The 1977 Rankin Bass adaptation of The Hobbit, while not a perfect film, managed to pack all the essential details of the classic story into seventy five minutes of animation, and did so with a lot of style and panache. A year later, an unrelated animated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings was released, helmed by Ralph Bakshi, because the world likes to be confusing. Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings was only the first half of the story, and was intended to be followed up by a sequel that told the rest. Sadly, it was also a hideous and awful film, like most if not all of Ralph Bakshi’s work, and people rightly hated it. No sequel was made.
Then, in 1980, Rankin Bass – who, again, are NOT Ralph Bakshi – released an adaptation of The Return of the King, the third book in The Lord of the Rings. Whether it was intended to or not, it functions as both a sequel to their adaptation of The Hobbit and a sort of conclusion to Ralph Bakshi’s trainwreck of a Lord of the Rings adaptation. Warner Brothers packages the three movies as if that’s the case, anyway, though Rankin Bass’s interpretation of the characters, setting, and tone is significantly different than Ralph Bakshi’s, in that it’s good and not repulsive on a visceral, primal level.
While infinitely superior to Ralph Bakshi’s abominable adaptation, which is very bad and unimaginably unpleasant to experience, the Rankin Bass adaptation of The Return of the King is far more flawed than their adaptation of The Hobbit. It’s not what you can call good – far too flawed for that – but parts of it are good, and those that aren’t are still interesting in their own right. Its main failings are the result of circumstances that it couldn’t control – the creators weren’t allowed to adapt the first two parts of the story because someone far worse at film making than they were beat them to it, and they also just didn’t have the budget for this fantasy war epic. The result is a movie whose flaws are pretty apparent, but whose ambition and effort despite those hardships still shines through.
Since this adaptation is far less direct than Rankin Bass’s take on The Hobbit, there’s something to be gained from summarizing its plot, even if you’re familiar with the rough synopsis of its literary counterpart. So we’ll begin with a summary, then move onto some pros and cons, before finally wrapping things up with a conclusion.
“[This is] an epic that has a beginning and an end, and ends at the beginning.” Gandalf’s opening narration, while not from Tolkien’s text, would meet with Tolkien’s approval, as it feels suitably medieval – especially with the emphasis on the symbology of a ring (an end that is a beginning and all that). It’s a nice touch for us medievalists.
Our story really begins with the fellowship eating dinner with Elrond and Bilbo. Bilbo inquires about his old ring, and Frodo (somewhat clunkily) explains that it was an evil ring and had to be destroyed, at which point a nameless bard sings about “Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom!” We’re told of how a guy named Aragorn can only become king when the Ring is destroyed, and then cut straight to Frodo and Sam entering Mordor. The entirety of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers are essentially summarized in a single line: “They had many adventures.” This is the big problem with this film – we’re watching the third act of a story without the preceding two, and as a result much of what we see doesn’t have a lot of weight.
Samwise tries to save Frodo from a tower, and eventually goes into an elaborate fantasy sequence about what the world would be like if he used the ring. This is a really interesting sequence, as it actually establishes how the ring tempts people. You see Sam thinking of what miracles he could work with the ring, and how he convinces himself he could use its magic to make a paradise. It gives both depth to Samwise and to the central conflict of the story, showing how Sauron can corrupt even a simple, nice person like Sam. It would have more weight if we actually knew more about Sam as a character, of course – in the context of this movie alone, this is our introduction to Sam, and that’s kind of weird.
Following this is a montage of what life is like in the Shire as Sam remembers what’s important in life and why he can’t give into the seduction of the ring, which isn’t quite as effective and has a hobbit baby that kind of freaks me out a bit, but is still pretty nice. It’s good that this movie found a way to sneak the shire into the proceedings despite not being allowed to adapt the parts of the story that actually take place there. The Shire is important to the conflict of The Lord of the Rings – it shows us more than any other local what we have to lose if the heroes fail.
We then cut to Gondor, and Gandalf tells us how awesome Minas Tirith was before showing us what it’s been reduced to because of Sauron’s war. We see bright, beautiful fields of green one moment, and a few moments later they are replaced with an orc filled battlefield that is barren of any plant life. Again, this is a good way to establish the stakes considering how little time the movie has to adapt the book, and how it isn’t allowed to adapt the previous two in the series. This scene transitions into the whole Steward of Gondor and Gondor Calls for Aid subplot, which the movie tells in the span of about five minutes, give or take. The voice actor playing Denethor hams it up to make up for his short screen time, but still, it’s very rushed.
