by Marty Demarest

With the recent Oscar win and upcoming DVD release of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, you may want to do some springtime repairs and make sure your Middle Earth multimedia is up to date. Aside from the books, soundtracks, tchotchkes and video games, make sure you've seen the animated version of The Hobbit.

Originally made for television in the late 1970s, this Rankin/Bass production is, like the live Rings trilogy, made by big fans of the books. It's been out on DVD for a few years now, but it's worth picking up if you see a copy for a decent price. (We've found some good bargains lately.)

The Hobbit has some of the same flaws that plague Scooby Doo: jerky animation and erratic pacing. But it has some of the strengths as well, such as excellent voice acting and wonderful character designs. The greatest features of The Hobbit, though, are the soundtrack and the backgrounds. The lands of Middle Earth are rendered in sprawling ink and watercolor paintings that are even more layered and lavish than those in Lilo and Stitch. When the camera starts panning around the scenery during some dialogue (that way they don't have to animate the characters talking onscreen), you won't mind.

The characters, though animated poorly (Bilbo bobs along like Cartman at a Renaissance fair), are remarkably designed. Everyone has a palpable nose, particularly the dwarves. Gandalf is towering, and a bit weatherworn, as befits a wandering wizard. Gollum is the biggest departure from the expected. Here's he's a big pot-bellied frog creature. But his evil voice characterization is better even than Andy Serkis' in Lord of the Rings. That Gollum needed to be marginally endearing because he was onscreen for so long and we needed to understand Frodo's sympathy for him. Here, we only need to fear Gollum, and Arthur Rankin Jr.'s design does that perfectly.

John Huston is marvelously melodic as the voice of Gandalf, and combined with the near-continual folk-inspired music of the score, his narration lends the entire production the feel of an intimate bardic tale. The fate of the entire world doesn't hang in the balance in this story. But there is a genuine fire-breathing dragon (he's impressively scary), and hobbits, elves and dwarves setting out on a quest together. It's a tale worth knowing, and aside from reading the book, it's an enchanting introduction to all things Tolkien.

Publication date: 04/08/04

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Mon., July 26, 11-11:45 a.m. and Mon., Aug. 9, 11-11:45 a.m.
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