Lists of the greatest animated movies ever made usually include classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and modern darlings like Toy Story, but for me, there's one film that ranks right up there among the best that's often overlooked: the 1977 adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.
Featuring the sort of pedigree, casting and subtle, creative touches that usually guarantee a film's place among the greats, The Hobbit remains an oft-overlooked gem despite early accolades and the recent success of the live-action Lord of the Rings franchise. And with the imminent arrival of Peter Jackson's live-action trilogy based on The Hobbit, it seems only right to make the case for the 1977 film once again and give it the credit it deserves as one of the best animated features of all time.
Produced and directed by the popular tandem of Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. and based on a screenplay by Romeo Muller, The Hobbit is 77 minutes of animated adventure that manages to remain surprisingly faithful to the tone and narrative of Tolkien's 1937 children's novel. It was this faithfulness to the source material, in fact, that earned Muller a prestigious Peabody Award for his translation of the story from page to screen. Oh, and for those who might not be up on their late-'60s and '70s children's programming, Muller is the writer who gave the world the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman holiday specials – so even if you don't know his name, you probably know (and love) his work.
The Hobbit is also surprisingly stacked when it comes to the film's cast, musical elements and animation team. Oscar-winning filmmaker John Huston provides one of the most memorable versions of Gandalf you'll find in the time before Ian McKellen made the character his own, and Thurl Ravenscroft – better known as the voice of Frosted Flakes mascot Tony the Tiger and the deep-voiced singer of “You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” – offers the most pitch-perfect casting you'll ever hear for the goblins.
On top of all that, folk singer and former Limeliters lead Glenn Yarbrough channeled his inner hobbit for the film's theme and produced one of its greatest musical set pieces, “The Greatest Adventure (The Ballad of the Hobbit).” The only song written for the film that is entirely original (not based on lyrics written by Tolkien), “The Greatest Adventure” was received so well by fans and critics alike that Yarbrough went on to release an entire album of original songs inspired by The Hobbit.
Still, one of the most overlooked elements of The Hobbit that actually might be one of the best arguments for giving it another look is the film's connection with an animation studio that's very name is associated with some of the greatest films – animated or otherwise – to appear on screens. Originally working under the name Topcraft, the Japanese team of animators responsible for the visual look of The Hobbit later partnered with award-winning filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki to form Studio Ghibli, the studio that produced such award-winning fare as Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro and Howl's Moving Castle, among a long, long list of other Oscar-nominated projects.
Oh, and on the subject of awards, The Hobbit finished second to Star Wars in the Hugo Awards' “Best Dramatic Presentation” the year it premiered – so it's in good company there, too.
Beyond all of the awards and other accolades mentioned here, though, The Hobbit is deserving of more attention for the simple fact that for many people who grew up fascinated by stories of dragons, elves and, yes, hobbits, it was the film that first introduced a generation to Tolkien's work. If Tolkien is the king of high fantasy, the 1977 animated adaptation of The Hobbit was the welcome mat at the door to his castle for generations of fans who grew up devouring his work and the work of so many other fantasy authors.
Now that a new generation of fans have discovered how wonderful Tolkien's world is through the live-action movies, isn't it time to give credit where it's due and revisit the Rankin/Bass production that first introduced a generation to Middle-earth?