Back in Mordor, Sam discovers all the orcs in the tower he’s searching have died, and it’s about as disturbing as a 1980’s made for TV family movie gets. He finds the sole surviving orc and learns the reason for the carnage: the two orc armies in the tower found Frodo’s Mithril coat, and their generals ordered them to fight for it, resulting in a massacre. The tragic pettiness of orc societies is one of my favorite details from the books, and I’m glad it’s a detail this special managed to preserve, even if their take on it is rather abbreviated.
Sam then rescues Frodo and they make their way to Mt. Doom, giving some exposition about how Gollum might still be out there and how the Nazgul are bad news in the process. Eventually they run into an army of goblins who are singing about how much they hate war. We’ll talk about the singing part later on, but the scene is another example of how this movie squeezes in the subplot of the plight of the orcs. Of all the world-building details in the book, this is one of the easiest to excise – many people consider Tolkien’s orcs to be archetypical faceless hordes of evil goons, when they’re actually given some pretty nuanced moments that show they’re more than just villains. The fact that an adaptation as truncated as this one kept this detail, but even wrote an original song to emphasize it, deserves some recognition. This would have been so easy to cut, and yet they recognized its importance to giving the conflict depth.
Meanwhile, in Gondor, the orcs have brought Grond to the gates, and Pippin and Gandalf go to confront the armies behind it. We are then introduced to the Witch King of Angmar, who looks like a badass grim reaper but sounds like Skeletor’s cyborg brother who works in tech support. He and Gandalf almost have a duel, but are interrupted as the armies of Rohan arrive to save the day. This is leading up to one of the best moments of this adaptation, but first…
…we have to visit Sam and Frodo again, and they have a musical sequence about their hopes of survival. It even has a dream sequence where they think about a nicer version of their journey, complete with them crossing path with two orc travelers who, instead of attacking them, merely give them a smile and friendly wave as they pass. It’s honestly very sweet, and while it could have been cut for more fighting, I actually kind of like it. It highlights the compassion and genuine virtue of our heroes.
Frodo and Sam make it to the base of Mt. Doom, though they’ve been reduced to crawling because of exhaustion. They also have to take cover as Sauron’s eye glances upon them. Like in a certain more famous adaptation, the eye is portrayed as a physical entity here, though in this movie it seems to be more like a magic device than an incarnation of Sauron himself – like a sort of magic telescope.
Our heroes also encounter Gollum, who takes a page out of Killer Croc’s book by hitting them with a BIG rock. Frodo cows Gollum into submission by holding the ring, and Samwise ultimately decides to spare Gollum rather than kill him because of how pathetic and wretched Gollum is.
Back at the battlefield, King Theoden and the riders of Rohan have turned the tide, and Merry and Pippin reunite in a moment that would be sweet if we had spent any substantial time with their characters in the movie, which we haven’t really. Sadly, a dark and ominous force emerges from the clouds and kills Theoden in a somewhat befuddling moment that the special implies is linked to Frodo refusing to destroy the ring. It’s a little confusing to be honest.
The Witch King returns and we get the best scene in this movie, because it’s also the best non-Ent scene in the books: Eowyn’s finest hour. Eowyn hasn’t appeared in this movie up till now, so Merry has to quickly info-dump her backstory, but then it’s all bold speeches and fellbeast-slaying. Eowyn’s sword shoots a laser in this version, because Standards and Practices wouldn’t allow her to cut off the fellbeast’s head or stab the Nazgul on primetime television, but that doesn’t make it any less badass when she sends Cyber-Skeletor straight to hell.
Immediately following this we are introduced to Aragorn, meaning the king has finally returned after, like, an hour or so of the movie’s screentime. Aragorn quickly takes over the good guys as leader and strategist, and we as the audience accept it because the movie doesn’t give us much of a choice. To his credit, the voice actor for Aragorn actually makes him feel kingly from the get go – he sounds reasonable but determined, as an effective authority figure must be.
Aragorn leads the human armies to Barad-dur and the Towers of the Teeth, where the collected armies of Sauron taunt them with a cruel song that’s right in the vein of Tolkien’s canonical goblin songs, despite being a Rankin Bass original. Aragorn gives them an ultimatum of his own, demanding that Sauron come forth, apologize for his evils, and leave this land in peace, which honestly is more than Sauron deserves. Good on you Aragorn. Sauron’s herald, the Mouth of Sauron, approaches Aragorn simply to taunt him, but Aragorn doesn’t flinch at the insults. He also doesn’t kill the herald, which is honorable and good form. It’d be kind of a huge dick move to kill the messenger, and doing that would probably bring his goodness into question! It’s a good thing Aragorn doesn’t do that. Maybe an obvious thing, too – I don’t know why I’m mentioning it, I’m sure no one would have Aragorn kill a herald in an adaptation of Lord of the Rings. I’m sure of it.
