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The Animated Tolkien Trilogy:The Return of the King -Rankin/Bass (1980)


So Ralph Bakshi’s film ended on a quick semi-resolution, but the ring was not destroyed and the journey not over. Somebody needed to finish the job. So Rankin/Bass hastily took up the task of adapting The Return of the King in 1980. However this wasn’t just a transition of artist and style, but also format. Bakshi’s movie had been a feature film, but Rankin/Bass was going the route of their Hobbit and doing it as a TV special, meaning it would be much shorter, cheaper, and more condensed. Also, since Rankin/Bass had nothing to do with Bakshi’s film, they picked up the story, but as a sequel to their Hobbit; making for a very weird presentation that follows up essentially where The Lord of the Rings left off, but without acknowledging its specific continuity and darker tone. It’d be like if Jackson quit after The Two Towers and the story was picked up by Wes Anderson as a sequel to Leonard Nimoy’s “Ballad of Bilbo Baggins”.
As you may be able to guess from all this, The Return of the King is by far the worst of this Animated Tolkien Trilogy for a variety of reasons, not least being that it feels incredibly forced because Bakshi couldn’t finish The Lord of the Rings. There’s not nearly the effort and artistry that went into The Hobbit. It just kind of fulfils a quota of animated adaptations, and with its source being the epic and grand finale of The Lord of the Rings, that simply won’t do.
Opening on Mount Doom looking almost like the Paramount logo we get some John Huston narration just like the kind that introduced The Hobbit. Huston is reprising his role as Gandalf and while it’s initially nice to hear his terrific voice, it recurs way too often in the movie. The Return of the King, the way they adapt it here, doesn’t feature a ton of action for Gandalf, but Rankin/Bass nonetheless really wanted to utilize Huston, resulting in a lot of deeply unnecessary narration all through the movie. It’s distracting, and more often than not is telling us the blatantly obvious. The film also employs a strange framing device absent from the book. Sometime after the whole story has taken place, Frodo, Sam, Pippin, Merry, and Gandalf are visiting Bilbo and Elrond in Rivendell. Aragorn’s not there, and sadly Legolas and Gimli are entirely cut from the story. It’s apparent too that the animation, both on the backdrops and characters is a downgrade from The Hobbit. Bilbo looks exceptionally flat compared to his previous adventure, and at times the animation moves in a manner similar to Hanna Barbera cartoons -perhaps fitting considering Merry is voiced by Shaggy himself, Casey Kasem (Don Messick -Scooby Doo- is the voice of Theoden)! Elrond and Gandalf look relatively the same, but the hobbits are slightly more distinctly designed. Frodo actually looks like a slightly more cartoony version of Bakshi’s interpretation, Pippin’s unusually lanky for a hobbit, and Sam and Merry are distinguishable only by Sam’s bushier eyebrows and sideburns. One thing I will say for this movie though is that at least Sam’s actually capable and brave (and doesn’t chew his fucking cloak!) in this one. He’s also voiced by Roddy McDowell which is a little weird; I never really thought of Sam as cockney and there are times he sounds a little too much like Del Boy to be taken seriously. Frodo is voiced by Orson Bean, same as Bilbo, but at least Bean differentiates the voices a little.
Anyway, the movie gives us a brief recap and montage of The Hobbit where Bilbo explains how he found the ring, only for Frodo to tell him the ring was evil. Bilbo notices unbelievably for the first time that Frodo is missing a finger and demands he explain. “We have brought with us someone who has written a ballad about the adventures of Frodo” says Gandalf. And while Leonard Nimoy does NOT show up, we are instead introduced to the bizarre character of the minstrel of Gondor, who feels less like he belongs in a Lord of the Rings story as much as in the company of Eric Idle on the path to finding the Holy Grail. He proceeds to sing the song “Frodo of the Nine Fingers” in the same ballad style as The Hobbit. And this music for the duration of the movie is heavily out of place. Even the book really toned down the use of songs from the previous instalments because Tolkien knew it was a more urgent, more serious story. That being said, “Frodo and the Nine Fingers” does have an irritating way of sticking in your head.
