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Glow-in-the-Dark Hobbits & Homophobic Frodos: Rankin Bass’ 1980 “The Return of the King” Reviewed

08.10.11 | Kunochan | 40 Comments

A Ringwraith of the genus Mantis.

Every corner of fandom has something embarrassing or painful with which to live. For instance, Star Wars fandom has to deal with the execrable prequel trilogy – that’s a biggie. Star Trek fandom has to live with Star Trek: The Motion[less] Picture, Star Trek V, and Enterprise. Charmed fandom has to live with the TV series Charmed; and so on.

Then there is Tolkien fandom. First of all, let me assure you that no one anywhere in Tolkien fandom refers to themselves as a “Ringer,” so let’s put an end to that rumor right now. Second, if you haven’t read Tolkien, you’re not a Tolkien fan, no matter how many Orlando Bloom maquettes you own. And by “read Tolkien,” I mean read The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings… AND The Silmarillion. Yes, that’s right, bucko, The Silmar-freaking-illion, the best book Tolkien wrote. The whole thing. Even the poems.

Anyway, I digress. Where was I? Tolkien fandom. What is there to embarrass Tolkien fandom? I’ll tell you in one word: animation. Three lousy animated adaptations: Rankin Bass’ 1977 The Hobbit, Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 The Lord of the Rings, and Rankin Bass’ 1980 The Return of the King. I have already reviewed the first two, and found them bad – but not as bad as I remembered.

Here, my fellow Tolkien fans, is my review of The Return of the King. Produced by Rankin Bass and Studio Ghibli predecessor Topcraft, this television special aired May 11, 1980 as a very unofficial sequel to Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, which only covered Fellowship and most of Two Towers. I’ll refer to the special from here on out as ROTK.

But first – a very special BITINGLY SARCASTIC PLOT SYNOPSIS:

The opening credits.

We begin with Gandalf in Mordor, riding on Shadowfax, watching some Ringwraiths fly circles around Mount Doom. Wait, what? Once again as in Rankin Bass’ The Hobbit, veteran thespian John Huston voices the Grey Pilgrim, and he narrates. Gandalf begins by showing you – SHOWING YOU – the One Ring being destroyed in the Cracks of Doom, and describing how Sauron was defeated and Aragorn Returned as The King. Wait, Kuno – did I accidentally skip ahead? What about the rest of the plot synopsis? Or was this entire TV special 14 seconds long?

No, dear reader, this movie gets rolling by telling you exactly how it ends. That’s a great way to build up dramatic tension, let me tell you. (Let’s be perfectly fair – in the Prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien reveals to the careful reader that Merry and Pippin survive and that all ends well. Still, the book doesn’t start with any giveaway as to how things end well.)

Now, because we have so much extra time to kill in a 98-minute adaptation of a 385-page book, let’s bookend things with an extra story. Frodo and Bilbo are arriving at Rivendell to celebrate the 129th birthday of Bilbo Baggins. Merry and Pippin are there, along with Gandalf and, of course, Elrond, what with it being his house and all. And HOLY SHIT the voice of Merry is Casey Kasem, sounding exactly like Casey Kasem. Not even doing his “Shaggy” voice. Nope, just good ol’ Casey Kasem, here to announce Eriador’s Top 40. And all I can hear in my head is Negativland’s “U2.”

Massive homophobic douchebag and “orgone therapy” shill Orson Bean provides the identical voices of Bilbo and Frodo. Jesus, Orson and Casey, it’s called acting. I can’t act my way out of a paper bag, but at least I can vary my voice up a bit.

Anyway. Bilbo mentions a few of his adventures from The Hobbit, we see a few flashbacks, and then Bilbo asks what became of his magic ring. And so Frodo tells the story, which has now had two introductions that both give away the ending. Nice.

A minstrel of Nose-dor.

But first a “Minstrel of Gondor” with a giant honking nose appears to give us some backstory. He describes Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum, and we get more flashbacks. Lots more flashbacks. You know, because you don’t have to animate those.

Then the minstrel recaps some of the events of Fellowship, with some “new” flashbacks.

Gandalf cuts in to introduce Aragorn, and discuss Frodo and Sam’s “many adventures” before they teleport to Mordor and the actual story can begin, with Sam rescuing Frodo from the tower of Cirith Ungol. That’s right folks, no Shelob for you.

