The Return of the King (1980)

This review was requested by patron Allison. If you’d like me to review a movie, please consider supporting my Patreon.

Way back in the before times I reviewed Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, an important step on my journey to realising that Ralph Bakshi is a pretty terrible filmmaker, his importance in the animated canon notwithstanding. Well, Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings (BLOTR, henceforth) was originally intended as part one of a two part series but United Artists never actually got around to making the sequel, despite the first movie turning quite a tidy profit. So Rankin-Bass, proud purveyors of “good enuff” animation, bought up the rights to Return of the KingRankin-Bass had previously done a made-for-TV version of The Hobbit (which I haven’t seen but have it on good authority is good enuff) and together with that movie and BLOTR they form a kind of loose trilogy, albeit the kind of trilogy with wildly different animation styles, voice actors and plots that only have a tenuous narrative continuity. Still, if you were living in a pre-Peter Jackson world and didn’t want to have to sit through three chapters of Tom Bombadil humble-bragging about how hot his girlfriend is, it did the trick.

So the movie begins with the siege of Minas Tirith by the orcish forces of the Dark Lord Sauron while the Maia Gandalf leads the forces of Gondor who are ruled by the mad steward Denethor while they hope against hope that the Hobbit Frodo and his gardener Samwise Gamgee will be able to drop the ring of power into the crack of Mount Doom which would destroy Sauron because he bound his essence to the ring millennia ago as part of a fiendishly complex plot to conquer the free peoples of Middle Earth by giving them jewellery.

I mean, I’m all for beginning a story in media res but damn tho. In order to catch up everyone who hasn’t read the books or seen The Hobbit or BLOTR the movie decides to resolve this issue with a cunning screen-writing trick known as ALL THE NARRATION IN THE WORLD

The movie begins with Gandalf pretty much admitting that they are beginning the story at the end and then flashing forward to the end of the story where Frodo, Sam, Pippin, Merry, and Gandalf have travelled to the House of Elrond to celebrate Bilbo’s birthday.

The House of Elrond. Or an executive retreat in Aspen maybe?

This, of course, let’s us know that everyone survives, Sauron will be defeated, and you don’t have to worry about any little thing.

Which is nice. Dramatic tension. Blech. Ghastly stuff.

Bilbo, of course, was the Ring Bearer for many years, which greatly extended his lifespan while turning him into your grandmother.

Bilbo asks Frodo where the Ring is, and where his finger is, and who all you nice people are, and why am I so short? Frodo, who realises that this is as good an excuse as any to drop some tasty exposition, summons the Exposition Bard who will be singing all the songs in this movie, songs which will rely on the fact that “Bearer of the Ring” rhymes with “Wearer of the Ring” the way Northern Ireland relies on Game of Thrones tourism.

Anyway, let’s talk about the animation. It’s good enuff. I didn’t really care for Rankin Bass’ style in The Last Unicorn but here it’s applied more consistently and it does the job. How successfully different elements of LOTR are translated visually varies wildly though. They mostly get the places right. Minas Tirith and Mordor all look perfectly acceptable. And I’m mostly down with Gandalf and the Hobbits, although after BLOTR the movie could scarcely do worse by poor Samwise.

“Kill…me…”

Also, props for actually making Merry and Pippin visually distinct.

I mean, I couldn’t tell you which one’s which with a gun to my head, but still. Appreciated.

I will even go to bat for the weird frog-man design they gave Gollum, if only because he does actually look like something that’s been eating raw fish in a cave for thousands of years. Some of the character designs though, yeesh. I mean look at poor Elrond. They decided to give him a crown of stars which should look regal and impressive but instead makes him look, well…

“High off his pointy-eared ass“ is the expression, I believe.

 Okay, so the minstrel starts singing and giving the backstory of the Hobbit, how Bilbo stole fairly won the Ring of Power from Gollum in a game of riddles but then Gandalf chimes in to explain that Aragorn was the last king of Gondon and then the minstrel chimes back in to tell us about how Gandalf sent Frodo on a quest to destroy the ring and PICK WHO’S TELLING THE STORY PLEASE. TOO MANY COOKS UP IN HERE.

The narration never really ends either, making the entire movie feel like one big flashback, which I suppose it is. Anyway, after seven futtocking minutes of narration, flash forwards, songs, flash backs and flash three point turns, we finally begin our story proper with Frodo having been captured by the Orcs and taken to the tower of Cirith Ungol and Sam about to storm the place like a little short-arse Rambo.

Unfortunately, the gate is locked so Sam tries to break through it by hurling his little doughy hobbit body against it in the hope that the gate will have pity on him and just let him in. He gets knocked back and finds the Ring just lying on the ground where it was dropped by Frodo.

