An Earnest Defense of Gene Deitch’s The Hobbit

(Disclosure: this is an expanded version of a review I wrote for the film on Letterboxd:

Gene Deitch’s The Hobbit is a cartoon that should be given a chance. I understand why people wouldn’t think to do so, cuz I used to feel the same way. I remember hearing about this short years ago, and the way it was always framed made it seem like such an easy punching bag.

Although intended to be made as a feature film, it was eventually turned into a short made within a matter of months that acted predominantly as an ash-can project so that film producer William L. Snyder could prove he’d done a film based on The Hobbit, allowing him to keep and subsequently sell back the Hobbit film rights at a high price when Tolkein’s works started to become very popular in the States. It was never even meant to be seen outside of one extremely specific circumstance, although it was released onto the internet back in 2012 thanks to the efforts of Adam Snyder.

(Deitch himself wrote about the production of the himself on his blog when this release occurred, and I highly recommend giving it a read to get a better understanding of what happened and why:

The short takes various liberties with the source material, introducing new characters such as Princess Mika while chucking out many others and heavily condensing events as it barrells its way through the book’s story within 12 minutes. Then there’s the fact that it uses very little animation, in the conventional sense. The film is told through fully coloured pictures and backgrounds with most movement coming from camera pans, zooms, and the like.

It’s the kind of film that’s extremely easy to take in bad faith; a short with barely any animation or loyalty to its source, hashed out in a couple of months for cold capitalistic purposes and nothing more. I used to be quite dismissive of it for exactly those reasons when I first heard of it, not even bothering to watch past the first minute or so if I remember rightly.

But that bad faith take has rubbed me the wrong way for some time, and how that take permeates through any discussions and the general consensus surrounding Deitch’s Hobbit film. It’s one thing to laugh with some friends at a work that didn’t quite pan out, and another thing entirely to deny the idea that there could be any artistic worth in said work, to treat it solely as a worthless joke fit for mockery and nothing else. It feels like such a reductive way of approaching something, just because it doesn’t fall within certain parameters that ultimately come off as arbitrary more than anything.

Lots of works are made for cynical money-grubbing reasons yet still manage to surpass those circumstances and inspire people through their artistry. So what if it veers from the source material? I’d rather it be an expression of the creators’ interests in whatever form that takes. The animation may be minimal, and that doesn’t matter so long as the direction and artstyle manage to express the work’s ideals in a compelling or cool manner.

I want to try and be open-minded, and if that means revisiting things I previously rejected due to being a myopic twat, then all the better. It’s especially for the better in this case because The Hobbit is actually quite an enjoyable film. I really dig how it suggests movement through moving the camera itself around. Whether it’s spinning wildly during a frantic scene, zooming into a background while faded layers move forward, or simply moving back and forth across the screen to depict a push-pull dynamic, there’s a lot of work done to ensure the short is cinematically engaging despite the limitations that it worked under.

I also found myself impressed at the effects used beyond just the camera itself. The opening assault on the city of Dale features split second cuts between Slag the dragon and the havoc he wreaks. Scenes occurring near the fireside utilise cycling colour filters to convey the flickering of the fire, albeit perhaps a bit too quickly that it may cause issues for those with epileptic or photosensitivity issues. A wobble or shimmering effect is used whenever there’s a stunning sight for the eyes such as Slag’s treasure or the glow of the morning sun that turns the trolls into trees. These are simple techniques that go a long way to giving scenes a sense of character and dramatic weight.

The artwork by Adolf Born is very lovely with beautifully rendered backgrounds and characters that look like they came right out of a charmingly illustrated picture book. The strong visual work works alongside the sound design and narration (provided by Herbert Lass) to imbue the short with a strong atmosphere. The introduction of Gollum is memorably creepy, even though it’s a brief sequence of slow fades between increasingly closer shots of Gollum’s face as he talks to himself.

The short puts a great amount of detail into individual scenes, glossing over what goes on in between, and this can result in the pacing feeling a bit too quick by the end. Admittedly, this is due to the script being heavily condensed from the original film, to the point where one of Deitch’s letters to Snyder during its production described this short as “The Ghost of The Hobbit”. I don’t think it harms the production too much; in fact it reminds me of the kind of pilot films you’d see for works such as Osamu Dezaki’s take on the Little Nemo film, or the pitch trailer for the unproduced Quasi’s Cabaret by Sally Cruikshank; where you get a taste for the film’s style and sensibilities in spite of the brief runtime.

Nevertheless, I feel that this manages to nail down the broad structure of the original story, as well as the underlying theme of Bilbo Baggins becoming a braver person through his adventures. In that sense, I’d consider this to be an equally worthwhile and compelling take on The Hobbit as the Rankin/Bass and Topcraft-produced TV film released over a decade later, even if it’s more minimalist and truncated.

Gene Deitch’s The Hobbit is a compellingly presented, experimental short that shines in spite, and because of, the constraints brought about by its fascinatingly odd history, and one that should be given a chance in spite of whatever first impressions people have of it.

FrDougal9000 writes for as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.

Leave a Comment