It is the year when there’s much ado in Middle-earth; not least of which the third installment of The Hobbit next December.
In the meantime, to subdue our cravings for Middle-earth, Warner Bros Home Video will be releasing two remastered animated classics: The Hobbit (1977) and The Return of the King (1980).
A Tolkienist’s Perspective reviews …
Two Unexpected Journeys
At just 77 minutes, the story is immediately set by introducing us to the character of Bilbo, as he is whisked off by the wizard Gandalf. Fans of the book and Peter Jackson’s own adaptations will recognize the homely setting of Bag-End so clearly visualized by the author.
The directors cleverly employ Tolkien’s own songs from the book in order to move the story forward and provide the necessary background information. So much so that 15 minutes into the film, the Company is well on its way.
The storytelling is fast and proceeds at a strong pace throughout the first half of the film, however, at the expense of rushed sequences. Although many of the book’s memorable moments are brought to life, no sooner has a scene been introduced than it is soon over, and the next stage of the journey continues, forbidding audiences any time to settle in and savour it.
That said, the story does dedicate a fair portion of the total running length towards the Riddles in the Dark, when Bilbo discovers a golden ring and encounters Gollum.
Of particular interest is the eerie sense of foreboding, due to the unsettling drip-drip effect in the cave, the dark tones of the visuals and the steady climax of the music. Gollum’s performance is fascinating, not least due to the expressiveness of the voice, which comes across as both creepy and alluring at the same time.
Apart from a few changes to the structure of Tolkien’s story, the film is faithful to the book and the journey of Bilbo’s transformation is adhered to.
Before the rest of the narrative unfolds, audiences are presented with a short montage of glimpses from The Hobbit and of Frodo receiving the Ring.
After this brief introduction, the members of the Company at Rivendell recall the events that led them to their journey towards Mount Doom.
The story picks up from where the book left off – Sam trying to find a way into Cirith Ungol to save an imprisoned Frodo.
Too many songs as background exposition turn the whole viewing experience into a musical performance. However, the songs in themselves are rather charming and pleasing to the ear – and they make for a pretty decent walking tune.
Unlike The Hobbit, the first part of The Return of the King is awkward in its pace and structure. Characters find themselves in introspective moments, as we are presented with an array of flashforwards – foreshadowing the resolution of the story – and momentarily taking over the narrative. Yet, just like The Hobbit, it has its own charm.
Despite the immense difficulty in trying to pick-up the story two-thirds of the way, the film does a good job in providing some necessary exposition of what has happened so far and where each of the major characters is situated. This is primarily aided by John Huston’s Gandalf; serving as both a character and narrator to the story.
And whilst the majority of the film deals almost exclusively with Frodo and Sam’s journey – leaving the stories of the other members of the Fellowship in the background – the cross-cutting between the scenes at the Cracks of Doom and the challenge at the Black Gate of Mordor by the Heroes of the West, is an interesting facet of this film.
These remastered editions bring back the crispness of the colours, sound, and the intricacy of hand-drawn visuals: highlighting the technical skills undertaken to bring to life the range of characters and the world of fantasy.
With audiences from later generations exposed to Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth – in all its complex visual effects, cinematography and performance – animations over three decades old might be a distraction to the viewing experience.
Yet there is a simplicity to them and an attractive quality to the way the stories are presented.
Artistically, the storytelling is alluring nonetheless.
The picture quality is decent enough, but these remastered editions are DVD standard quality and do not compare to recent Blu-ray re-releases.
That said, unlike many film animations from the 50s and 60s (or even older) – where the entire frame is so vibrant and alive with colours – both these adaptations of The Hobbit and The Return of the King have a fascinating colour palette. This draws out, especially in the latter film, a grittiness and gives a distinct atmosphere to the stories.
In The Return of the King – produced three years after – the animation is more sophisticated and refined, but still bears a fascinating resemblance in style to that of The Hobbit.
It is worth noting that both Deluxe Edition films include special features on the discs.
The Hobbit contains two brief information sheets: J.R.R. Tolkien – Fact & Trivia and Cast & Crew. Also included is a From the Vault section featuring three classic Warner Bros. short animations, starring none other than Bugs Bunny. Finally, a Trailers section provides four teaser videos to past and upcoming animated projects.
The Return of the King contains the same features as those on The Hobbit disc, except that in From the Vault we get two other classic short animations: featuring Droopy the dog and Tom & Jerry.
A Journey worth taking …
No matter what one’s own view is of these films, they are nonetheless part of the history of Middle-earth cinematic adaptations, and a lovely addition to one’s collection.
Now is the time to revisit or discover for the very first time two classic imaginings of Tolkien’s classic works.
The Hobbit and The Return of the King Remastered Deluxe Editions are out on July 22.
Images are the copyright of Warner Bros. Home Video