By Bob Clark
The various television specials produced and directed by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass throughout the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s represent some of the most distinctive animation in America beyond the works of Walt Disney, Warner Brothers and MGM, enough to the point that their immediately recognizable style finds itself imitated on an almost yearly basis during the holiday season. The vast majority of their work follows a hand-crafted style, perhaps most recognized in one of their earliest efforts, the classic Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, but with each subsequent production it’s easy to see their range and comfort with the medium growing, each special more ambitious than the next in terms of length, scale and themes. For the most part, however, their work is remembered solely in the realm of stop-motion, which they produced the bulk of their output in, and though that work has provided an invaluable influence on many animators and filmmakers since (even Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox betrays a family resemblance) the pair’s efforts in traditional hand-drawn animation are no less impressive. Seasonal works like the Frosty specials or the Joel Grey-starring ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas remain consistent favorites (South Park would crib a song or two from the latter in one of their holiday episodes), and even later programs like Thundercats have held their own amidst the array of 80’s cartoons kept alive by nostalgia and reboots. But among the works that the pair created outside of stop-motion, the two that probably survive best beyond mere generational hindsight are their Tolkien adaptations, which impress not only as examples of modest, yet adventurous television animation but also as works of fantasy cinema in general.
1977’s The Hobbit especially has endured over the decades as an essential piece, if for no other reason than until this year it represented one of the only adaptations of the original Tolkien book outside of radio plays and other audio productions. As a visual embodiment of the author’s work, the special does a tremendous job of representing the world as described in the text and diverging in sly ways to create a fairy-tale environment that often puts it in stark contrast to both the works of various artists and illustrators over the years and Peter Jackson’s subsequent film productions, which borrow heavily from those aesthetic traditions. The Hobbit as designed and directed by Rankin and Bass is very often a far less familiar and more surreal kind of fantasy world than one might expect from the Tolkien text, Jackson’s adaptation, or American animation in general. Linework and careful shadows give a wonderful three-dimensional aspect to the animation, and help underline the subtle break with traditional European folklore and its representations present. There’s a sharper, more modern look to some of the character design throughout that’s both fitting with the studio’s background in the practicality of stop-motion as well as a slightly skewed perspective from America– Gandalf with his pointy features looks less like a wizard at times and more as though he comes from another planet altogether, as does the froglike, saucer-eyed Gollum. There are none of the Judeo-Christian archetypes or Crusader-mythology hand-me-downs that one can easily find in Tolkien’s work, and that oftentimes are innocently exacerbated in each iteration of adaptations– Elves are portrayed not as Aryan paragons of whitewashed beauty but range from the puckishly grotesque to the practically celestial, their Lord Elrond crowned with a glowing halo of shining stars as he takes council with the heroes. while Goblins and Orcs are not hooknosed caricatures, but are given feline eyes, wolfish noses and double throats to accentuate a truly inhuman monstrosity.
Some of this is due to the marriage of Rankin and Bass’ background in stop-motion puppetry and the two-dimensional medium of hand-drawn animation, which results in a very line-heavy approach that emphasizes the physicality of the designs. Bilbo and the nearly-dozen dwarves of the story aren’t terribly far removed from the Grimm tradition of halfling creatures, but the ways in which their features are sharply drawn and etched with wrinkles in their faces and hands give a worn look of age– unlike the round, smooth surfaces of the mining dwarves in Disney’s Snow White, you can see years of hard work in their leathery skin. What’s also interesting is the element of physicality in the way that Rankin and Bass direct their animation, as well as design it. As with in their stop-motion efforts, there’s an emphasis on posture in the characters throughout the story, as much being communicated in the ways they shift from one pointed gesture to another. In specials like Rudolph, much of the animation literally comes from the body-language of positioning the physical model in pose after pose, and that attention to detail is carried down throughout their hand-drawn efforts as well, but most especially here. Frosty and their other Christmas programs largely have a flatter look to them– even the sometimes elaborate and set-piece heavy ‘Twas looks and feels far more “cartoonish” than the sculpted look that is achieved here in the Tolkien adaptations.
It’s tempting to look beyond the influence of Rankin/Bass and credit some of the visual divergence with Tolkien tradition to the international production of this and much of their work. Though designed, planned and directed domestically, 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. As such, it’s easy to see an element of Miyazaki-esque imagination and professionalism in the finely drawn and crisply animated sequences of line and shadow, especially in the ways that the animators work within the sometimes limited budget and low frame-rate. Much of the posture-heavy drawing throughout serves as much to limit and hide the lack of animation as it does lend a greater visual weight to the vast array of dwarves, elves and goblins on display. This economical approach underlines the importance of the Japanese side of production both in the deigns of characters, locations and storyboards, and especially on the front-lines of animating the various layers of frames and background plates, often mixing cels with rich watercolors. At its best moments, whether relying on finely balanced and dynamic compositions or moving the various layers of animation and location, the creative mash-up between Rankin/Bass and Topcraft creates the feel of a richly illustrated storybook come to life.
As for how the special fares in terms of storytelling, that’s another matter– in abridging the 300 page book to a scant 77 minutes, there is obviously going to be more than a fair share of essential material that finds itself either cut entirely or heavily streamlined. Rankin/Bass regular scribe Romeo Muller does his best to condense the narrative and manages a savvy adaptation of Tolkien’s various poetry and song-lyrics to bridge one sequence to another– at times, the production feels less like a film and more of a cross between an exposition-heavy radio production and 70’s concept album with accompanying music videos. Yet there’s an appropriate feel to the folksy songs that narrate and stitch the story together, giving the special the same oral tradition quality of courtly minstrels, singing ballads from town to town. It doesn’t completely eliminate the issues arising from the budget limitations, and oftentimes underlines the pacing and tone issues that were already present in Tolkien’s text, but the combined effort of the Rankin/Bass production results in some of the most impressive and winning examples of fantasy storytelling, especially in the realm of American animation. It’s definitely not as smooth or polished as anything by Disney or Don Bluth, and certainly not as expertly handled as anything from Miyazaki, Takahata or the various animators of Topcraft before they moved on to bigger and better things, but it handles itself with a sense of beauty and scale that belies its modest beginnings. And standing as we are now on the threshold of a burgeoning, possibly nine-hour telling of the same story, the economy in animation and storytelling shown here recalls the Bard– brevity is the soul of wit.