As someone who is a million years old, I remember something called a VHS. It stands for “Video High Standard” or something like that. When I was growing up in the ’90s, we’d watch a “tape” and on the tape would be a movie. Sometimes these movies would be something I’d heard of, but other times? Folks, other times these tapes would hold something that seemed like just a regular kids movie, but was in fact a terrifying wide-awake nightmare. One tape of this second variety we had was a little cartoon about wizards and dwarves. It was the 1977 The Hobbit animated movie and it was scary as hell, you guys.
I can’t tell you the first time I watched this movie. In some ways it feels like I’d always just watched it. Even watching it again for this, each horrible, gorgeous depiction of monsters and upsettera (a word I made up) came rushing back to me like I was a child again. In many was, that is the entire point of The Hobbit, and what makes Bilbo Baggins such a compelling hero. He likes comfort and safety and food and drink, and he must go out and face the terrors of the night, the spiders of the forest, the dragon in the cave. Surrounded by beings he doesn’t quite understand and who don’t quite understand him. He is alone among many. That’s scary in and of itself for a kid, though I don’t think I noticed that at the time.
What did stand out when I was a kid is all the scary crap. A mere 10 minutes into the movie, once Gandalf demands Bilbo be the burglar for this band of gold-hungry dwarves, the group are off and encountering a trio of hungry trolls. These trolls aren’t all that scary, especially to my grown up eyes, but I can remember genuine worry when I was a kid. The trolls don’t last in the movie very long. Merely the first of many dangers facing the small band. They’re the warmup. The real opening act is far scarier and lasts way longer.
The goblins in The Hobbit are huge, fat, froggy terrors with cat eyes, bull horns, and enormous mouths. What’s in their enormous mouths? Well, teeth, as you’d expect. But scarier than that is that they have two throats. TWO THROATS!! Why on Middle-earth would anything need two throats? The goblins end up as a constant threat for the dwarves and hobbits. They show up three times throughout the story, the first two of which come with their own songs. If you listen you can hear Thurl Ravenscroft, the voice of “Tony the Tiger” and singer of the Grinch song, singing the above. Who else would you need?
Even with just the goblins, the movie would be scary enough. But no. Oh no! No sooner has Bilbo evaded the goblins that he meets a little amphibious, underground dweller who constantly talks about “my precious.” The Hobbit animated movie’s version of Gollum is played much more for fear than he is in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As voiced by German monologist Brother Theodore, Gollum raves to nobody. He seems so much more threatening in this version. We really get the sense Bilbo is in for it. Stealing a guy’s birthday present isn’t good. Useful, though.
Okay, so goblins and Gollum. Pretty rough. And I’m sure you all remember the big dragon in the story. We’ll get to him. But I always forget the scary crap that awaits between Gollum and Smaug. Mirkwood is basically a horror movie by itself. The band lose track of time, they wander for days and days without seeing sunlight. And up in the trees? Why no, it’s not birds or squirrels; it’s giant spiders! The spiders in the Rankin/Bass movie aren’t your typical tarantulas. The spider in this movie looks like, I dunno, a weird vampire rabbit with a beard or something.
The spiders do not last long but they certainly make an impression. But the animators were not content to leave so little threat after them. They even managed to make the wood elves and especially King Thranduil (not named in the film) threatening. Unlike the angelic Rivendell elves we met earlier in the film, the Mirkwood elves are hardly Orlando Bloom. It also doesn’t help that filmmaker Otto Preminger voices the Elvenking. (Sidebar: this movie had an amazing cast, and two legendary directors, Preminger and John Huston as Gandalf.) When the army of elves arrives at the end of the movie, they definitely seem more like monsters than misunderstood allies.
It’s basically one thing after another for the whole movie, all leading to the appearance of Smaug, the terrifying dragon. Weirdly, this is the one instance where I think Peter Jackson’s version outdoes the animated when it comes to scariness. This version of Smaug is certainly very distinct, and the gravelly voice of actor Richard Boone adds to the menace. But he actually kind of looks like a longnecked cat. And I don’t think cats are scary. I have two cats and they’re silly. I know why they did this, of course. Smaug is a lazy monster who lounges on piles of gold. Cats love to lie on things that seem uncomfortable to anyone else. And the scene itself is very well done. But, yeah, not scary. Look at him!
But that’s just one! One scary thing in the movie is less scary than it could have been. Everything else is a wall-to-wall pants-pisser.
Movies for kids should be scary. There, I said it. Not all of them, of course, but it’s better to have the youth fear monsters and goblins and giant spiders in fiction so they won’t be so caught off guard by the real-life terrors of the world. Bilbo is a safe pair of furry feet to travel with on a journey into spooky night time stuff. Glad I got to experience those when I was a kid. Frigging two-throated a-holes and all.
Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Instagram and Letterboxd.