“You!” Sam says “Oh I can feel you throbbing with excitement!”

“Look, buddy, I’m flattered but I just want to corrupt you so that we can rule all of Middle Earth, don’t make this weird.”

Sam decides that, rather than saving Frodo, he should just take the Ring and destroy it himself which, okay, is probably the right call but still completely and utterly out of character. What’s more, taking the Ring causes Sam to  fantasize about overthrowing Sauron and conquering Mordor for himself and, hilariously, turning it into the most badass garden in the world while the orcs just stare around them wondering what even the hell?

And then he turns the orcs into animals. And not just common or garden animals either, Sam turns them into exotic critters like lemurs, platypuses and even a goddamn coatimundi!

Well, I never felt that Tolkien’s world was fatally lacking in South American racoons but clearly I’m just a fool.

I expect even the ring realises that it’s bitten off more than it can chew because it suddenly breaks its control over Sam. Sam, however, believes that what pulled him back from the brink was “good Hobbit sense”.

“My old gaffer wouldn’t much care for me ruling the whole world with my army of Coatimundi as the Mighty Racoon King, that he wouldn’t. “Samwise”, he’d say “You’re being a right tit”. And he’d be right. He’d be right.”

Sam decides that he needs Frodo after all so now we’re…back exactly where we started. Peachy. Gandalf takes up with the narration again…and how is this actually working while bilbo is listening to the story? Like, is the bard singing his songs and Gandalf keeps interrupting him and going “No, no, shut up for a second, meanwhile, Aragorn was rallying an army of the dead…” and Frodo’s just sitting there silently fuming and thinking “I paid for this bard, he charges by the hour, please stop being an asshole and let him tell the damn story.”

Anyway, Gandalf tells us that in Cirith Ungol (which he pronounces with a soft C because apparently nothing matters and we should just roll around in our own filth) Sauron prepares his forces while in “Minus Tirith” (which is one Minas Tirith less than zero) the armies of good prepare for their last stand while the emblem of the Stewards of Gondor flies over the city. I don’t know if someone forgot to tell the animators, because the flag we actually see seems a little…bare.

Motto of the Stewards of Gondor: “We surrender, please not in the face.”

Now part of the problem with this movie it’s that it’s a very faithful re-telling of the events of Return of the King. That doesn’t sound like a problem but it results in just a load of stuff happening rather than any kind of real story. For example, when Théoden and the Rohirrim arrive to save Gondor it has real impact in the book, as the two greatest nations of Men overcome their estrangement and stand unified against Mordor. Here though, it’s just “Things were really bad but then some random Santa Claus looking dude you’ve never seen before arrived with his soldiers and saved the day.”

Some of the acting is pretty piss poor too. There’s a scene between Pippin and a guard when Denethor, Steward of Gondor, orders his own execution and the line readings are so flat that it’s utterly hilarious.

PIPPIN: You must stop him.

GUARD: His word is law.

PIPPIN: I’ll find Gandalf.

GUARD: Mary and Joseph arrived at Bethlehem. But there was nooooooo rooom.

I also love how all that Denethor needs to do to order his own execution is to tap the ground three times with his staff. I’m all for convenience, but that just seems to be asking for trouble.

Pippin tells Gandalf that Denethor has “gone loony” (oh my) and Gandalf rushes to the throne room. Because this version of the story doesn’t have Faramir this whole sequence is probably bleaker than in any other version. Denethor tells Gandalf that he’s looked in his palantir and seen a fleet of black ships sailing towards then and that even if Theoden does reach them they are still fucked harder than post-Brexit Britain and he’s not hanging around for it. And yeah, he basically commits suicide by having his servants set him on fire. I mean, you don’t see it or anything but damn, right?

Later, Pippin and Gandalf are on the roof trying to get the smell of charred steward out of their nostrils and Gandalf tells Pippin that, yeah, they’re definitely screwed. No wussy “white shores” speech here, oh no, this Gandalf makes absolutely sure that Pippin knows they are all going to die a terrible, terrible death. Which would be quite dramatic if we hadn’t started the movie watching them in Elrond’s cabin waiting for Bilbo to wake up so they could cut the damn lemon drizzle.

Meanwhile, in Mordor, Sam rescues Frodo from an orc who was whipping his naked back because if you thought Peter Jackson ladled on the homo-eroticism (hobo-eroticism?) brother, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Sam offers to carry the ring for Frodo and he freaks out, snatching the ring off Sam and threatening him before realising what he’s doing and apologising to him and saying “please baby, just one more chance”. They disguise themselves as orcs and head out into Mordor and we begin a looooooooong stretch of them just walking through the desolate landscape and bitching and moaning. “Oh I’m so tired” “If there was only some water” “We must rest” “We can’t rest” “We must rest but we can’t rest” “Oh if only there was some water”. It’s like the misery Olympics out there.

Frodo decides he can’t wear his mail shirt any more and Sam says “I hate to think of there being nothing but a bit of leather between you and a stab in the dark”. Uh huh. Sure.

They finally reach the plain of Gorgorath with it’s rolling green hills, sunny skies and plentiful rest stops…no, you can tell I’m lying just from the name, can’t you? I mean “Gorgorath” just carries a certain expectation, no?

“God help us…” says Sam.

Um…huh. Okay, see, about that.

Religion in Middle Earth is kind of a fascinating subject because it is simultaneously nowhere and everywhere. Lord of the Rings is a deeply Christian, specifically Catholic, work which Tolkien uses to dramatise a Christian’s spiritual journey as legend, with the ring being a metaphor for the temptation of sin, Gandalf serving as a Christ figure and the Balrog representing having to get up for Mass on a winter’s morning when it is just pissing down. The ironic result of this is that we see absolutely no religious practice within the world of Middle Earth itself. In fact, aside from one line from Denethor about “heathen kings”, there’s scarcely any mention of religion existing there at all because then the metaphor wouldn’t work. It would be like if the pigs in Animal Farm were actually Russian and named Stalin and Lenin. Frodo and Aragorn don’t engage in religious practice because the lives they live, fighting Sauron and resisting the ring, are their religious practice.

Also, while God (or Erú Iluvatar) definitely exists in this world, we never see him being worshipped or referenced the way he is in our world (or referred to as “God” for that matter).

Which means, firstly, this line is weird because it’s jarringly inconsistent in a movie that cared enough about the details of the Tolkien legendarium to get Theoden’s horse’s name right. And second, it’s weird because they give Sam this line twice.

They rest behind a rock because they can’t go on but they must go on but they have to rest but oh, if only there was some water! Suddenly an army of orcs march by singing, oh my friends, singing such strange and wondrous things. Come, come listen.

Man that funky bass line. I…love this. I don’t know why. But I do. Also, can we just take a minute to appreciate that this song is the only recognition of the tragedy of the orcs in any version of Tolkien’s work? Tolkien created the orcs as enemies for his heroes who were wholly evil, so that we’d never have to worry that that the goblin Bilbo just skewered like a cocktail sausage was actually a lovely bloke with a wife and three little goblins waiting at home in the cave for Dada to come home. The orcs are always evil, all the time. There are no good orcs. Problem with that is, they’re only that way because Melkor took their ancestors and tortured all the goodness out of them meaning it’s not really their fault and if anything, makes them the real victims here. It’s a conundrum that Tolkien wrestled with all throughout the writing of Lord of the Rings and never really found a satisfactory answer to. Which is why I think these singing orcs are the real tragic heroes here. For the first time, we see an acknowledgment that maybe the orcs aren’t willing participants in this conflict.

They don’t want to go to war today. But the lord of the lash says nay. Nay. Nay.

Powerful stuff.

Meanwhile, outside Minas Tirith, the pendulum of battle is swinging like some kind of…swinging…thing…

“A pendulum?”

“Nice, thanks.”

Firstly, the orcs are breaking down the walls and are about to storm the city.

But the Rohirrim arrive in the nick of time!

But a fleet with black sails pulls into the harbour.

But it’s led by Aragorn!

But then the Witch King of Arnor arrives to kick names and take ass!

“That’s bad!”

Worse than you can know. Probably the single biggest misstep in the whole movie. Remember in the Peter Jackson version where the Witch King lays Theoden low and he’s about to kill him but then Eowyn is all “I will kill you if you touch him” and he’s all “Come not between the Nazgul and his prey no man may slay me” and she’s all “I am no man!” and stabs him in the face and it’s all…

It’s awesome, right? Well how about if, and just hear me out here, the Witch King was a sparkly red light effect in a suit of armour and had a voice like Skeletor inhaling helium? What’s that? You think it’s a terrible idea? You think I should be run out town on a rail? You curse me and my line unto the seventh generation? Yes, that is the correct response. I’m proud of you all.

Anyway, the Witch King lays Theoden low and he’s about to kill him but then Eowyn is all “I will kill you if you touch him” and he’s all “Come not between the Nazgul and his prey no man may slay me” and she’s all “I am no man!” and stabs him in the face and it’s all…

Except for the fact that we haven’t met Eowyn before this moment so Merry has to perform a running commentary: “Why it’s the King’s squire wait a minute no it’s his niece who was forbidden from going to war and has clearly disguised herself as a handsome youth oh look she’s stabbing the Witch King WHO RUNS THE WORLD, GIRLS!”

Which lessens the impact, a smidgen.

“Actually Mouse, it isn’t Eowyn that kills the Witch King, it’s Merry. See, he’s a hobbit and therefore the “No Man” that the prophecy refers to and when he stabs the Witch King with the blade he got from Tom Bombadil he…”

“YES THAT EOWYN SURE IS AN AWESOME STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER Nit shut up before you get us murdered in our sleep.”

Meanwhile, in Mordor, Sam and Frodo have been mistaken for orcs and drafted into the orcs army headed for Minas Tirith. But they come across an army of Evil Men who demand to go first because the real dark power is the PATRIARCHY. The orc leader is about to let the men pass when Sam, using good old fashioned Hobbit shit-stirrin’ sidles up to him and is all “Bro, you gonna let him do you like that? Now, it was me? I’m jus’ sayin’, but if it was me…” like the villain on a reality TV show.

“I’m not here to make friends.”

The orcs attack the dudes and Frodo and Sam escape and finally reach Mount Doom. Frodo, of course, being the choke artist that he is, decides that he’s not going to destroy the ring after all and puts it on, turning invisible. But Gollum shows up, bites his finger off, reclaims the ring and then dances off the edge and falls into the lava.

It’s pretty much a perfectly accurate re-telling of the destruction of the ring in the book and I find it as underwhelming here as I always do. Apologies, but it never sat right with me that the forces of good basically win because Gollum didn’t watch that last step. It kind of undercuts Tolkien’s whole message, at least for me. Temptation, it turns out, can’t be overcome and the only way you can defeat evil is pure dumb luck.

Know how I’d do it?

“Oh yes. Enlighten us, anonymous blogger. How would you fix one of the canon classics of 20th century literature? The world awaits with baited breath.”

No come on, hear me out. Okay, it plays out as before, and Frodo fails in his final test and decides to claim the ring as his own. Gollum, attacks him and takes the ring, but instead of claiming it for his own, Gollum has a moment of epiphany where he realises just how much misery the ring has put him through and his good nature, the Sméagol side of him which was reawakened by Frodo’s kindness, regains control just long enough to drop the ring into the fire. And with the ring destroyed, Gollum is finally able to die in peace. In this way, Bilbo’s mercy in sparing Gollum all those years ago is justified, Frodo’s mercy in sparing Gollum is likewise justified and we’re left with a moral that anyone, anyone, can be redeemed. It’s more satisfying and, more importantly, it’s hella Catholic.

Well anyway, the day is won and we return to the House of Elrond where the bard is wrapping up and passing the hat around.

Sam asks Gandalf if there will be any place for Hobbits in this world of men and Gandalf basically comforts him by implying, and I’m not kidding about this, that men will breed with hobbits until everyone is basically the same size. And Gandalf looks right at the camera and says “And in years to come people will ask themselves, “do I have a bit of Hobbit in me?””

It is hideously unsettling.

“Did your Great Grandma fuck a hobbit, children? She did, you know.”

***

Odd and derpy in that oh-so-special late seventies/early eighties animation way, I nonetheless come away from Return of the King happy that I met it and wishing it well on its journey. Odd line reads and weird stylistic choices notwithstanding, it’s probably the best pre-Jackson screen version of Tolkien’s work you’re going to get.

Scoring

Animation 13/20: Good enuff.

Leads 8/20: Better than Bakshi, but when you’ve said that you’ve said everything.

Villain 3/20: #notmynazgul

Supporting Characters 10/20: Less “characters” than “plot points”.

Music 14/20: Am I being ironic? Guys, I don’t know.

FINAL SCORE: 48% 

NEXT UPDATE: 06 December 2018

NEXT TIME: Okay Shinkai, you get one more chance…

33 comments

  1. The only music I remember at all from this movie is “Where There’s a Whip.” Like you said, something about the bass line.

    As for who killed the Witch King, wasn’t it the combined efforts of Merry and Eowyn? Neither is a man (strictly speaking) and both stick a blade in him and both are supernaturally injured from doing so, so . . . yeah. No need for the torches or pitchforks here.

    1. I’ve never been clear on it myself, because hobbits are supposed to be kin to men, and may just count as men in the same way goblins count as orcs. Dwarves and Elves are inherently different and have different origins, but like men hobbits have that “mortal, but can choose their own destiny” thing going on.

      I think, anyway. Been a while since I read the stuff that never became a Peter Jackson film.