By the way, we are already seven minutes and 50 seconds in before anything actually happens – that’s 13% of the way through the film. Just to recap, we’ve had two wrap-around stories and plenty of flashbacks, but no real action until now.

I guess I’d better own up at this point – if you’re waiting for Legolas and Gimli, you’re going to be sorely disappointed, because they’re not here. At all. Cut completely. Gone. I guess we’re lucky to have Casey and Pippin.

So. Cirith Ungol, which Gandalf mispronounces as “Seer-ith Ungol.” The “Ring of Doom” is gone! Where is it, the Minstrel sings? Dramatic music and – commercial break.

Here? A commercial break? Just as the story is finally starting? Okay, here’s a commercial from 1980. It’s shrinking and puffing, just like Hobbits. Enjoy.

Welcome back. Samwise, wearing a funny feather hat, bangs on the gates of Cirith Ungol. What will he do? How can he rescue Frodo? Let’s find out.

The credits, again.

WHAT??? THE CREDITS ROLL? Jesus flipping Christ, when will this story actually begin????

During the credits, more flashbacks of Gandalf telling Frodo he has to destroy the Ring, and some suspiciously romantic stuff between Frodo and Sam. I’m all for homoerotic subtext in my Tolkien, but can we just get to the story, please?

Okay, we’re at 11 minutes and seven seconds now. And… action! Sam has a lengthy conversation with the Ring and with Frodo’s sword Sting – no really – and then walks through the blessedly Shelob-free Shelob’s Lair to get into Mordor. He sees that the Orcs in the tower are fighting amongst themselves, and decides he can sneak in unobserved. But lo! The Ring is holding him back! (By the way, Samwise is voiced by Roddy “Planet of the Apes” McDowall.)

So Sam decides to leave Frodo to his fate and go destroy the Ring himself. He abandons Frodo, returns through Shelob’s Lair, and heads off on his own. BWA HA HA HA! I’m only kidding! That would be a ridiculous and inexplicable departure from the book, serving no narrative purpose and thoroughly betraying the Samwise character!

Yeah, except that’s what happens. No, really.

Few people are aware that the guy in the middle is the original Mickey Mouse.

Sam goes to Mount Doom (or seems to – it’s unclear if he’s there, or just looking at the volcano from a distance) and tells the Ring he’s seriously considering claiming it for his own, becoming “Samwise the Strong.” There is now a grindingly long musical interlude, with a fantasy sequence of an armored Sam commanding an army as it attacks Barad-dûr. No, really. He turns the Orcs into sloths or badgers or something. NO, REALLY.

I told you. You thought I was lying. You can’t make this shit up.

We’re at 18:40, and nothing has really happened yet.

Samwise decides not to put on the Ring, and still talking endlessly to himself, he walks off. And the frickin’ Minstrel starts into a song about how you shouldn’t want more than you have, while we see footage of simple life in the Shire. This goes on for a while.

We’re at 20:45, and everything so far has been flashbacks and musical numbers – and it’s another commercial break! Here’s another commercial.

We’re back. Sam has decided not to go off on his own, and to go back and look for Frodo. Twenty minutes in, and we’ve seen Aragorn for ten seconds, and we’ve still got the Battle of the Pelennor Fields to get through. I hope.

Gandalf introduces us to Minas Tirith. He talks about it – a lot. We see the Pelennor fields as a wasted battleground full of Orcs and Oliphaunts – apparently we missed the Battle of Pelennor Fields, or at least most of it, while Samwise was busy with his musical number. Oh, good.

Denethor orders his own execution – forget Osgiliath or Faramir, in this version he’s just nutso – and Pippin rushes off to find Gandalf to stop him. Gandalf has sent Merry from Minas Tirith to Rohan to fetch Theoden and the Riders of Rohan. And to count down this week’s Top 10 Pop Hits.

Pippin tells Gandalf about Denethor, and actually speaks the following line: “He’s gone loony, I tell you!” Oh god, my head hurts now. Seriously, this movie is causing me physical pain.

Denethor and Gandalf argue. Oh wait, here is the palantír – a “crystal ball to see the future.” Denethor goes on at length about how screwed everyone is, and we see in the palantír the approach of the Black Ships of the Corsairs. So for once we get a scene out of the book, and it’s boring as crap.