After recapping The Hobbit again, the movie then rushes through the first two Lord of the Rings books (careful to avoid referencing any specifics I guess because Rankin/Bass didn’t have the copyright). Aragorn is established as just some lost king, Sauron (or Soren because this movie’s American) is given brief exposition, and there’s no set-up at all for Merry and Pippin’s, Rohan’s, or even Gandalf’s own part in the adventure. It’s obvious to even the most uninitiated that there’s a lot missing here. The story begins where the book did: Frodo’s just been captured by orcs and taken to Cirith Ungol and the title card appears for a second time strangely. Sam pounds on the doors and makes a reference to orcs being what “Old Bilbo called goblins” demonstrating the adapters don’t know, or more likely, care that goblins and orcs are different in Tolkien’s universe. We spend time with Sam’s inner monologue and then see the ring tempt him. But the way it shows his vision of “Samwise the Strong” feels like him lusting after power. And when he rejects the ring, it’s framed more out of doubt in his capabilities rather than his pure strength of will, which I’m not really okay with. It’s then where the movie first displays one of its biggest problems, when Sam, to motivate himself, thinks of the Shire; and we’re given an elongated sequence with sappy music showing Sam comfortable as an old man with an extremely boring family. It’s enormously clear that Rankin/Bass is uncomfortable with the darker environment, subject matter, and stakes of this story, and have to come up with ways to make it more light and whimsical. This is a pattern that runs through the movie making it tonally very uneven.
Speaking of something uneven: the screen-time for the rest of the characters. Minas Tirith (introduced hilariously as the bastion of the powers of light and good) is besieged by orcs on Pelennor Fields celebrating their recent victories. There are Nazgul flying around; only rather than looking like proper Nazgul, they’re long-haired Agnes Skinner skeleton monstrosities in goth dress riding fell beasts. Gandalf’s narration reveals Denethor in his madness ordered his own execution which is absurdly nonsensical. Gandalf and Pippin allude to King Theoden, who just happens to be hanging out with Merry, before they discover that Denethor has been using a Palantir, established here as just a stereotypical crystal ball. He’s seen the coming of the black fleet on the Anduin and has given up hope for the city. Next thing we know, he’s apparently died off-screen.
Sam meanwhile uses the unexplained Phial of Galadriel to get through an invisible shield at Cirith Ungol where he finds most of the orcs already dead. This is in keeping with the book but it’s not very satisfying, as it robs Sam of the chance to prove himself as a fighter, especially considering there’s no Shelob scene in this. He makes it up to the tower where Frodo is being held and whipped by one orc, who on spotting Sam is proven stupid enough to die by pratfall down a trapdoor. As Sam reunites with Frodo, his master chooses now to exposit about the elves leaving Middle-Earth and the Grey Havens. And of course, this movie has to dedicate a flash forward and musical motif to Frodo sailing away on a white ship. Once it returns to the present, Frodo immediately goes into power-hungry dick mode upon seeing the ring. Like with everything else, the Phial solves it though. They dress as orcs to make it through Mordor incognito at which point Frodo utters the very funny line: “hope you’ve made inquiries about inns along the road?” which Sam moronically takes seriously. They then go quite a distance into Mordor without running into anyone. Around this time, Sam brings up Gollum possibly being after them, but since their history with him isn’t mentioned it seems to be an out of nowhere random concern about this creature from Bilbo’s adventure. They come to the Vale of Gorgoroth, which they name drop numerous times for some reason, and it’s only once they’re quite a ways through it that they run into orcs. But what would orcs be doing that far into Gorgoroth? This question quickly becomes irrelevant by the fact that the orcs are singing. And it’s not a grim war chant, but like something the Seven Dwarfs would sing -it’s incredibly bizarre. Also, as they’re marching, these orcs don’t look threatening or frightening the way the goblins in The Hobbit did. If anything they come off as bored. Frodo and Sam are somehow mistaken for orcs like in the story, but it’s particularly unbelievable here because their faces are completely visible and blatantly non-orc. When the orcs cross paths with an army of humans (possibly the Haradrim), Sam encourages them to fight and during the skirmish, he and Frodo escape. Shortly after, Frodo falls into a hole so that there’s a tiny bit of tension going into a commercial break.
Minas Tirith is now on fire as the Battle of Pelennor Fields is raging and orcs are overrunning the city. And we finally get the appearance of the Witch King of Angmar, who looks a lot better than the other Nazgul. He’s wearing a vestment with Sauron’s eye painted on it, a flowing cloak and a crown on a head that’s invisible but for a pair of red eyes. It’s a little corny, but actually works okay as a different but still intimidating interpretation of one of the Lord of the Rings’ best secondary villains …and then he speaks. I have no idea why the makers of this film decided to give him a goofy robot voice, but they did. He sounds like a Scooby-Doo monster and is impossible to take seriously! Thankfully his end is near, because the army of Rohan is on their way -or as Gandalf says, “Roan”.