  2. I stupidly never watched this movie growing up because I didn’t know its history and thought there must be two other Rankin Bass movies I should watch first, and just never had the good fortune to find them on the video store shelves. Did catch their version of the Hobbit though, and loved it.

    Great review, Mouse. Gonna have that song stuck in my head all week.

  3. Quick question… am I the only one here who knows nothing about Tolkien outside of some Internet memes? I was assigned The Hobbit in middle school and bailed after the first chapter… maybe I oughta go back one day…

    [three chapters of Tom Bombadil humble-bragging about how hot his girlfriend is]

    … and maybe not.

  4. Great review Mouse, I’m ashamed to admit that old Bilbo does look a bit like my grandmother.

    Incidentally, I did a report on Tolkien for my British Literature class in high school so I have to disagree with you on the point you made on religion in Middle Earth. While Tolkien was indeed quite Catholic, he preferred to use very basic spiritual themes in his works rather than the specific details of Catholicism. In fact he actually 𝘩𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘥 the use of analogies in literature. Which was a big point of contention between him and his buddy C.S. Lewis, whose “Chronicles of Narnia” is nothing 𝘣𝘶𝘵 analogies.

    By the way, I shall now refer to Theoden, son of Thengel and Morwen, as “some random Santa Claus looking dude you’ve never seen before.”

  5. I should probably see Garden of Words at some point, though it being next kind of just makes me disappointed it’s not Your Name instead. I absolutely love that movie.

    As for Lord of the Rings, it’s kind of just something I’ve never gotten into. I’ve read the Hobbit and I liked it, but with Lord of the Rings I really have never had any desire to read it and I mostly just found the Jackson movies interminably boring.

  6. Not to be a massive nitpicker, but it’s Gorgoroth, with no a’s, and Witch King of ‘Angmar’, not Arnor. Unless these are (S)Aruman esque errors in the film itself, which wouldn’t surprise me when the film has ‘Sirith Ungol’ and ‘Minus Tirith’.

    I’ve been binging your archives for the last few days, having stumbled onto you via TV Tropes’ Voodoo Shark page. Seeing this post today after finishing my archive dip was a great treat.

  7. Regarding the rings’s destruction, its extremely important it was by luck. Luck is how Eru’s hand works in this universe, every time luck is mentioned in the series or happens it is Eru working in his own way snd show he has not abandoned the world. When Gandalf says Bilbo was meant to find the ring and Frodo was meant to have it and that Gollum will have a part to plan in this he means that Eru meant this. If you want go hear a ton more of the topic lisen to Prancing Pony podcast.

    Also its great how Lord of the Rings have men being close, its not homoeroticim in the film but what was also in the book and what has been custom in the past. I just happened to read a post about this before I came here so I had to say it. Sorry, I do not mean to be annoying. But since I most likely already am, Gollum is about 580 years old not thousands. So sorry for the nitpick! Great review? Bye!

  8. I always have thought Gollum destroying the ring as an expression of evil destroying itself as a message– by influencing Gollum, Sauron’s evil causes his own destruction, through that of his unwitting pawn right at the cusp of his greatest triumph.

    Christianity doesn’t say evil will always win in the hearts of men, but it does say that it wins more often than not. ‘Enter in by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the. way that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter in by it’ is basically an admission most of us are, indeed, doomed, and after the Apocalypse only a tiny part of mankind as a whole that has ever been is granted the salvation.

    The Christian doctrine says we can beat Evil in our own hearts, but ultimately, the definitive victory over the Evil One himself is something that only can be achieved by the Power Above, which of course cannout show up Himself in Tolkien’s book, so His intervention is instead shown through of the ‘divine design’ of Gollum falling after Sam has tried to kill him only to be told not to by Gandalf and Frodo, because even the worse of us can have a purpose, even those who are not supposed to be redeemed (Judas Iscariot might be another example of a ‘necessary’ evil catalyst for a violent but ultimately cathartic resolution to be achieved in Christian lore).

    If Gollum turns good before dying then evil hasn’t destroyed itself through the divine design, which I think is the actual theme of the conclusion

  9. That song is so catchy and the only part of this movie I’ve seen before. Although I hadn’t seen Sam’s ingenious escape plan of starting a race riot in the middle of Morder’s army.

    Overall, would ou recommend watching this one?

    1. As a big fan of the first film I really enjoyed it, and so did my sister who has only seen it once. The trailers are very faithful to the tone.

  10. Great review as always, Mr Mouse.

    The orc song is funky fresh but if the orcs are always evil, shouldn’t they want to go to war? Like shouldn’t making war be their jam? Especially for a dark lord who wants to conquer the world. Never understood that part.

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