Many people know Rankin/Bass Productions for the stop-motion holiday specials they grew up watching, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But I grew up enchanted by their 2D animated features. Their versions of The Hobbit and Return of the King, along with The Last Unicorn did a lot to shape my love of fantasy and storytelling as a young child growing up in the 1980s. One listen to Glenn Yarbrough’s smooth vibrato, and John Houston’s turn as Gandalf bring the feeling of those films instantly rushing back. (John Houston was absolutely my original Gandalf.)
I like the fact that none of the films held back so as not to scare the kiddies. Looking back on it, I’m glad they didn’t try to gloss over or sugar-coat the scarier aspects of the stories. As a result, I had one weird and wild imagination. I’m also glad that my parents encouraged me to watch these and enjoy them. I suspect it was my Dad who was most amused by the dialogue and decidedly disco hooks in some of the music. (“Where There’s a Whip, There’s a Way” anyone?) The Return of the King was the one that we watched the most often, having recorded it from the TV on VHS. It’s clear how much a part of our lives it became, as evidenced by the fact that my Dad made a cute little book about my brother and I going on an adventure to help Frodo and Sam in their quest to destroy the One Ring…. of DOOM.
The art style is very distinctive. The Hobbits, Dwarves and other comical male characters like Schmendrick the Wizard in The Last Unicorn have large round noses. There seemed to be two types of eyes– large and soulful or small and beady, also depending on character type. The baddies like Gollum and the Orcs had a lot of stringy drool or spittle. The way Gollum was drawn was like some kind of cross between a frog and a monkey with cataracts and to this day when I look at him, I can imagine him smelling very very swampy, or something akin to smelly wet feet. Wizards and powerful old men had pointy noses, and heroic or magical women were pure ethereal beauty (like Eowyn or the Lady Amalthea).
The background art, the worlds these characters inhabited were rich and textured. How I would love to have visited that version of the Shire. I felt like I trekked through the smoky redness of Mordor, watched over by the eye of Sauron. When Peter Jackson’s films were announced, I decided they’d have to live up to my vision of them as seen in the animated versions. (I didn’t read Tolkien’s trilogy until I was in college, although I first read The Hobbit in 5th grade.)
I realize this is the perfect time to be mentioning The Last Unicorn in this group of stories. The author of the original novel, Peter S. Beagle, is currently on a national tour of screenings of the animated film. Check here for more information and to find where it’s screening in your town: http://lastunicorntour.com/
Although a little hokier at times than I originally remember, the film still holds up and the Red Bull is absolutely frightening.
Today I discovered that there are two more 2D animated features by Rankin/Bass that I haven’t yet seen. The Flight of Dragons, which features the voice of James Earl Jones, and The Wind in the Willows. Mr. Toad actually looks kind of like Gollum, from what I’ve seen.
I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts on these animated treasures. The music, the animation, the art, the stories, what role these played in your life… whatever you’d like to contribute.
Here’s a song for you as you journey– the theme to the animated “Return of the King”, written in the spirit of Tolkien, “Roads Go Ever, Ever On”, complete with a bit of narration by John Houston/Gandalf: