The Return of the King (1980)


Time, then, to complete this weird, pseudo-trilogy of animated Tolkien films, with my generation’s Return of the King. Another assumed-to-be-rare ink and cell animated film from beloved stop-motion holiday special animators Rankin/Bass, it premiered three years after their Hobbit adaptation became NBC’s Thanksgiving special for 1977. This Return was supposed to be a Thanksgiving special for 1979, but for reasons I can’t really lock down, it moved to ABC and got pushed back to spring, 1980.

I didn’t find it until years later, when my parents opened up a gas station/convenience store in a one-horse town that could’ve passed for Hobbiton, if the people weren’t so tall and if their faces weren’t so devoid of any hope for the future. In fact, it could’ve passed for Hobbiton after the Scouring of the Shire, but since precisely none of the filmmakers charged with adapting this story have had the reproductive organs to film that part of the Holy Trilogy, I have to spend ten minutes explaining that ham-handed metaphor every time I use it.

Like a certain Peter S. Beagle protagonist, I’ve heard too many stories to tell you the truth about this one. Some say Rankin/Bass saw Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings and, like nearly everyone else, left it disappointed. Other say they always planned to make this – and that it’s working title was “The Hobbit 2: Frodo.” And the time line’s on their side. Two years is a pretty rushed schedule for an animated movie that’s not some cheap-ass, Hanna Barbara bullshit. Like its predecessor, this is another Topcraft production – made two years before they made Last Unicorn, four years before they made Nausicaa, and six years before Topcraft’s transformation into Studio Ghibli, the anime studio that makes anime normal people have actually heard about, and aren’t embarrassed to discuss in public. (Oh snap!) They have been many things over the years, but they’ve never been “cheap.”

Not that the self-proclaimed anime historians of the internet have any interest in this era of the studio’s history – it happened before they were born, so unless someone makes a light novel out of it (set in a high school full of sword-wielding hot chicks, natch) it might as well not exist. Though it’s not like this is some superlative example of the form, either on it’s own, or as a sequel. When I was five, it was a window into a wondrous, terrible, and beautiful fantasy world – and it still is, in fits and starts. But it’s also a made-for-TV rush job and after years of watching those, I can’t help but see all the signs.

Immediately, I get the sense all involved knew the transition from the end of their Hobbit to the beginning of this would be incredibly awkward – and why not? Two-thirds of the story would be missing in action if we didn’t all know where they wound up. So after some preliminary remarks from Gandalf (who’s John Huston, once again, thank Illuvitar) we open on a frame story. Our core four Hobbits, plus Gandalf, arrive at Rivendel to celebrate Bilbo’s 129th birthday party. Despite living with the Elves, the almost-two-decades since his Eleventy-First have not been kind to that most famous-est of Hobbits. Dementia’s finally creeping in. So when Bilbo notices his favorite nephews’s missing finger, Gandalf pipes up to resume the story…only to hand the reigns over to the Minstrel of Gondor.

This is middling-1960s folk singer Glenn Yarbrough. A disembodied voice on ’77 Hobbit’s soundtrack (and the author of its only original, and most forgettable, song), he’s here upgraded to a pseudo-character…but that’s little more than a pretense. He’s Glenn Yarbrough, and this is Return of the King’s idea of a Big Get. It’d be like if Merle Haggard popped up early on in the sequel to Legend of the Lone Ranger no one ever made, dressed as a grizzled prospector. Or if Linkin Park appeared in the next Transformers movie, playing…I don’t know. Themselves?

We expect Disney movies to stop dead in their tracks for musical interludes, but Disney movies usually have two hours to fill. When the budget wrangling was all said and done, this movie barely got 97 minutes, and that’s too short for a story of this scope. They had to make room for commercials, after all, and the movie has room for them still. Two-second blank spaces that intrude every fifteen minutes. And that’s not the only weird scar this movie bares. For some reason, it has two title sequences. One is just the title, with a little subtitle card that informs us this is, indeed, “a story of Hobbits.” Then, eight minutes later (on the other side of a commercial break) we get the title again, plus the usual slate of opening credits. No idea what’s up with that. I’ve never seen that kind of redundancy – not even in other Made-for-TV movies of this vintage.

The spirit of redundancy haunts the entire production, and in consequence, it spends twice as much time as it really needs to on literally everything. For example: there’s a bit of the book that’s not in Jackson’s Return of the King, after Frodo’s been captured by the garrison at Cirith Ungol. Samwise picks up the Ring and finally makes it to the east side of the Shadow Mountains, where he sees all of Mordor is spread out before him, from the foothills to Mount Doom, in a beautiful page-and-a-half of description. The Ring, within sight of its birthplace, drops all pretenses of subtlety and gives Sam a vision of himself as Samwise the Strong: a God-Emperor of the World, who can command the sun to shine and the Vale of Gorgoroth to become the giant garden all that volcanic ash should’ve turned it into eons prior. It’s one of my favorite parts of the book, and I spent two years referencing it whenever anyone would ask, “What the fuck was up with Gladriel’s little freak-out in Fellowship, when Frodo offers her the Ring and she goes all negative?” Only to find out Jackson didn’t even film it – not even for the Extended Edition. That’s not the kind of “Betrayal!” we critics usually scream about, but you can bet your ass I did back in 2003.

