. So to, it is possible to make a technically accomplished film and still end up with cheese. Of course, this can arise from formatting issues outside of their filmmakers control or, in the cast of this weekend’s cheesy movie, a reliance on a tried-and-true format which does not entirely work for the project at hand. Such is the fate of 1977’s animated version of The Hobbit.
The plot is familiar to generations of young readers. The homebody hobbit Bilbo Baggins is press-ganged by the Wizard Gandalf into joining the company of Thorin Oakenshield. Their quest: to topple the dragon Smaug and reclaim their kingdom in the Lonely Mountain. Along the way, Bilbo encounters elves, goblins, spiders, men, the dragon himself and a creature known as Gollum. He also discovers a magic ring which allows him to turn invisible; which is quite advantageous on a number of occasions. But just as their quest ends, the real trouble begins.
And, yes, all of that should be very charming. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien has been charming readers of every age since its publication in 1937. In a departure from Professor Tolkien’s other well known works, it is written in a breezy mode with a tone not found elsewhere in his prose work. To read it to a child is to given them a sense of security even as Bilbo’s adventures become more and more exciting. It gets passed down across generations precisely because it is calculated by a learned linguist to be charming.
But for some — like yours truly — no one passed The Hobbit on to them. Their introduction was this 1977 made-for-TV film directed by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass. The duo were known for their stop-motion animated specials like Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year and a number of other specials not featuring Rudolph. Come to think of it, we may be in Rankin/Bass land again come Christmastime. But the pair were also known to make traditional cell animation and The Hobbit was an attempt to break out of the Christmas business with a new tone and feel.
They would later produce The Last Unicorn and The Flight of Dragons with the same intentions.
While some of Rankin’s style can be seen in the characters, the overall look of the film was intended to evoke the style of British illustrator Arthur Rackham. Considering the dominance of Alan Lee’s work in representations of Middle-earth today, the Rackham-inspired designs can create something of a pause with some viewers — particularly in the design of the goblins — but it represents a complete vision for Tolkien’s world. The animation was completed by Topcraft, a Japanese animation studio which would later reform as Studio Ghibli.
On the scripting side, Rankin vowed to add nothing to the story. The edict was followed by screenwriter Romeo Muller, who used Tolkien’s poem about the flight from Lonely Mountain verbatim. But as the film must abide by standard broadcast runtimes of the day and most of the TV special format Rankin and Bass were famous for, Muller had to cut significant portions of the book to make it fit into a 77 minute runtime. Never mind that the credits do not occur until the 11 minute mark.
And here’s where the cheese starts to emerge.
Beorn is cut entirely and much of the Laketown sequence is omitted. In lieu of the questionable transitional scenes Peter Jackson and his collaborators added to their version of The Hobbit, Rankin employs the use of a musical refrain from the title theme or an upcoming song to get the story to the next episode. To be fair, the novel is very episodic and Tolkien just jumps hours or days between chapters to get Bilbo to his next fantastical encounter. Sadly, a film needs to connect its sequence in a more cohesive way and the Rankin/Bass method is … well, it’s better than Jackson’s, but it also exposes an inherent cheesiness in the musical selections.
Besides the title theme, “The Greatest Adventure,” the other songs in the film use Tolkien poems as lyrics. The song the goblins sing when capturing the Dwarves can be found in the same scene in the book. Same goes for the slightly sarcastic song the Elves sing as Thorin’s group approaches Rivendell. But the music, written by Maury Laws, makes Tolkien’s words feel small and out of place in most instances. But more than the that, the reliance on music to transition to the next scene eventually generates laughs as it becomes a crutch Rankin and Bass rely on constantly. This is doubly true during a dinner scene in which you can hear the sarcastic Elven song and one of the recurring pieces of score at the same time.
That said, the goblin song based on Tolkien’s “Funny Little Things” is a definite highlight. But it sort of cheats by having Thurl Ravenscroft — the original Tony the Tiger — as the lead goblin singing voice.
The performances also vary between exceptional and cheesy. John Huston’s Gandalf is just magnificent, even when he fails to give the Wizard an appropriate emotional investment. Some of the Dwarves, like Bombur (voiced by the legendary Paul Frees) and Balin (Don Messick) leave a lot to be desired. So too does the voice of the Great Goblin, John Stephenson, who plays him more like a 1970s Saturday morning villain. He also gives Bard of Laketown the sort of stilted heroic voice often heard in weekly cartoons at the time.
And in the reliance on songs, the omission of details and the compression of events, The Hobbit ends up closer to cheese than classic. But considering it is trying to tell an fantastic journey in 77 minutes with very obvious commercial breaks, there was really no way to avoid that. And that’s considering the quality workmanship of Rankin, Bass, Topcraft, Huston and Brother Theodore, the comedian who gives Gollum a repellent edge. Unlike Picard’s observation, The Hobbit never really loses, but it still finds itself in that cheesy cinematic milieu Science Fiction and Fantasy could not escape until fairly recently. Nonetheless, The Hobbit is one of the more high-quality examples of cheese one could watch on or around the anniversary of the novel’s debut.
The Hobbit (1977) is available for rent at the usual streaming platforms.