by Heath Holland
When it comes to the holidays, Rankin/Bass owns me. The studio behind classic television specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, as well as minor classics like Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and even the Halloween-themed Mad Monster Party, are as much a part of my holiday viewing habits as Kevin McCallister and Buddy the Elf. It’s kind of amazing that one studio has such a hold on my traditions, or how easily I can be hardwired toward certain annual patterns. How do companies and studios work their way into our lives this way? Only two of the eight existing Star Wars movies have had December release dates so far, but I already associate Christmas with Star Wars. Thanks to the release dates of Peter Jackson’s six Middle-Earth movies and their multiple holiday-timed DVD Blu-ray releases, Christmas will also always be the time for Hobbits and quests over misty mountains. Maybe that’s what makes the combination of Rankin/Bass and their adaptation of The Hobbit such a perfect match for Christmas traditions.
A quick overview of the Rankin/Bass lifespan looks something like this: the 1960s were the golden age where they burned brightest and produced their best, most memorable material. The 1970s were still pretty good, but definitely a bit behind the times; they weren’t doing their best work. The 1980s were their supernova years when they pumped out scores of episodes for successful syndicated shows like Thundercats and Silver Hawks, and released their best-received theatrical film The Last Unicorn. Unfortunately, the party ended in 1987, when Rankin/Bass Productions shuttered its doors and fell silent.
By nature and necessity, though, some changes had to be made in order to bring the story to life as a motion picture. Perhaps the most controversial of these was the decision to add musical narration in the form of singer/songwriter Glenn Yarbrough, a quaver-voiced folk singer who waxes on and on about “the greatest adventure” that Bilbo Baggins is about to begin. I like it, but I understand why others do not. Also working against the film, Tolkien fans are notoriously hard to please. The New York Times ran a piece on this animated movie on November 27th, 1977, the night the film premiered on NBC (during the holiday season, no less) and pointed out this fact and the gamble that Rankin/Bass were taking by investing so much in the adaptation. In general, the biggest complaint die-hards of the book have is that it condenses the story far too much and the characters themselves are too much of a caricature. However, the same New York Times article goes on to say that perhaps the then-new crop of fantasy movies like Star Wars owe their success to Tolkien in the first place and regards the animated film as an achievement.
This is where closure comes in. I’ve struggled for years now with my love of Tolkien’s world, his book The Hobbit, and my failure to completely connect to any of the adaptations of that book. I’ve been wanting the cinematic experience to replicate the feeling I get from reading the books. This is never going to happen, just as going to see the new movie with Spider-Man or The Avengers is never going to give me the same pure feeling I get from reading those characters in a comic book. If I’m being honest, most of the comic books aren’t that great, either. I’m chasing the magic of those few experiences that really impacted me and changed me, even though the rarity of the experience is what made it magical in the first place. When I watch these adaptations of things that I love, especially Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, I have to accept them for what they are and stop expecting them to give me the same feeling as reading that book so many years ago. Peter Jackson’s universe and the animated landscape of the Rankin/Bass film bring new ideas and visuals to the table, and that’s their strength. They make that world feel real. It doesn’t have to be a literal, word-for-word translation from page to screen to still have value, and it doesn’t have to be a great film. Most films are not great; I still watch and enjoy them. Such acceptance requires me to get out of my own way, which is definitely not an easy thing to do.