Back at Mt. Doom, Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger and falls into the volcano, sparing Rankin Bass the trouble of having to animate another huge battle scene they don’t really have the budget to convey effectively. Mt. Doom erupts, the nazgul die, Barad-dur falls, and the day is saved! Oh, and the eagles rescue everybody – Sam, Frodo, Aragorn, Gandalf, the entire good guy army, hopefully their horses, EVERYBODY. Aragorn becomes King of Gondor, which would probably inspire some feelings if we knew him for more than, like, ten minutes, and our heroes return home.
We end with the framing device we began with, as Frodo joins Bilbo in the Gray Havens, and Gandalf reassures the worried Sam that hobbits will endure even as elves, wizards, dwarves, and goblins give way to the era of humanity. For Hobbits, as Gandalf notes, are getting larger: Sam is larger than Frodo, and Merry and Pippin are larger than Sam. In time, they will integrate with humanity, and be indistinguishable from them.
Aesthetic – as I said in my review of The Hobbit, Rankin Bass made wonderful and creative design choices with their adaptations of Tolkien’s work, and that holds true here. The environments are lush and beautiful watercolors that vary from wondrous to haunting depending on what the scene needs (more the later than the former), the score has a medieval folktale quality to it while also feeling suitably epic for a Fantasy tale of this magnitude, but best of all are the character designs. I won’t repeat my feelings about how Rankin Bass handled characters like Gollum or creatures like goblins/orcs and trolls – the short version is “they’re excellent” – and instead I’d like to focus on costume design.
Unlike The Hobbit, The Return of the King is mostly a war story, so our characters spend the bulk of their time in armor rather than traveling clothes. We see armies of Gondor and Rohan with their own livery, as well as mixed armies of goblins, trolls, men, and nazgul wearing the colors of Sauron. All are great, but the latter are particularly striking to me. While the armor in general is fairly realistic and practical, there are enough flourishes to make it feel fantastical all the same. The red Eye symbols on the forces of Mordor are particularly striking, and I find my eyes drawn to them in every scene the bad guys appear in. It’s so simple, maybe even obvious, but it makes them feel like more than just a horde of monsters. They’re a horde of monsters with a purpose, with a leader, and with a culture. It might be a cartoonishly evil culture, but it’s a culture all the same. It’s particularly eye catching if you have this movie’s predecessor in mind, which showed you goblins/orcs when they WEREN’T under Sauron’s thumb. The armor they’re put into in this movie feels unnatural on them here – but in a good way. Which leads to my next point:
The Orcs’ Tragedy – I have a lot of feelings about goblins and orcs, especially when they show up as stock bad guys. While the orcs being on the side of evil is integral to how The Lord of the Rings works as a story, there are fleeting moments in Tolkien’s narrative where the author shows how they aren’t comfortable with the role they’re being forced into. Despite living in a society that explicitly raised them to be tools of war, orcs can’t fully embrace the horrors they endure as Sauron’s footsoldiers. They complain about it quite often in the text, even if they do so while talking about how they’d love to go back to a life of killing travelers and stealing their stuff instead. There’s a degree of pity we’re expected to feel for them – in a way, orcs are victims too.
This detail is often overlooked, both in adaptations of Tolkien’s work and in the fandom of his stories as well. So it’s surprising that this movie, which has so much story to tell in so little time, actually manages to seed the idea of orcs being less-than-willing conscripts into the narrative. Not just once, either! We get the massacre caused by a petty dispute between generals, the scene of an orc army singing about how much they don’t want to go to war and how they’re only doing it because they’ll be beaten if they don’t, and even a dream sequence where our heroes imagine a world where orcs weren’t their enemies. While the movie would be well within its rights to reduce the orcs to the shallow villains they so often are, it instead provides a somewhat more nuanced and definitely sympathetic view of them, and that’s so refreshing.
Music – this may be a con as well as a pro, honestly. The Hobbit has a lot of songs in it, which Rankin Bass preserved to great effect. While The Lord of the Rings has songs as well, its overall tone is much less whimsical. Rankin Bass’s The Return of the King tries to match tone with The Hobbit as much as possible, and introduced many new songs to the story as a result. I think some of them work very well – “The Tower of the Teeth” is a very appropriate taunt for the forces of Sauron, capturing a similar sort of petty cruelty as the goblin songs from The Hobbit. Others are more debatable, and I could see people arguing that songs like “The Bearer of the Ring” are distractingly cheesy for a story as gloomy as this.