Anyway, in the book, that vision takes up all of a paragraph. Sam rejects it, thanks to his “plain hobbit-sense,” as referenced here, in the space of another. But before we can even get there in the film, we have to endure a two-minute song. That’s then followed up by another after the vision. Which not only kills the pacing, it kills the fucking mood. One of our protagonists almost got swallowed up by the clearest demonstration of the Ring’s power in the whole damn trilogy that’s not named Gollum. We should at least get a second to catch our breath…and using a Yarbrough song for that is like using oxycontin to cure a sinus headache. It’s not that he’s a bad folksinger – I always considered him a glaring mediocrity in an overcrowded field. And that’s the issue – Tolkien was many things, but he was never mediocre. There aren’t that many songs in Return of the King, until the end, but there are plenty in the rest of the trilogy…you could always cannibalize all or a part of them. Who knows? You might even find some incredibly appropriate time to include one, even if it is in the wrong place.

Then again, as far as I know, the rest of the trilogy’s movie rights were still in another company’s hands. Maybe including them would’ve incurred a lawsuit and delayed this movie even further. Haggling what they could or couldn’t get away with probably had something to do with the delays it experienced.

I do actually like some of the original songs. The Orc marching song “Where There’s a Whip There’s a Way” still rocks quite hard. It’s also the most…”humanizing” sounds like the wrong word…(orcinizing?)…thing the Orcs ever get to do in this, or any other film set in Middle-Earth. It adds a dimension to them and creates a space to recognize that, at the end of the day, even the “evil” armies of Mordor are slave conscripts being literally whipped into service.

I even like some of the non-sonic additions to this story. The book only mentions Frodo’s nightmares in passing, but here, one of them takes the form of a music video for the song “Leave Tomorrow ‘Til It Comes.” It starts off like a prosaic version of Frodo’s quest – What If They’d Figured Out The Ring Was Evil Before Sauron Had the Chance to Move? – but after casually chucking the Ring into the Fire, everyone around Frodo turns into an Orc. In the book, the fight between the Orcs and Men at the crossing of two roads just kinda happens, but here Sam engineers it with an appeal to Orc vanity, illustrating a crucial life lesson for young and old, human and demihuman. It’s the opposite of Spaceballs oft-quoted dictum that “evil will always triumph over good, because good is dumb.” True as that might be, we must never forget that Evil’s pretty fucking stupid, too. For one thing, it thinks it can rule the world.

Since it only had ninety-seven minutes to work with, cuts were inevitable, creating what I can only describe as Cliff Notes Return of the King, without condoning or condemning. The fact so much of the text made it in here honestly astonishes me. Not just in dialogue, either – screenwriter Romeo Muller did the smart thing and turned some of Tolkien’s best turns of phrase into dialog. That’s where the best bits of Gandalff’s narration comes from, to the point where I still hear John Huston’s voice whenever I reread them. Same thing happens when I reread Gandalf’s confrontation with the Witchking. I hear Nellie Bellflower’s voice every time I read Eowyn’s lines, and Roddy McDowall brings an energy and a sardonic wit to Samwise that no one has been or will ever be able to equal. He’s the real hero of this piece. Frodo had a bad time of it between films, so Orson Bean spends most of his sounding tired. It’s in-character, but it’s one-note. Bean’s best bits come when he has to play both Frodo and Old Bilbo, and ends up talking to himself.

But, on the other hand, The King whose Return is prophesied in the title barely appears until the end and has about five lines, so you can see how much anyone cared about him by the late-70s. And as for Legolas and Gimli and Faramir and Arwen…who?

If this movie had come out three years ago, I’d have probably crucified it for such glaring omissions. Cut its head off, stuffed garlic in its mouth, and buried head and body at separate crossroads, as far apart as possible. But I’ve watched this damn thing so many times, I had it memorized by age five – long before I had the patience to actually read the books…or any book, for that matter, that didn’t feature Batman or Superman. If you came looking for some kind of “objective” review of this – or if you’re the kind of person who unsarcastically puts “objective” and “review” in the same sentence – then you’ve come to the wrong fucking place. This was, along with its predecessor, my Middle-Earth gateway drug. I can only hope it will be someone else’s as well. Probably not you – the person watching this – but who knows? Give ’em to someone else – particularly if that someone has nothing but contempt for Peter Jackson’s adaptations.

Speaking of which…


4 thoughts on “The Return of the King (1980)”

  1. Great review. Personally, I loved Return of the King and kind of wish they had just done the Lord of the Rings in the original Hobbit style. Would it have sucked in some ways? Yes. Would it have been awesome in others? YES. Also, middling folk singer? I say thee NAY. If for no reason that the Greatest Adventure, FRODOOOOO OF THE NINE FINGERS, and so much else has stuck with me.

    1. Finally, some pushback for all my shit-talking of Glenn Yarbrough! Now, if only I can flee the country before the Merle Haggard fans find me…

  2. I can swear that I turned on the TV one day and was amazed to see an animated version of “Scouring of the Shire” where the Hobbits return to the Shire, rip up a list of rules at the inn, confront Sharkey’s men at Sandyman’s mill, fight the battle of bywater, and at the end confront Saruman and Wormtongue. This may have been another show done in the style of Rankin/Bass but I simply can’t find hide nor hair of it. I know I saw it…I remember it clearly and I remember jumping out of my chair. I must find this thing.

    1. Careful – fall too far down this rabbit hole and you’ll end up like those people who swear Kazaam starred Sinbad instead of Shaq.

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