Monsters & Mullets is the bastard child of my obsessive devotion to '80s high fantasy films. Despite my deep affection for Rankin & Bass' made-for-tv animated adaptation of The Hobbit, however, I began work on the series knowing it was out of bounds. The Hobbit, after all, came out in 1977.
It's taken me a while to make peace with the idea that Monsters & Mullets is my bloody feature on my bloody blog and, therefore, I can review whatever I like. I mean, really. Caligula is 1970s art-house porn, and I grandfathered it in. The Hobbit is a no-brainer; of course it's a Monsters & Mullets film. Hell, it's a Monsters & Mullets classic.
Also, The Hobbit teaches us something we may not have realized before: Gandalf is kind of an asshole
In a hole in the ground there lives a tiny middle-aged Englishman. He smokes his pipe and plans his meals well in advance and has hairy feet. Some skinny old dude - oh, you know it's Gandalf - shows up and demands that our tiny Englishman (Bilbo) be a burgler in a party of dwarves. Then all the dwarves show up. There are twelve of 'em, and they're led by a cranky dwarven princling called Thorin. The dwarves give Bilbo an adorably hard time by pretending to be messy and careless with his possessions and ultimately convince him to go along with their crazy scheme to repossess a former dwarf-palace (the Lonely Mountain) from a really big, really mean dragon (Smaug).
Adventure time! The group make the puzzling decision to walk to the Lonely Mountain, despite the fact that it's kind of far away. It rains a lot along the way, which makes Bilbo long for tea and cakes and a warm fire. The group is menaced by a gang of trolls, and only Gandalf's timely arrival saves them from being eaten. (This is the way most of the adventures in The Hobbit unfold.) But Bilbo proves his usefulness by uncovering the trolls' cache of purloined valuables, and everyone outfits himself in elven armour and weapons, including Bilbo, who takes a shine to a handsome little dagger he calls Sting. Gandalf also takes this (kind of inopprotune) moment to hand Thorin a key and a map of the Lonely Mountain. Thorin's all "you waited a century to give me this and choose a troll cave to hand it over?" Gandalf, as always, talks down to the man who makes a very good point and then changes the subject.
Next the group walks into Rivendell, an elf outpost. Elrond, the elf king (of this area) feeds everyone and translates the runes carved into the stuff they liberated from the trolls. His translation services include deciphering a bit of a puzzle on the map Gandalf gave Thorin, something about secret passages and noisy birds. The group departs.
More adventures! While crossing a mountain range, (it's raining again, by the way), the group spends the night in a nice empty cave. Bilbo wakes up in the middle of the night to see their ponies being dragged away through a secret door. He rouses the dwarves (Newsflash: Gandalf is AWOL) and they go after the ponies. Which means they get caught by some very big, hungry goblins. The goblins drag them before the Goblin King, who takes it kind of personally that the dwarves are carrying swords forged during the goblin/elf wars, and galumphs over to bite Thorin's head off. Predictably, it's this moment that Gandalf magically reappears, kills el Goblino Royal, and frees the group. (Alas, the ponies appear to be a lost cause.) While running away, however, Bilbo gets separated from the group and falls down a deep, dark hole.
He wakes by the side of a lake. While feeling around he finds a ring and slips it into his pocket. Not long after he's accosted by a strange looking fellow with a habit of talking to himself and making gross noises in his throat. Hey, it's Gollum! Golluming! Gollum is, naturally enough, curious about how tiny Englishmen taste. Bilbo is less than eager to help him find out, so they settle down to a game of riddles to pass the time. Gollum agrees to show Bilbo the way out if he should ask a question Gollum can't answer. On the condition that, should the situation be reversed, Gollum gets to eat Bilbo. Bilbo finally wins by asking what's really kind of a cheaty riddle, but Gollum rushes off to find his "birthday present" to show Bilbo before letting him go. Curses, the present is gone! Of course, it's the ring Bilbo found earlier. Bilbo accidentally slips the ring on and discovers that it makes him invisible. Gollum naturally assumes that Bilbo's disappearance means he high-tailed it and rushes away to try to head Bilbo off. Bilbo sneaks after him and escapes. Gollum vows eternal friendship.