But you’ll pry “Where There’s A Whip There’s a Way” from my cold dead hands. Cheesy though it may be, limited though its animation certainly is, it’s catchy and fun and really hammers home how the orcs were screwed over by Sauron’s war, which, once again, is one of my favorite subplots of the book.
Frodo’s Story – though it may be called The Return of the King, this movie is far more focused on Frodo’s quest than it is on Aragorn’s. In fact, we don’t actually meet Aragorn till the last twenty or so minutes of the movie! The journey to destroy the ring, and the many perils met along the way, are the crux of this film, and it does a marvelous job of showing them in their complexity. It’s not just physical exhaustion and legions of enemies that obstruct Frodo’s path, either, as we are shown time and again just how the ring seduces people with the fantasy of the power it can bring. Its temptations aren’t implied or stated, but rather presented to us in lurid detail. It’s incredibly effective, and Frodo’s journey ends up being the heart of the movie – much as it was the heart of the original books.
Eowyn – while she gets precious little screentime, Eowyn makes her moment count, and is probably the most badass heroic character in this film. She makes me wish they threw accuracy to the dogs and just made her the leader of the heroic armies and ended the movie with her coronation. Eowyn is just the coolest.
Rushed and Stunted – as those of you who’ve read it know, The Lord of the Rings is a huge book. It’s so huge it’s actually split into six books by Tolkien himself, and often sold as three by retailers. The Return of the King on its own is a much longer book than The Hobbit, and unlike The Hobbit, it’s not a complete story. It’s an end without a beginning or middle. Adapting The Return of the King into an hour and a half made for TV cartoon is a pretty tough gig, but adapting it without first adapting The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers is just folly. You need those first two books to, y’know, set up characters, and the conflict, and the stakes, and, y’know, the story. But Rankin Bass was sort of screwed, as a more high profile animator adapted those two books before they could – as a feature film, no less! They weren’t going to be able to tell the beginning and middle, so they had to cram everything into the end.
This is the flaw that dooms this movie to mediocrity. For all the excellent art design, nuanced story-telling, wonderful characters, and genuine love and passion for the source material, Rankin Bass wasn’t allowed to tell the full story, and the result is The Lord of the Rings: Just the End, and Extremely Abridged At That. You can’t make that into a good story – it’s missing too many parts. But at least they tried to make the parts they had as marvelous as they could manage.
Limited Budget – the other core problem of this movie is its budget. Rankin Bass made lovely movies, but they did not have the money to animate big crowd scenes for more than a few shots. The Lord of the Rings has a lot of big crowd scenes. Specifically, big crowd fight scenes. And of the three parts of The Lord of the Rings, can you guess which has the MOST big crowded fight scenes? Yep, it’s The Return of the King, because the climax of a story should generally be bigger than the set up. Though they do what they can, Rankin Bass just didn’t have the money to make the epic war scenes The Return of the King requires, resulting in a lot of shots of armies waving their weapons around in preparation for a fight we see very little of.
“Cheese” – being an old movie that didn’t have a budget of millions of dollars, many people in modern audiences will not be able to enjoy this movie because of its hokey-ness. Some of the voice acting is less than stellar (the Witch King in particular stands out), there are more than a few obvious animation errors and short cuts, and the music may be a little too sentimental and “corny” for the jaded audiences of today. This is not a movie you can take 100% seriously, and that’s a deal breaker for a lot of people.
The Rankin Bass adaptation of The Return of the King is far from a perfect adaptation of its source material, and a step down from their take on The Hobbit, which is both a better adaptation and a far superior film on its own merits. However, we can’t entirely blame creators of The Return of the King for its faults. True, it’s a mediocre movie, but it’s only mediocre because of circumstance. This is a story told as competently as it was allowed, rather than a story told incompetently that also faced outside issues. You can see the movie this could have been if it had been given more time to tell its story and more money to present its spectacle, and while it falls short of that potential, it is amazing to see how much they managed to accomplish given their limitations. It’s bittersweet, but more sweet than bitter. If you love Tolkien’s work and want to see a unique take on the story, particularly from a visual standpoint, I actually recommend it. For all its flaws, it has some masterful moments of storytelling, and some beautifully creative art design. It’s worth at least one look.