Then Denethor kills himself. Gandalf loses all hope. And meanwhile…

Samwise has accomplished nothing. He gets stuck at an invisible barrier outside Cirith Ungol. Then he remembers the Vial of Galadriel, which is entirely unexplained, and uses it to pass the Watchers. It makes electronic noises.

An alarm goes off! Commercial break.

Sam finds the tower full of dead Orcs. He figures out that they killed each other off, just like in the book. Climbing up the tower, Sam encounters a live Orc.

Now something bizarre happens. Sam clutches the Ring, and this makes him glow for some reason. The glowing makes the Orc run away. Funny, in the book, just holding the Ring didn’t give anyone weird Orc-repelling powers.

The Orc is running and crying – yes, crying – and Sam gives chase. He stops the Orc and asks it some questions. No, really. They talk, then the Orc falls off the staircase and dies.

Sam finds the trapdoor in the top of the tower and FINALLY – 35 minutes in – discovers Frodo and fights the last Orc in the tower. Frodo and Sam share a romantic moment. Sam kisses Frodo, even.

Great Eru, we’re only 35 minutes in and I feel like I’ve been watching for two hours. How can there still be over an hour of this thing left?

Frodo of course thinks the quest has failed, because the Ring is gone. Then we get another musical interlude, this one about Frodo, Elrond and Gandalf sailing to Valinor.

Frodo takes the Ring from Sam, and starts glowing. I guess the glowing is supposed to represent the Ring taking over the mind of whoever holds it. I guess. It makes no sense. Anyway, Frodo regains his composure and apologizes to Sam.

“The Phial of Galadriel,” Frodo says, “I can say no more!” Well, that explains that.

Dressed as Orcs, Frodo and Sam set off to Mount Doom. They encounter the Watchers again, because we just can’t get enough of the Watchers. To be fair, there was a second encounter with the Watchers in the book.

Next scene: Frodo and Sam encounter a Nazgûl! This is exciting because – commercial break!

After the commercial – no Nazgûl. What a gyp. Sam talks about the Plain of “Goro Goroth,” whatever that is.

Sorry Samwise, but the eye doctor just put those drops in my eyes…

There are a few scenes detailing how hungry and thirsty the Hobbits are, and it’s here I noticed that one of our voice actors is bothering to sound hungry and thirsty, while one just reads his lines off the script. Which is which? Let’s just say that the one who was probably gay is the one doing the acting, while the homophobic douchebag is just phoning it in.

So Frodo and Sam do a lot of walking and talking. They talk about being tired, and they talk about Gollum, and they talk about Black Riders. Talky talky talky talk. Sam says “Gorogoroth” again. Look people, if you’re gonna do a Tolkien adaptation, you can ask Chris Tolkien for a pronunciation guide. Or use the one IN THE DAMNED BOOK.

There’s a weird little mistake here – Samwise says “God help us,” which is wrong, since Hobbits don’t worship Eru Ilúvatar. They don’t have any religion at all. And if the Elf-educated Frodo and Sam are going to call to anyone for aid, they would call to Elbereth, which of course in the book they do several times. Of course, this is like picking nits in a nit circus.

Now we get another song – not one of Tolkien’s songs, because why would we want that? – called “It’s So Easy Not To Try.” It’s terrible. But at least it’s brief.

See that thin wedge of pages that Mini-Sauron is holding? That’s the entire section of The Lord of the Rings dedicated to Frodo and Samwise in Mordor. It’s 77 pages. Out of 1146.

Good thing nothing is going on in the rest of Middle-earth, because apparently this movie is sticking with the exciting adventures of Frodo and Samwise, which I should point out comprise only three chapters, or 77 pages, out of the 385 that comprise The Return of the King minus the appendices. That’s 20% of the novel, but apparently that’s the part we’re going to get here. Forget Aragorn and Gandalf and Theoden and Éowyn and Merry and Pippin and Prince Imrahil and the War in the North and expecially Legolas and Gimli – we want to watch two midgets walk across a featureless plain for 98 minutes. Good thinking, Rankin & Bass.

Now we get to the only good part – well, memorable part – of this crapfest, the “Where There’s a Whip, There’s a Way” song. Enjoy the video, I’ll wait.

This goes on too long, as we’re really not that interested in the Orcs’ motivations – I’m not sure this deserved an entire musical number.

In fact, we’re at 49:20 now, and here is what has happened: Denethor has killed himself, and Frodo and Sam have escaped from Cirith Ungol. Forty-nine minutes and twenty seconds. Jesus.

