- Year: 1985
- Director: Vladimir Latyshev
- Starring: Zinovy Gerdt, Mikhail Danilov, Ivan Krasko
Today’s version of The Hobbit presents an interesting contrast to the Rankin/Bass cartoon I reviewed last week. Both are a little over 70 minutes in length, but they could not be more different. While the cartoon focused on trying to fit as many scenes as possible into the film, the Russian The Hobbit takes its time with the scenes, opting instead to skip a few along the way. Does this approach work better or does it ultimately harm Tolkien’s vision?
We start with what every visual medium needs… a narrator. Oh, and it’s not just some voice over narration from Bilbo Baggins—we get all the excitement of watching a narrator tell the story.
This room has a strange set-up. Why are there multiple tables spread throughout seemingly at random that have one chair at them? Are three narrators recording separate films? Also, is this guy supposed to be J.R.R Tolkien? They kind of look a little bit a like… I guess.
Speaking of things that vaguely resemble Tolkien, let’s take a look at the characters. In front of a colored pencil sketch, there lived Russian Stephen Fry.
He allegedly lived in The Shire, even though there are clearly normal-sized houses on the horizon behind him. Stephen Fry was sitting on the park bench that for some reason was located two steps from his front door. Alright, the actor playing Bilbo is actually named Mikhail Danilov, and he’s quite good. He’s easy-going and plays up Bilbo’s sense of wonder nicely. I’ve never heard of the actor, but I hope he went on to have a long successful career in Russian cinema.
Now it’s time for my new segment…
Sometimes adaptations throw caution to the wind when it comes to the visual representation of characters, and Russian The Hobbit is no exception. Let’s take a look at the first question:
Alright so this one maybe isn’t that hard, but why does have Gandalf have glitter all over him? Why does he have a fake beard under an obviously real mustache? Why does he have this stupid grin on his face all the time? Why does he look somewhat animalistic? Alright anyway, you’ve got the hang of this now, time for the hard question.
Come on, who am I kidding? Beorn and the Master of Laketown are completely cut out of this adaptation. We do in fact see Gollum, but he looks more like a character out of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
Alright so this angry over-actor with the large mustache can only be Bard the Bowman, right?
SERIOUSLY? That’s the Great Goblin? Well what do the other goblins look like?
A dance troupe, great. That’s threatening. In the time it takes for the goblins to do their song and dance, the dwarves could have gotten away. Remember in the animated film when the dwarves get ambushed and the goblins come out of the shadows to take them? I miss that.
What does Smaug look like (He asked expecting a float from a Chinese New Year parade.)?
Well I didn’t expect much, so I guess this incredibly obvious puppet could be worse. Am I really giving this movie credit for aiming low and hitting the mark?
Alright, let’s get down to it and talk about this film’s really strange pacing and structure. It’s only 71 minutes long, which isn’t that different from last week’s cartoon. However, in this film, it takes 20 minutes to get out of The Shire. We get a nice introduction to Bilbo, Gandalf, and all 13 dwarves, but it’s taking up more than a quarter of the narrative. By this time in the cartoon, the characters had told their backstory, gotten attacked by trolls, taken the loot from the troll cave, visited Rivendell, and picked a place to camp for the night. So what does this film do to make up for it? Skip over the trolls, the troll cave (including Bilbo finding his famous sword Sting), and Rivendell.
We just jump right to the Misty Mountains where the Russian Goblin Ballet Company captures Bilbo and the dwarves, followed by Bilbo meeting Gollum. The Gollum scene is not rushed, but the combination of the actor playing Gollum and his silly costume don’t make it all that worthwhile. Gollum is a tough character to pull off, but he was at least tolerable in the cartoon. Again though, I really enjoy Bilbo in this scene. When Gollum is setting the terms of the riddle game and Bilbo agrees that Gollum can eat him should he win, Bilbo says something to the effect of “What do I get if I win? I don’t want to eat you.” It’s just a quick additional line, but it made me laugh.
After getting away from Gollum, Bilbo meets up with the dwarves again and saves them from spiders. This is the only scene we get from the Mirkwood portion of the book, because after this, we go right to Laketown. There’s a lot that gets skipped over, but skipping over the Wood Elves encounter is a terrible decision. Sneaking around the Wood Elf prison and freeing his friends is one of Bilbo’s shining moments as a burglar, but it’s left out entirely. However, just like in the book, he does later say that he got the dwarves out of two situations not in the original contract, meaning the spiders and… some business with Jabba the Hutt? I don’t know.
When the company gets to Lake Town, they’re treated to another interpretive dance number. WHAT AM I WATCHING?
I actually appreciate the effort to include a lot of Tolkien’s songs in the film, and I quite like the dwarves’ version of “Misty Mountains Cold,” but this song and dance is just awkward and time consuming. As if that wasn’t enough, we then cut back to the narrator who says…
Hey maybe—and this is just a thought—maybe you’d have more time to play with if you didn’t just watch a two-minute dance sequence. This narrator is really involved in this story by the way, and I don’t mean Ken Smith-tell-the-characters-what-to-do-involved, but he always seems deep in thought. Come on man, it’s a kid’s story, you’re not reading the names of the deceased at a military funeral. That said, he sure gets a lot of Tolkien’s great lines into the film that probably wouldn’t have been there otherwise.
After Smaug is killed by Bard, we get to the Battle of Five People… I mean Armies. Are there really even five armies? There aren’t any elves in this one. OK, it’s more a built-up conflict between the men and dwarves until the goblins come in and the narrator tells us about the battle. Again, we are watching a movie. Why are you telling us about the battle? Well perhaps because the little bit we see is yet another synchronized dance sequence. There is not something I can think of that is more offensive to the message of Tolkien than a battle sequence that resembles a dance. War is always ugly in Tolkien’s works, even when it ultimately helps the heroes. It’s hard to think about the horrors of war when we’re seeing the goblins dancing. This is absolutely despicable. Whether it was intentional or not, this is worse than any other weird change this adaptation made.
Thorin is the only dwarf to die. Bilbo says goodbye and goes back to The Shire. I don’t care anymore. You made war look like a dance. I wish you would have just skipped the battle entirely and just had the narrator talk about it. Let’s get this over with.
Adaptation (19/50 Points)
Some of the scenes actually work, and the first twenty minutes have some nice atmosphere. That said, the things it leaves out and the beautification of war really ruin anything it had going.
Cast (11/25 Points)
Mikhail Danilov’s Bilbo is really quite enjoyable, and Anatoly Ravikovich does fine as Thorin. Gandalf is played all wrong, though, and really no one else in this short adaptation stands out.
Experience (9/25 Points)
The sets are really cheap and it cuts back to the narrator way too often, but at least there’s an effort made to include some of Tolkien’s words and songs. Not all of the songs work, but there was clearly work put into them.
FINAL SCORE: 39%
There’s really not much to see here except a nice take on Bilbo Baggins, but you can see that in other versions. Maybe it appealed to Russian kids in the ’80s. I mean, it’s not horrendous or anything, but it really makes some odd choices. I enjoyed a few parts of it, but definitely not enough to recommend it.
Alright, next week, it’s my review of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit… just the first one. He’ll cover in three hours what this movie covered in about 40 minutes. Should be fun.