Before Peter Jackson, there was Rankin and Bass.
Animated filming of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy book about a diminutive Hobbit creature named Bilbo Baggins, who is charged with a quest to help a gang of dwarves get their treasure back from an evil dragon named Smaug. Rankin and Bass' 1978 adaptation of The Hobbit is a fairly painful affair not just for fans of the book, but anyone new to the series in general. Book to film adaptations have always been a sore spot with any fan of a popular novel that finally makes the transition, but few of these adaptations have had quite the distaste behind them that this particular one has. Although I have not had the pleasure of reading the book, I can safely say that the fans who have bashed this adaptation over the last twenty years have quite a bit of justification behind their accusations.
Rankin and Bass had made quite a strong name for themselves by putting out some of the most memorable and popular animated holiday specials of the seventies (such as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and The Year Without a Santa Claus), so they had become quite a powerhouse on television when it came to event animation. With a large scale animated version of the follow-up Lord of the Rings in the works, the producer/director team of Rankin and Bass got a jump on all the hype by making their event project for 1978 the book that would launch what is considered one of the best works of fantasy fiction ever written. Though The Hobbit managed to pull in good numbers for an animated TV movie (thanks mainly to the rabid fan base), the core audience found much fault with the cutesy holiday specialists' family oriented take on a fairly dark fantasy novel.
I can't complain much about what was removed from the story from book to screen, since I am unaware of such omissions, but I do know a poor telling of a story when I see one. Thanks to the prevailing notion that breaking into song was a great way for a children's film to move its story along, The Hobbit suffers from some ill advised musical interludes featuring folk song warbler Glenn Yarbrough leading us through Bilbo's journey. These songs, written by Jules Bass, are pure tripe and Yarbrough's vocal mechanics in each are grating on the nerves. I can only imagine the insult that fans of the novels felt when some of their favorite characters didn't get included in the story, but they must have been downright appalled at having to sit through the pitiful excuses for songs that this much anticipated film version had in store for them. The music in this film makes just about any Disney animated musical (even the insipid Pocahontas) look warm and inviting in comparison.
The animation is also of only a fair quality, with the bulk of the impressive work being done only on the dragon Smaug. Unfortunately, the work done on the giant dragon shows a level of detail that the rest of the film doesn't live up to, so it stands out from the rest of the so-so work. All of the characters in the film seem less like Tolkien creations and more like Rankin/Bass creations thanks to their rather one-note animation style, which also drags the film down further. The only other character in the film that I was impressed with besides Smaug was that of Gollum, and even he is nothing like he was meant to be portrayed in the books.
What is most depressing about the awfulness of this film is the amount of voice talent behind it. Rankin/Bass had always been on top of securing some very impressive voice talent for their holiday shows and here they were no different. Names such as John Huston, Otto Preminger, and Orson Bean filled out the voice roster and they still could not manage to bring suitable life to Tolkien's work. It is a sad day when such an esteemed array of Hollywood legends could get together for an event such as this, only to have it all destroyed by silly pandering to a youthful audience who could never appreciate the butchering being done until they actually had the chance to read the books.