A Short Man and a Horse: How Two Rankin/Bass Films Made Use of Folk and Fantasy


In 1977, the animation firm Rankin/Bass decided to deviate from their usual practice of releasing made-for-tv holiday specials. Instead, they would adapt J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy classic, The Hobbit. Five years later, in 1982, this same company adapted Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. This time for a theatrical release. Besides being fantasy films, these two actually have quite a lot in common. Both have decent production, for their budgets, and were mostly animated by Japanese studio Topcraft, giving them an animesque look. Each also featured impressive voice casts, with The Hobbit benefitting from the vocal talents of director and character actor John Huston, comedian Brother Theodore, director Otto Preminger, and veteran actor Orson Bean. The Last Unicorn featured such notable actors as Mia Farrow, Sir Christopher Lee, Alan Arkin, and Jeff Bridges. Both films also heavily feature folk music in their soundtracks.

Fantasy has long had a home in animation, perhaps because the medium lends itself well to fantasy. After all, fantasy relies heavily on aesthetic. And in animation, any aesthetic is possible, without the need to craft tremendously expensive and impractical sets. Plus, the characters can look like anything the animators want. However, combining all this with folk music is not as intuitive. However, there are a number of reasons why fantasy and folk might pair well. Reasons, in fact, that both The Hobbit and The Last Unicorn make this pairing work exceptionally well.

A Quick Note

There are some definitions to keep in mind. For one thing, folk here refers to the genre of music that began to take shape in the late 1950s, especially in clubs like the Gate of Horn in New York City. This does not refer to traditional songs that an ethnographer would work to record on a Smithsonian grant. At the same time, it must be said that there is some overlap.

This is the modern update traditional songs received via Tin Pan Alley and the Bakersfield Scene of the 1940s, and would itself morph into the singer/songwriter genre. By the time that The Hobbit released in 1977, folk had already moved well beyond the guitar and vocals simplicity of the late 1950s and early 1960s. British bands like Steeleye Span and Pentangle liberally added modern motifs and instruments to traditional material, with American artists doing the same. This is sort of folk, or at least folk-inflected, music that shows up in both films.

The Hobbit

As noted above, in the late 70s Rankin/Bass decided to animate a made for television adaptation of The Hobbit. This was not actually the first animated adaptation that Tolkien’s work received, as there had been a short film made back in the 1960s with Tolkien’s involvement. That film, however, seems to have been made as a way of settling some sort of dispute over the rights to The Hobbit and is almost completely forgotten today. Rankin/Bass, however, wanted to adapt the novel in a feature film format which would better fit the scope of the story. They also developed a unique aesthetic for the film, based on the work of illustrator Arthur Rackham. Similar to woodcuts, Rackham’s distinctive use of texture and fine lines created a fanciful but foreboding mood for the film. One that blended seamlessly with Topcraft’s anime influence. For a final touch, Rankin/Bass brought in folk singer Glen Yarborough to compose the soundtrack.

Yarborough had been a fixture of the folk scene since the late 1950s, though he never rose to the level of fame that artists like Simon and Garfunkel or Bob Dylan attained. Known for his dexterous tenor voice and gentle guitar technique, Yarborough crafted a catchy folk-pop soundtrack that fit the film well. For many of the songs, he lifted the lyrics directly from the text of the novel itself, as Tolkien had written several for his novel. Most of the tracks simply use a mixture of Yarborough’s vocals, guitar, and bass. However, a few songs make use of a deep male chorus to underscore more menacing or mysterious moments. The film just wouldn’t be the same without it.

The Last Unicorn

1982’s The Last Unicorn is a different beast, so to speak. To reiterate, Rankin/Bass was aiming for a theatrical release this time, and as a result production was a hair more lavish. This is reflected in the film’s more detailed animation and higher-profile voice cast. Animation was once again done by Topcraft, who once again lent an animesque look to the film.

It must be said, despite it’s lush, vibrant pallet, The Last Unicorn is somber, contemplative film. With themes of death, aging, failure, and the bittersweet nature of being human, it does not shy away from heavy ideas. The score reflects this, with a whimsical but grim sound that underscores the film’s themes. The exception, however, is the inclusion of two songs performed by the band America. Most famous for their hit “Sister Golden Hair”, their two songs, “The Last Unicorn” and “Walking Man’s Road” are sweet but melancholy tracks that compliment the film well. While more folk-rock than pure folk, the songs still fit. “The Last Unicorn” also proved popular enough that it became track number three on America’s greatest hits album.

The most obvious reason why both movies feature folk in their soundtracks is that Rankin/Bass produced each of them. However, there are subtler reasons. One has to do with the nature of each film’s protagonist, the other has to do with folk’s reliance on “timeless” motifs.

Personal Stories

To point one, both films actually tell very personal stories. In brief, Bilbo Baggins isn’t going on a quest for treasure or to slay a dragon, he’s going on a quest  because he’s tired of watching life pass him by. The Unicorn isn’t trying to forestall the death of the magical, she just wants to see if she is truly the last of her kind. Folk, generally speaking, is a highly personal genre. This personal quality is present in both the actual folk songs that go back hundreds of years, and the modern songs that use their conventions.

The obvious conclusion, then, is that the personal nature of folk highlights the nature of their journeys. “Walking Man’s Road” speaks of the discomfort and bleakness that the Unicorn feels as she experiences human society as an animal. “Roads Go Ever, Ever On” is about Bilbo realizing both just how far he has come, and how much further he has to go.

It’s also worth noting that these songs were written just as folk was beginning to change into the confessional singer/songwriter genre. Exemplified by artists like Tracey Chapman and Suzanne Vega, this genre offers a deep dive into different emotional states and observations on society and the human beings that create it. Both films very much have songs that fit the first trait.

Folk and Fantasy Use Similar Ideas

To point two, folk generally fits well with fantasy because both evoke, or even date from, times long past. The folk music that arose in the late 1950s was actually something of a mix. While many artists, especially those from the Appalachians and Ozarks, were just performing traditional material, many folk artists used traditional songs as a base for their original work. Simon and Garfunkel are perhaps the best example of the latter practice, while the Carter Family are an early example of the former.

Either way, folk reaches back into older, less formalized styles of music in the same way that the legendary traditions that inform fantasy do. Many folk songs, such as the Scottish song “Orfeo”, even depict mythological creatures or incorporate magical elements.

However, it must be stressed that in both fantasy and folk, evocation is more common than recreation. There are some practical answers for this, such as sidestepping the need to do large amounts of research to bring a historical period to life or revive musical techniques long fallen out of use. Instead, the tendency is to rely on archetypes that people associate with either a time of myths or the actual time periods that produced traditional songs. For example, many fantasy setting are evocative of mediaeval Europe, but are not actually set there.

No Lasting Effect

That said, this connection remains little explored in fiction. This might have something to do with the performance of both films, albeit in different ways. The Hobbit was fairly successful on release, and saw fairly frequent rebroadcast on network and cable TV. However, sales of the soundtrack were low. To this day, the soundtrack remains vinyl-only and even that has never seen any kind of reissue. Which is a shame since, aside from it being good, it also includes tracks not heard in the film.

The Last Unicorn, on the other hand, had an unremarkable performance at the box office. Add to that, the film only slowly gained a following in the years after its release, keeping its public profile low. While the title song became something of a hit for America, and remains a favorite in general fandom to this day, it did nothing to advance the association of folk and fantasy.

The result then, are two animated films that made soundtrack decisions that managed to be both unusual yet very much of their time. Soundtrack decisions that worked for a variety of reasons. It’s just a shame they never really caught on.                            

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