Bilbo reunites with his party and tells them an abbreviated, ring-free version of his adventure. Gandalf makes a bunch of bad puns to let Bilbo know that he's onto him. Then the goblins, rightly aggrieved, ride out of the mountains on enormous wolves, singing a song about how they're going to eat the dwarves. The group can't outrun their foes, so they climb trees and Gandalf throws magical explody pinecones at the goblins. But the goblins are smarter than they look, and set fire to the trees. Gandalf somehow manages to summon a bunch of gigantic eagles, who pluck the dwarves out of the trees and fly them away.
The eagles set the group down at the edge of Mirkwood forest and flap away. Gandalf hands Bilbo a parchment and tells him to write an account of the journey, and to be detailed about it so that later he can tell Bilbo how he fucked up. Seriously! "Keep a strict log of your jouney," he orders, "so that I may study it when we meet again, and point out your missteps." Then he leaves. Again. Thanks, Gandalf.
So, Mirkwood kind of sucks. It's dark and it's scary and it apparently goes on forever. At one point Bilbo climbs a tree to try to spot the forest's edge, but all he sees are some butterflies. Weirdly, he finds this kind of lovely. But the dwarves are less inclined towards flights of romantic fancy and become increasingly desperate. Fortunately, a diversion arrives in the shape of a hive of hungry spiders, who spin the dwarves up in silk and then consider their good fortune before tucking in. Bilbo saves the day, killing the spiders and freeing his companions, only to have the dwarves run headlong into a party of elves. The two groups not being so friendly, the elves immediately capture the dwarves and march them to their forest-elf castle-thingie. Bilbo slips on his ring and sneaks along.
The Elf King, understandably enough, is a little perplexed as to why a group of starving dwarves are wandering around Mirkwood and demands an explaination. Rather than saying something like "we're going to kill a big dragon and get our gold back; wanna help?" Thorin & co. are very impolite and get tossed into the dungeons for their trouble. Poor Bilbo's all like, "oh my god you guys, really? Again?" and saves them - this time by exploiting the fact that elves are all big ol' drunkards. He hides the dwarves in empty wine barrels and floats them downriver and out of Mirkwood.
A group of totally high-fantasied-up manly-men fish the barrels out of the river. Hooray, it's the men of Lake Town! The Lake Town right next to the Lonely Mountain! They're nearly there! Thorin introduces himself and then falls over in a dead faint. Later, rested and refreshed, the dwarves are treated to a big ol' celebration before heading off into the mountain. The Lake Town men try not to laugh too obviously as thirteen medium-sized, middle-aged men troop off to fight a dragon.
The group finds the place where the secret door should be, but there's no keyhole. So they make camp and hang out, getting increasingly fractious. Until, one afternoon, Bilbo notices that a snail-eating thrush and a ray of sunlight have aligned to make a keyhole appear in the rock face. Thorin uses his key to open the door, and boom: they've got a route in.
Of course, the dwarves immediately punk out and demand that Bilbo go first. Bilbo sighs heavily (implied) and heads inside. The thrush follows. The dwarves stick around outside, guarding the entrance against, like, mosquitos. Once out of the dwarves' sight, Bilbo puts his ring on and enters the dragon's lair. He pops a little cup into his waistcoat and then snoops around for the dragon. Who's not that hard to find, considering the fact that he's about the size of Massachusetts. Smaug wakes up and the two have what essentially amounts to an awesome-off: for every boast Smaug makes about his size and scariness, Bilbo counters with something about being the only useful member of his adventuring party. Eventually both get too cocky; Smaug reveals a vulnerable, scale-free section on his chest while Bilbo makes himself sound like he's from Lake Town. Smaug gets pissy and vows revenge, while Bilbo pops off his ring and essentially shoots him the middle finger. Smaug snorts fire at Bilbo and then takes off to go burn down Lake Town. Bilbo runs back up the tunnel.