The story cuts back to Frodo and Sam, and at this point, the people making the movie were clearly just getting high. Because, just after Sam awakens a weakened Frodo and repeats the purpose of their quest, we get another flash to the Shire, and Frodo smoking his pipe at Bag End. Then we see Frodo and Sam having a picnic and inviting a couple orcs who just happen to be in the Shire to join them …and they do. What the holy hell??? Next, there’s a scene of Frodo picturing himself throwing the ring into Mount Doom, having a happy ending as he skips home with Sam, meets Gandalf, and then both Gandalf and Sam turn into orcs as he wakes up. All the while it’s playing cheerful music. This hallucination is so cartoonishly absurd and surreal it’s mesmerizing!
Gandalf commentates on how Frodo and Sam had to crawl their way to Mount Doom, and in a sure sign the lyricist is running out of excuses for songs, a number called “The Cracks of Doom” plays over it. The Eye makes its first real appearance here looking more like an Aztec sun than any recognizable optic feature.  
It’s after this that Gollum appears, waiting for them atop a rock. Gollum has the same basic design as in The Hobbit but it’s been altered slightly in only the wrong ways. He’s even chubbier now, standing on spindling legs and rather than wearing a loincloth, seems to have a short tail and loose fur hanging off his arms; his skin is way too green-coloured, his ears have been pushed further down his head, and he’s been given pupils. In fact he’s positively cute. Also, Theodore’s really phoning in his lines, you can hear an exasperation in his voice. He demands his ‘precious’ then hurls a boulder at them. It actually hits them as its rolling down the mountainside, causing the hobbits to role too like bowling balls, the boulder actually bouncing off of them a couple times. It’s a pretty funny bit of slapstick at a very inopportune moment. Once the hobbits are finished rolling, Gollum jumps on Frodo, and Sam prepares to attack, but worries he might stab Frodo by accident. This despite the fact that Gollum is larger than Frodo and not very agile. Either Sam has absolutely no confidence in his hand-eye coordination or Rankin/Bass wants another excuse to avoid on-screen violence. However Frodo grabs the ring and once again it seems to turn him into Mr. Hyde as his eyes go all evil and he stands formidable in front of Gollum. Frodo foreshadows -or more accurately, directly conveys Gollum’s death by telling him he’ll die in the fires of Mount Doom if he lays a hand on him again. When Frodo lets go of the ring, Sam sends him up the mountain while he deals with Gollum -only to find that he can’t bring himself to harm him. For the purposes of this movie it makes enough sense (that is if we’re assuming this is the first Sam’s met Gollum), but if you’re familiar particularly with the Jackson movies you have to roll your eyes. There’s no way at this point in the story Sam would let Gollum live. Sam sends Gollum away instead and follows the path up to the hospitable looking door of Sammath Naur. It’s so small and so unassuming, you might even say it’s just the re-purposed, slightly redesigned door into the Lonely Mountain from The Hobbit.
Back in Gondor, Pippin somehow makes it onto the battlefield where he reunites with Merry as the Rohirrim have arrived. But then a “dark force” descends which causes Theoden’s horse to throw him …and that’s how he dies. Theoden, the great King of Rohan is killed by falling off his horse -that’s a really pathetic move, movie!
Cut to Sam still searching for Frodo in the dark tunnel of the mountain. Eventually he finds him at the platform over the lava, where Frodo with an evil glint in his eye utters the single silliest line in the movie: “I have come, but I do not choose to do now what I have come to do” (can they not just say the phrase “destroy the ring”?). Frodo laughs evilly, puts on the ring and in demonstration of how poorly edited this movie is, it chooses then to cut back to Battle of Pelennor Fields. It’s not like Frodo putting on the ring and being in full view of Sauron is anything urgent!
But okay, this is Eowyn’s big scene, one of my favourites. And it actually starts out pretty good. Eowyn comes in to meet the Witch King as Merry quickly gives her backstory, and the dialogue of their confrontation is taken directly from the book. Similar to the book, she’s portrayed as a larger than life heroine, but I don’t mind. Of course the Witch-King’s dialogue is still laughable given the robot voice and their battle a little poor because they censor out every strike, including Merry stabbing him in the back and Eowyn finishing him off. The battle is won and the remaining orcs cannonball into the River Anduin. They see the black ships coming though and are momentarily rejuvenated, until they hoist the flag of Gondor and with twenty minutes left in The Return of the King, the titular king, Aragorn, finally makes his appearance. There’s no mention of the army of the dead, but Aragorn’s presence is enough to scare away the remaining enemies. How very convenient. Later, in an encampment, Gandalf and Aragorn decide to move on the Black Gate. Following this is a montage of them riding to another cheesy war song, and once they arrive, there’s an equally cheesy one from the orcs with some of the worst lyrics. The Mouth of Sauron makes an appearance, looking like just some guy in a mask way out of his depth. Aragorn isn’t much fazed at the possibility of defeat, acting like he’s engaging in a sporting match, and Gandalf’s thoughts are completely on the ring
Speaking of which, you’re probably wondering how Frodo’s been wandering around Mount Doom hiding from Sam for what has to have been at least a week without being caught by Sauron, who’s supposed to be able to see him under the ring! Or does that aspect of the ring’s power also not apply to this film? Either way the pacing is atrocious. As Sam laments, Gollum reappears having found Frodo. And in a breach of continuity from both the books and The Hobbit film, the ring itself is shown to not actually turn invisible, rendering its usefulness not that effective. The “Frodo of the Nine Fingers” song ominously plays in the lead-in to Gollum biting off Frodo’s finger. It’s the cleanest severing ever, without a drop of blood. And it’s not hidden like in old movies, they intentionally focus on his now disfigured hand and the fact there’s no sign of a wound is really dumb. In keeping with Frodo’s prediction, Gollum then idiotically stumbles into the pit to die and take the ring with him; a stupid moment, but to be fair, a stupid moment from the book.
