What If Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli Made “The Hobbit”?

What If Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli Made “The Hobbit”? December 8, 2012

Can you imagine what Tolkien’s Middle-Earth would look like through the eyes of the animators that brought us Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke, Ponyo, and My Neighbor Totoro?

I can.

Over the last decade, I’ve discovered the treasure trove of animated fantasy created by Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. I’ve fallen in love with their intricate, extravagant style and their boundless imagination. And yet, as I watched Spirited Away, I began to realize that their style was very, very familiar.

Then I realized that some of these faces look like they come from the animated movie that was most important to me when I was a child… the Rankin/Bass production of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

It’s a movie of its time. The music is very much the folk music of the 1970s, with Glenn Yarborough’s vibrato trilling through a theme song called “The Greatest Adventure,” a song that is often mocked by Tolkien fans, but I admit that it still inspires me in a way similar to The Muppet Movie‘s “The Rainbow Connection.”

It’s also a severely abridged version of the story. But it does tell the story — the story that Tolkien imagined — and considering its brevity, it tells that story well. It contains most of the book’s major events. And it embraces and affirms Tolkien’s main themes… which is much, much more than I can say for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings.

Today, Bob Clark at the wonderful Wonders in the Dark blog looks back at the Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit. And lo… they confirm my suspicions!

…the bulk of the animation was handled in Japan by Topcraft, an outfit that handled a good deal of American and anime production and would eventually become Studio Ghibli.

So that explains it.

And yet, I really don’t need ammunition to defend my love of this little movie. I love everything about it: the imaginative animation, the color and style, and yes… even the songs.

I first watched this on a screen in an activity room in my neighborhood’s public library, the same library where the children’s librarian, Mrs. Tuttle, had introduced me to Tolkien’s novel only a few months earlier. (I was 7 years old.)

I was already a huge fan of the book, and the movie brought the story to life so vividly that I began teaching myself to draw just so I could draw these characters and put them on my wall.

The cover to a collection of Hobbit character drawings – drawn by 7-year-old Jeffrey Overstreet

As I drew, I listened to an LP soundtrack of this film countless times when I was a child. And eventually I discovered a two-LP set that contains the film’s music and dialogue in its entirety.

My friend Todd Fadel and I grew up together reciting scenes from this movie; I’m pretty sure that the two of us could still recite our way through the whole movie, voices and all, if we tried. Lines and voices from it often appeared in the songs we recorded during our college years together.

The voice work is all fantastic.

Much as I love Ian McKellan as Gandalf, the voice of the great director John Huston will always be, for me, the voice of Gandalf.

I love Brother Theodore’s amazing voice for Gollum. Rarely have a voice and a character design been so perfectly matched. It was a very different Gollum than Andy Serkis’s; in some ways, the Rankin/Bass Gollum is a more ghastly and frightening creature.

The Goblins sang with a commanding voice… the voice of a man whose name sounds like it comes from some dark and mysterious region of Middle-earth: Thurl Ravenscroft.

And Smaug the dragon? Absolutely magisterial, as voiced by Richard Boone.

The Great Goblin – drawn by 7-year-old Jeffrey Overstreet
Bilbo Baggins – drawn by 7-year-old Jeffrey Overstreet

And I don’t care what anybody thinks… I still love it, animation, songs, and all. This movie deepened my love for Tolkien’s novel. And best of all, it didn’t embellish or exaggerate anything in way that would corrupt someone’s experience of the novel.

I’ll write about whether Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey fares as well this coming Friday, when I explore it in two articles… one at Image‘s Good Letters blog, and the other at SPU’s Response magazine.

But if I had children, I would introduce them to The Hobbit by reading it aloud to them… then showing them this Rankin/Bass animated classic… a movie for which I remain exceedingly grateful.

Smaug the Dragon – drawn by 7-year-old Jeffrey Overstreet



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