Smaug takes to the air outside of the mountain and attacks the party, who rush inside to escape and become trapped. Meanwhile, Smaug's rampage continues; he moves on to attack Lake Town (unfortunately made of wood). But, as usual, Bilbo's one step ahead of everyone else. He asks the little thrush who was with him when he confronted Smaug to get word of Smaug's weakness to Lake Town's great bowman. The thrush does. The archer, Bard intones at his favorite arrow for a bit before shooting Smaug with it. Smaug crashes into the lake and dies. Everyone cheers.
Meanwhile the dwarves are having a grand old time inside the mountain, playing king in piles of gold. Bilbo tries to get them to act like sensible adults, as they don't know where the dragon is or when he's coming back. But Thorin poo-poos him and explains that Bilbo never really understood the dwarves and their honor and their quest and their love of gold anyway; he's just a dumb ol' hobbit, etc. Just as things start to heat up, however, one of the watch-dwarves rushes over with news: there are, like, a lot of really big fireflies in the valley below the mountain. Someone figures out they're actually campfires. At this point Bard, all kitted out in armor, pops in to explain that the dragon is dead but fighting him totally wrecked Lake Town's economy, so can he have some gold please, seeing how he did the dwarves' dirty work for them? Thorin tells him to fuck off. Then the Elf King shows up and makes a similar (though slightly less compelling) argument. Thorin tells him to fuck off, too. Bilbo sighs heavily (implied).
Thorin sends for dwarvish reinforcements, and the dwarves, elves and men meet on the field of battle. Before things can get too bloody, however, Gandalf appears. Of course. Everyone insults him for a bit until they realize who he is. Then Gandalf explains that the goblins are heading their way to put in their claim for the gold. Also, the eagles are going to come help fight the goblins. Dwarves, elves and men engage in a lot of manly back-slapping and whooping and "my oldest and dearest friend!" -ing as they agree to combine forces and fight off the goblins together. Bilbo does the sensible thing, puts on his ring and buggers off, editorializing on his way about how dumb a five-sided battle is.
Later. One of the dwarves collapses in a heap near the invisible Bilbo, who uninvisibles and helps him back to camp. Gandalf pulls Bilbo aside and gives him the skinny - they good guys have won, but about half the original party is dead, and Thorin's just about to go roll around on that great big heap of gold in the sky, too. Bilbo heads into Thorin's tent, where the heavily bandaged dwarf tells him that the world would be a better place if everyone were more like middle-aged Englishmen. Then he dies.
Bilbo heads home, Gandalf at his side. They exposit back and forth a bit. Bilbo talks up his plan to write a book about his adventures. Gandalf laughs and belittles him. The end.
You'd never know it from my lengthy recap, but at seventy-seven minutes, this adaptation of The Hobbit is a model of plot efficiency. We establish that Bilbo's a pleasant little homebody with a deep-seated yearning for adventure by the third minute; eight minutes in all the major secondary characters have been introduced, the conflict determined and the quest set . The film doesn't devote much time to character development outside of Bilbo's, but hits most of the book's plot-points: the party nearly gets eaten by trolls, goblins and spiders; Bilbo meets Gollum and discovers a magic ring that turns him invisible; Gandalf appears and disappears at totally inopprotune moments. Elves, dragon, war, death - it's mostly all there. Bilbo whines a lot, especially at the film's beginning, but gradually comes into his own as a capable adventurer. The dwarves aren't especially helpful; mostly they get into trouble and then give Bilbo a hard time about not getting them out of trouble fast enough. Indeed, Bilbo ultimately defeats the dragon with the help of a bird and some random guy.
It is a very fine moustache, now you mention it.
Because of its length, Rankin & Bass' The Hobbit can only just scratch the surface of what makes the book so compelling. In the novel, Bilbo's lot is a lonely one: his desire to be home amongst his comfortable things is totally at odds with his desire for adventure. He doesn't have a quest as the dwarves do; he doesn't care about gold or revenge. He's along for the fun of it, which creates an unbridgable gap between him and his companions. In the book, he and Thorin are constantly at odds, determined to misunderstand each other until it's too late to do more than acknowledge that the other wasn't totally in the wrong. Because the film cuts out most of the book's character work - and the Arkenstone subplot, which is what ultimately teaches Bilbo to empathise with the dwarves - Thorin's death loses its emotional resonance. A kid wouldn't notice it, but as an adult I find I miss the story's deeper layers - such as they are.