Barad-dur crumbles and the Eye explodes, and nobody had to fight a single orc. The Eagles come to rescue again,actually picking up each rider individually and flying them away! That doesn’t sound like the Eagles I know, who only carried the dwarves in The Hobbit as a favour to Gandalf. Frodo and Sam meanwhile outrun the lava resigned to their fate when the eagles drop in to pick them up.
Aragorn returns to Minas Tirith as King, Eowyn is there with another finely cloaked figure who might be this films’ attempt to shoehorn Faramir in. Oh and remember how in the Jackson film, the hobbits were in the coronation crowd and given special honour by the King in front of the entire world of men? Well in this movie, they get a piss-poor view from the tower and are completely ignored by everyone. That sucks.
And with that the minstrel’s tale is done, having bored Bilbo to sleep. Once Bilbo’s awakened by everyone’s laughter, he tells Frodo he’s going to be leaving tomorrow from the Grey Havens. I love that he’s just telling Frodo this now, if he even was going to tell him at all. The excuse given by Gandalf is just that he, Elrond, and Bilbo are old, but he mentions there’s room on the white ships for one more. Suddenly, Frodo decides he’s weary of this world and wants to join them. He discourages Sam from coming with him, saying that he, Pippin, and Merry are young (despite this being another in a long line of Frodos who looks the youngest of them all), and gives Bilbo’s book to Sam, having not begun his own story yet. Then Sam makes an odd mention of how in addition to the Elves leaving, the orcs and trolls are no more, dragons extinct, and dwarves hidden away in the mountains, despite none of those being true in the original text. That’s when Gandalf drops the biggest bombshell and outright states that the hobbits are at some point going to turn into humans! I am not making this shit up, but clearly Rankin/Bass is! Not only does this absurd notion have no basis in Tolkien, but it takes Tolkien’s assertion that his world exists in an imagined period of our own history far too literally. As if it couldn’t get any dumber, Gandalf says that the hobbits’ stories will live on and someday the men of that age will ask “is there any hobbit in me?” -this last part very obviously addressed to the viewer. Ugh…
As a Lord of the Rings film, Rankin/Bass’ The Return of the King doesn’t make a lot of sense, and as a standalone it makes almost none. However you may present it, it’s the third part of a story and isn’t going to work without the other two. The root of most its problems is in how Rankin/Bass was not the right company to make this. They suited the lighter Hobbit fine, but are so awkwardly and obviously uncomfortable with the subject matter of Return of the King, that their attempts to paint it as kid friendly make it sloppy, discrepant, and pandering. Bakshi knew this was not a kids’ story and didn’t treat it as such; and to give Bakshi credit, most of the bad stuff in his movie is enjoyably bad. Aside from a couple outlandish choices I mentioned, there aren’t really any of those moments here. The songs range from “okay in another context” to bottom of the barrel drivel you can’t believe someone got paid to write -the use of folk music just in general completely at odds with the tone of the story. None of the characters have much personality, many are cut, and it’s ironic that the title heroic king has maybe half a dozen lines (and for them, he’s voiced by Theodore Bikel -what a waste!). The animation has a few nice designs but is mostly unimpressive.
Unquestionably this doesn’t hold a candle to Peter Jackson’s version, which was of course the one that won Best Picture. At least with the other two in this Animated Tolkien Trilogy, they offered something better than the Jackson movies, but The Return of the King did not. Everything about this movie seems to argue it was done out of obligation by people who didn’t really care. This came out the same year as The Last Unicorn; clearly Rankin/Bass’ priorities were elsewhere. The Return of the King is only a curiosity if you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, and at that, not one you’re likely to enjoy.

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