The Red Thread: Rankin/Bass Tolkien Adaptations and Studio Ghibli

I grew up at a perfect time to become obsessed with Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, and subsequently J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium. I would scour the library, the internet, ask my family for any sort of information or way of learning about Tolkien’s creation in any way while I was waiting for the other films to come out.

That is when I was told about the Rankin/Bass adaptations of The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. As I grew older and was more exposed to other forms of animation like Anime, after the rest of Jackson’s trilogy was released I noticed something similar about The Hobbit, The Return of the King, and the masterful animations of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. Let’s follow the trail of the invisible red thread and see how they’re all connected.

While many of us know about and are able to identify a Rankin/Bass production from their stop-motion Christmas Classics that were all puppeteered in Japan (check out my video on them here.) what a lot of people don’t know however is that Rankin/Bass also collaborated with Japanese animation studios to animate their productions. Productions like King Kong, The Cricket On the Hearth, and Frosty the Snowman. One such company was TopCraft.

TopCraft had a long-term relationship with Rankin/Bass working from pre-production storyboarding to completing all of the animation for major projects like Frosty’s Winter Wonderland, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and even the later cult classic, The Last Unicorn. In 1972, TopCraft was tasked with animating the children’s fantasy classic The Hobbitfor a made for TV film. $3 million and five years later, the film was aired in 1977. After the success of The Hobbit, TopCraft was again assigned by Rankin/Bass to adapt their style to final chapter of Tolkien’s fantasy epic, The Return of the King.

While watching these films as I said before, in the early 2000s, I noticed that the background players, the faces of the men, whether it be Gondorian knights, or the Men of Dale, there was a familiarity to them, not from watching the VHS/DVDs hundreds of times, but from something I thought I had seen before, and after watching them to commemorate the life of their Bilbo/Frodo star, Orson Bean who recently passed away, it hit me! I’ve seen these faces, textures and movements in Studio Ghibli films before, and to thank for that is Animation Coordinator Toru Hara.

After TopCraft completed these Tolkien adaptations for Rankin/Bass, they eventually went on to produce Hayao Miyazaki’s directorial debut, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind in 1984, with Hara being an animation producer, and a year later, after the success of the film, TopCraft as we knew it, dissolved and turned into Studio Ghibli, and I don’t think I have to go into the massive influence that name has. However, while Miyazki often gets most of the credit, Hara, played just as an important role in establishing the Studio Ghibli name as we know it today. By using his experiences on the animation team for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Hara brought about the refinement of the style used in the Tolkien adaptations to Studio Ghibli’s most iconic films from, Castle In The Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Here are a few examples:

Aggressive Detailing:

Whenever there is the need for a dynamic close up, the animations become more heightened, and more aggressive in their detailing.

Smaug devastating the men of Dale in The Hobbit (1977)
GROND! The Return of The King (1980)
Nausicaa calming one of the Ohmu in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Illumination and Slow motion:

The illumination slow motion of the magical and worthy objects in Studio Ghibli films like this section of Castle in the Sky, can be found in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King as Sam and Frodo are tempted by the One Ring’s power.

Sam’s temptation in The Return of The King (1980).
Frodo at the penultimate moment. The Return of The King (1980).
Sheeta and her crystal, in Castle in the Sky (1986).

Castle Architecture:

The castle and fortress architecture from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King can easily be recognized as the same in later Studio Ghibli films.

Minas Tirith in The Return of the King (1980).
Laputa in Castle in the Sky (1986).
Nausicaa’s Tower in Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind (1984).

From Tolkien’s legendarium to Studio Ghibli, we have taken in on a most unexpected journey, I hope you found this exploration of following the invisible red thread to be interesting as there will be some more of these in the future!


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