And then there's Gandalf. Seriously, he shows up at the beginning all "I'M GANDALF, BITCHES!" buffaloes Bilbo into going with the dwarves, buggers off whenever the weather gets shitty or he gets tired or whatever, miraculously reappears in time to save the day, and then disappears again. And then spends the denoument belittling Bilbo. "You don't really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck?" Gandalf asks, "just for your sole benefit? You're a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I'm very fond of you, but you're only quite a little fellow in a wide world, after all." This after Bilbo rightly points out that prophecies are all well and good, but he had a pretty big hand in bringing these particular prophecies to fruition.
Bonus: a nice souvenir to show the folks back home.
And there's the problem of the animation. The backgrounds, all highly stylized scenery in muted watercolors, are gorgeous, and the character designs are actually pretty cool (honorable mentions to Smaug and Gollum). But the animation itself is obviously inexpensive; the director relies on cheesy effects, sequences are looped or repeated to increase their length and characters often stand out against the backgrounds like cardboard cutouts against a photograph. The voices are well cast, though, which goes a long way towards mitigating the cheapo animation: again, an honorable mention for Smaug and Gollum.
Of course, we can't talk about this version of The Hobbit without talking about the music. Oh god, those songs. Most of The Hobbit's soundtrack is just Tolkien's poetry from the book set to music, and the director uses it well - to round out establishing shots or action sequences. But there's also "The Ballad of the Greatest Adventure," or whatever it's called; that cheesy, ear-wormy jingle that slithers around in your subconscious until you find yourself whispering the lyrics at 3 am when you're standing in the kitchen feeding the cat. It's time you stop thinking and wasting the day.
Monsters: The Hobbit is rolling in monsters! Dwarves, elves, wizards, trolls, goblins, goblins on wolves, really big eagles, really really big spiders, one super-big dragon and one awesome gollum. And a short Englishman with hairy feet.
Mullets: The Lake Men sport super-duper late '70s/early '80s High Fantasy Manly-Man designs: longish bowl-cuts, mustaches, and very short skirts - the better to show off their sinewy thighs.
Hookers, Victims & Doormats: There ain't no women in The Hobbit, full stop. Not even in Lake Town! Not a single one! This raises a lot of questions, not a single one of which I feel like considering right now.
Doesn't Anyone Think this Shit Through? There's not actually much that's thematically objectionable about The Hobbit. A guy who's made a life-style out of being comfortable learns that adventures are actually pretty neat. A guy who's devoted his entire life to obsessing about gold learns that being comfortable and happy has its rewards. Wizards are jerks. I'm more or less fine with all these lessons.
Ruining my Childhood by Inches: We can't talk about The Hobbit without talking about Peter Jackson's forthcoming adaptation. Apparently having not learned his lesson from Return of the King's unwatchably interminable ending, Jackson's turning a kid's book into two eight-hundred-year-long movies. But Jackson has a good track-record with Tolkien overall. And he has, after all, cast Martin Freeman - a man who's made his career playing hobbity humans - as Bilbo.
He's also cast this guy:
as this guy:
My childhood feels a little weird about objectifying Thorin but, uh, remains cautiously optimistic.
Comprehensive Monsters & Mullets Awesomeness Spectrum Placement: The Hobbit received reviews ranging from "could be worse" to "utter shit" in 1977. But it was a childhood favorite of mine (I like dragons) so I'm prejudiced in its favor. Plus, having seen films like Q the Winged Serpent, I know for a fact that there are significantly worse films out there. The Hobbit is reasonable, qualified fun, like having a bag of Mother's Circus Animal Cookies to yourself on a hot day when your folks are at work and you're home for summer vacation. Yeah, your cookies are going to melt all over your hands, and yeah you're going to make youself sick on them - but you're going to eat the whole bag anyway. You're seven in this scenario, by the way.
(Translation: The Hobbit is somewhere near Willow on our spectrum - awesomeishy.)
Oh, hey! Also, there's this thing: