It's an animated TV movie by the Rankin-Bass studio that three years later followed it up with Return of the King. I liked that too, but this is clearly a better film. I even prefer it to Tolkien's original novel, but I'll start by explaining why I think it's the better of the two Rankin-Bass Tolkien animations.
Firstly, there's no clash between form and content. Lord of the Rings is an epic. The Hobbit though is a fairy tale for children, so it seems more natural for it to have simple TV-level animation and lots of songs. The latter are usually just using Tolkien's original lyrics, anyway. They fit, they feel right and there's a mildly funky bit in "down down goblin down", although it's clearly not as cool as the follow-up's Orc Whipping Song.
Secondly, the book they're adapting is of a normal length, instead of being fat enough to have its own gravitational pull. This lets them be faithful. The plot makes sense! Characters aren't pulled from the scriptwriter's backside with no explanation! There are a few differences, obviously, but as far as I'm concerned they're improvements. There's no Beorn and no Arkenstone, so the motivations around the final battle are different and Bilbo doesn't go sneaking off to the elves. Gollum looks more piscine than you might expect, but that's because the movie's going on Tolkien's earlier descriptions of the character. The opening credits even say that this is based on "the original version" of The Hobbit, but that's a lie since this clearly isn't the first-edition Gollum who willingly bet his magic ring on the outcome of the riddle-game with Bilbo and then amicably accepted his loss afterwards.
Thirdly, the story itself is better. I'll be going into detail here.
It has a cooler hero. Bilbo is way better than whiny old Frodo. Bilbo kicks arse. He repeatedly saves the dwarves' necks, e.g. the barrel trick. He faces down Gollum, as cool as a cucumber, and he out-talks and out-thinks Smaug. In addition Frodo spent most of his time bringing up the rear behind Middle-Earth's most badass heroes, whereas Bilbo's the brains of his gang and the one who does most of the work. He's not in Gandalf's league, obviously, but Gandalf's not there half the time.
However on top of all that, Bilbo has a personality so awesome that he turns the movie into a subversion of its genre. He's a stay-at-home. He doesn't really understand adventuring. Asked to think of "good things", Bilbo suggests eggs and bacon, a good full pipe, his garden at twilight and cakes. The latter in particular makes him one of the all-time great fantasy heroes. This is summed up hilariously when the dwarves come to visit in the "That's What Bilbo Baggins Hates" song. Then on top of that, he's terribly English (albeit rural bumpkin English) and will say things like "splendid news, old fellow". His sang-froid with Gollum is so remarkable that I actually started feeling sorry for the latter, who may be a cannibalistic insane troglodyte but still plays fair in the riddle-game and then doesn't try to welch on it afterwards.
Best of all is the ending, though. It's a shame to lose the Arkenstone betrayal, but look what we get instead. Bilbo gets Smaug killed, after which the dwarves get their treasure... and suddenly the humans and elves turn up with an army each. Note that in this version, there's no mention of special artefacts with cultural significance, or anything like that. It's just loot. Middle Earth's rival powers have turned up because they're making a cash grab, basically, and it's hilarious and bizarrely modern to see them use war as a negotiating tool. All these supposedly heroic characters turn into cocks, basically, with the dwarves bloody-mindedly insisting that "it's mine, it's mine!" even when they're about to be carved into mince.
However then the goblins arrive and the bullshit level goes nuclear. "Your people are like brothers to mine!"
So a battle happens, with Bilbo having been saying all along that Smaug had enough gold to sink a battleship and they could simply share it out and still all be insanely rich without having to fight. In the book, Bilbo gets knocked out by a falling rock. In the movie, Bilbo says that he "simply doesn't understand war", then buggers off to watch the battle from a safe distance, possibly invisible. When asked later about his whereabouts, Bilbo says he had "a bump to the head" and was "out for hours".
THIS IS BRILLIANT. Admittedly it gets a bit sledgehammer-y when Thorin starts preaching afterwards that it was him who didn't understand war, not Bilbo. However this is a film that's putting a delicious boot into war and warmongers, underlining it afterwards with the modesty of Bilbo's share on his return home. We don't see him divide his share with the others, which is the obvious morally heroic choice that I'd been expecting. No, instead he simply takes a couple of bags and doesn't even bother mentioning what he did with the rest, explaining himself on the simple, practical grounds that that's all he needs and it's all he could carry.
That's the important stuff, I think. Everything else is random notes.
The acting is better, lacking those hiccups I complained about in Return of the King. It's very good, actually, with John Huston (Gandalf) being the biggest name but by no means leaving behind his fellow actors.
The film also feels more like a fairy story, with trolls, elves, goblins and wizards instead of the expected Tolkien worldbuilding. There's a bit of the latter, though. The ending is a big "to be continued" and this film gives character and history to what might otherwise have come across as the Deus Ex Machina Eagles in The Return of the King
. I also liked the way that the humans feel like just another species, while you'll see lots of talking animals. If you watch this with children, expect to have them asking afterwards what the deal was with the talking thrush.
In fact the biggest apparent plot holes are due to sticking too closely to Tolkien. That map, for instance, is exactly what's in the book's illustrations, but it's also hilariously inadequate for the uses that our heroes put it to and I can only assume it's beaming knowledge into their brains. (Come to think of it, this is possible.) "According to the map, the gate lies in this direction!" No, according to the map, you're in the middle of a featureless space of about fifty square miles.
I still liked the character design, incidentally. This cast fits better with the art style, although some of the dwarves' noses are unfortunate if you're aware of Tolkien's likening his dwarves to Jews. (Further unfortunate racial aspect: the wood elves talk like Bela Lugosi.) However Gollum and the goblins look downright cool, although I knew what they looked like from Return of the King. Smaug surprised me. After having amphibian, if not downright piscine, for most of their monsters, e.g. the Goblin King having a mouth like some kind of deep-sea abomination, for the dragon they do a 180-degree turn and make him both mammalian and feline. He has hair! That was mildly unexpected. I liked it.
In short, it's awesome. It looks a bit kiddified and it's got songs, but neither of those is counter to the spirit of the original novel. What I hadn't expected though was the degree to which it feels like a post-modern subversion of fantasy, instead of (as it is) one of the genre's landmarks. Time after time, it keeps taking the prosaic, realistic approach instead of the expected high fantasy one. I laughed my head off when Bilbo shouts, "Dwarves, I'm done for. Run for it!" ...AND THEY DO. So long, dude. Nice knowing you. "I couldn't argue; my contract is vague on several points." It's kind of boggling when Bilbo nearly gets all of Lake-town barbecued by shooting his mouth off to Smaug. The big one though is that everyone wants to eat or rob you, including the heroes. Note the story's disturbing fondness for the word "burglar". The more you examine this story, the most subversive it gets.
"Adventures make you late for dinner."