Frodo and Sam are caught and forced to march with the Orcs. Now we get more of the “Whip” song, because there wasn’t enough of it before. “I’d rather be singing a good ol’ Hobbit song,” Roddy says. Yes, we’d rather you were singing one of Tolkien’s songs as well.

Frodo and Sam spend more time in expository conversation. Then the Orcs get in a fight with some Evil Men, spurred on by Samwise; and the Hobbits manage to sneak away.

Well, that exciting interlude is over – now we’re back to crossing Gorgoroth. Frodo falls off a cliff, and Sam cries out for help – commercial break. How many commercial breaks does this thing have?

Hooray – we’re back to Gandalf. Grond is approaching the gates of Minas Tirith. Gandalf and Pippin are watching, and Gandalf says something anachronistic about “the arm of the devil himself.” Gandalf mounts Shadowfax as the Lord of the Nazgûl arrives on his black pegasus. (Fell Beasts are usually depicted as reptilian – this is the only place I can think of where they’re portrayed as winged horses. Tolkien himself suggested they were pterodactyl-like. Anyway, it doesn’t matter — at this point in the film the Witch-king’s steed is a horse, but later it morphs into a reptile.)

Grond, which is quite phallic in this version, is deployed and the gates of Minas Tirith are broken. Gandalf faces off against the Witch-king, who replies in a silly voice that sounds suspiciously like Gargamel from The Smurfs. (Checking Wikipedia – okay, John Stephenson was not the voice of Gargamel, but he did do voice-acting work for The Smurfs.)

Suddenly, a cock crows and the Rohirrim attack. Hooray! How exciting! If we knew who any of these people were, or what relationship these nations had to each other, then boy howdy this would be thrilling!

Anyway, now we’re going to get a very exciting and expensive-to-animate battle scene! Right? RIGHT???

No. We get another song with Frodo and Sam. Something about “putting off tomorrow.” These people know Tolkien wrote his own songs, right? Songs that actually went with the story? This song features a fantasy sequence where Frodo and Sam destroy the Ring and meet Gandalf again, even though they should think he died in Moria.

So Frodo and Sam slog on and on, as do we, until they reach the roots of Mount Doom (at about exactly the one hour mark). Here’s a song about the Cracks of Doom.

Gollum! Gollum gollum gollum. Gollum.

Gandalf describes Sauron as Frodo and Sam climb the volcano. Nothing happens for three minutes. Frodo and Sam talk about their situation some more. Then they climb some more. Then – GOLLUM! We get another “God help us” from Samwise.

Gollum and the Hobbits talk, because there’s nothing more exciting than talking. Gollum throws a boulder at the Hobbits and knocks them down the side of the mountain. Then, to celebrate his near victory, Gollum stands around talking for a while. Commercial break.

Frog-Man – I mean Gollum – attacks Frodo, and tries to get the Ring. Sam is useless, as he’s afraid of hitting Frodo with Sting. Frodo grabs the Ring and starts glowing, which scares off Gollum just like it did the Orc.

Gollum and Sam have a conversation, just like not in the book. Sam decides to let Gollum escape, and follows Frodo to the Sammath Naur.

Meanwhile, in the interesting story, the tide turns at the Pelennor Fields. Merry and Pippin work together to kill an Orc. Sauron releases some kind of cloud of darkness, and Theoden is crushed by his horse. Merry is very upset about this – we would be too if Theoden had been a character or anything.

Frodo stands over the Cracks of Doom. It’s clear we’re losing everything with Aragorn and The Black Gate and the Mouth of Sauron, right? Sam urges Frodo to destroy the Ring – but Frodo won’t do it. A song tells us that Frodo has been taken over by the Ring. This goes on for a while.

Frodo laughs maniacally, which sounds like Orson Bean reading the words “ha ha ha ha ha ha ha” off a pill bottle. Then he puts on the Ring and goes invisible.

The Lord of the Nazgûl appears on the Pelennor fields, now riding a dragon-like steed. He is faced by a mysterious soldier of Rohan, who we have never ever seen before this point (1:14:04), and who is clearly a girl. Yes, it’s Éowyn, our first female character in an hour and 15 minutes. For once the dialogue is almost straight out of Tolkien.

Merry says “I must to her aid – on America’s Top 40!” and together they kill the Witch-king. Huzzah! This was almost exciting!

Gandalf describes how Theoden is borne in honor from the field; and he wonders what will happen to “King Aragorn” when he returns. I’m sorry, who?

Then the Black Fleet appears, arriving from “Ee-thenn,” which I guess is how you pronounce Ithilien if you’re high on the ganja. But who is commanding the fleet? Some guy we’ve barely ever seen – Aragorn, looking a lot like Leonidas from 300.

The Orcs flee, and Aragorn decides to march on the Morannon. He does this for no good reason – forget the whole strategy of buying time for Frodo, that doesn’t exist here. And forget the fact that we’ve been teleporting back and forth between Frodo and Gandalf, and that Frodo had just put on the Ring. Now days pass as Aragorn and Gandalf march on the Black Gate.

Aragorn calls himself the “King of Gondor” and calls forth the Dark Lord. Now we get the Mouth of Sauron. They have a chat.

We sit through an interminable song about the futility of the whole thing.

Okay, so we’re to understand at this point that Frodo and Sam really have been in the Sammath Naur for days – seriously. Frodo put on the Ring, but Sauron didn’t notice. Now they’ve just been kind of hanging out in a gas-and-fume-filled volcanic chamber, just so Aragorn would have time to march to the Morannon. Okay, sure. At this point, why not?

Sam discovers Gollum and Frodo fighting. Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger and gets the Ring. Commercial break. Yes, a commercial break right in the middle of the climax.

Gollum falls into the lava and the Ring is destroyed. Frodo tells us what we just saw happen. The mountain begins to erupt. The Ringwraiths all die and the Morannon and Barad-dûr collapse. Thank Eru, this movie is almost over. (1:25:40)


The Eagles arrive! Hooray! They find the ceaselessly chatty Frodo and Sam and bear them away from the volcanic eruption. They also bear THE ENTIRE GONDORIAN AND ROHIRRIM ARMY back to Minas Tirith. Seriously. Now, that is dumber than bearing the fellowship to Mordor.

This guy chatting with Éowyn? It’s Faramir, making his cameo appearance. Maybe Legolas and Gimli are back there somewhere.

Can we wrap this up? “King Aragorn” is crowned. I swear to Eru, we get a quick romantic moment between Éowyn and Faramir “Sir Not Appearing in This Film” son of Denethor. More “original” song action.

So we’re back in Rivendell with the Minstrel. Bilbo reveals that he is leaving on the White Ship with Elrond and Gandalf to the Uttermost West. Frodo decides to go with them.

There’s a long discussion of what will happen to Hobbits ensues – Gandalf suggests that Hobbits are turning into Men.

Samwise, Merry and Pippin watch the White Ship depart as we get another freakin’ song medley.


Well, this is almost irredeemably awful.

Rankin and Bass apparently decided that ROTK should focus almost entirely on the adventures of Samwise and Frodo, which as I pointed out in the synopsis is only three chapters out of the original ROTK, while including only the barest bones of the actual story of the War of the Ring. I mean, to introduce Éowyn just as she slays the Witch-king? Come on, people, that would be like introducing Luke Skywalker just before the death of the Emporer, because you thought the Ewoks were the most important part of Star Wars.

Sure, Sam and Frodo are the key to the victory at the end of LOTR. Frodo is in essence the true hero of the story. Fine. But there is far more to The Lord of the Rings than Sam and Frodo’s story – far more. And it does a genuine disservice to a great work of literature to reduce it to just three key chapters.

Would Rankin and Bass have time in only 98 minutes to deal with Legolas and Gimli, Aragorn and Arwen, Imrahil and the Rivendell twins, Theoden and Éowyn? Well, they sure had time to give us a lot of crappy original songs. Surely we could have developed some characters besides the Hobbits and Gandalf.

Assuming you knew nothing about LOTR, I think this animated special would be dull and difficult to follow. If you had seen Rankin Bass’ The Hobbit and Bakshi’s LOTR, you would obviously do better. But apart from a few flashes of nice production design (Hobbiton, Rivendell, and the White Ship come to mind), this animated ROTK simply has no qualities to recommend it. It’s too long, too dull, too talky, and too confusing, with lousy dialogue, poor voice acting, and unmemorable songs.

Next up: my long-awaited review of Peter Jackson’s LOTR film trilogy. If I have the strength.

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