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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 King. Rankin-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.
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.
Also, props for actually making Merry and Pippin visually distinct.
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…
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!”
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!
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”.
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.
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.
Meanwhile, outside Minas Tirith, the pendulum of battle is swinging like some kind of…swinging…thing…
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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…