J.R.R. TolkienJohn HustonRoddy McDowallPaul Frees
The Return of the King (1980)
Medium: film
Year: 1980
Director: Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr.
Writer: J.R.R. Tolkien, Romeo Muller
Keywords: The Lord of the Rings, fantasy, animation
Country: USA
Actor: Orson Bean, Theodore Bikel, William Conrad, John Huston, Roddy McDowall, Brother Theodore, Paul Frees, Don Messick, John Stephenson, Casey Kasem, Sonny Melendrez, Nellie Bellflower, Glenn Yarbrough
Format: 98 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0079802/
Website category: Fantasy
Review date: 12 June 2012
It's the Bass-Rankin animated TV movie version of The Return of The King, which is at once a continuation of their version of The Hobbit and an unofficial sequel to Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings. It's okay. I didn't mind it.
You'll have to lower your expectations, mind you. Bakshi did amazing things with the first half of Tolkien's epic, although not everybody loved him for it. There's nothing like that here. It doesn't make Tolkien seem particularly special. The character designs are chubby and kiddified, the soundtrack's singing at you half the time and it's nowhere near as faithful as either Bakshi or Jackson, having cut out the likes of Legolas, Gimli, Arwen, Saruman, Shelob's lair, the Army of the Dead and the Scouring of the Shire. Aragorn's return, i.e. the event referred to in the movie's title, is done in about five seconds and feels like some irrelevant bloke turning up out of nowhere. Eowyn's unmasking is almost funny because the film hadn't bothered to hint at the character's existence in any previous scene, so the audience just goes "eh?".
However that said, Eowyn's scene still works well enough. That's the movie in a nutshell. It's solid, in its way. The only stuff that's flat-out bad is occasional spots of voice acting and even there it could have been far worse.
The beginning is unpromising. We're at Bilbo's birthday party, long after the saga's done and dusted, and we're about to experience the movie as one big flashback via a singing minstrel. You'd better get used to those songs, by the way. They're so inescapable that before long I was trying to keep count of the buggers, but some songs get recycled and I lost track. My final count was fifteen for the entire film, but that's approximate.
A more specific problem with this framing story though is that it has the worst of the performances. The actors are clearly having to lip-synch to animation that's going a little too slow, but unfortunately their solution to this the problem is simply to slooww doowwnnn. The notion of "acting" doesn't appear to have occurred to them. The worst of them by far, incidentally, is Sonny Melendrez as Pippin, whom I note is described by wikipedia as an "American radio personality" rather than an actor. Even later in the film, he had me cringing.
The pronunciations are also distracting. I don't care about actors not being able to pronounce Minas Tirith, Gorgoroth, Cirith Ungol, Smaug, Sauron or Lebennin, but it's a bit much when some of them can't even say "wrought" or "Merry".
Despite all these handicaps, though, most of the movie feels right. I liked it. The tone is faithful, even if the plot's been pared back. It's still basically a depressing trek through the Land of No Hope and it still ends with Frodo saying he's grown weary of this world, before leaving it. I suspect the framing story is simply the filmmakers' way of leavening the soul-crushing horror for the kiddies. The Hobbit would clearly be better suited to the Bass-Rankin style, being a children's book, but here they're having a fair stab at Tolkien's more adult fare. (I suspect this is partly because they're not good or brave enough to do anything else, but what the hell.) Frodo and Sam are still trekking towards, literally, their Doom. Evil still seems overwhelming. There's no light relief, no Jar Jar Binks character or anything like that to make us laugh or swear.
Furthermore, the dark stuff actually works rather well. The ring's tempting of Sam and Frodo, for instance, is arguably more effective than in Bakshi's film. Forget the kiddified character designs. Good people's minds get warped by evil and it's being done wholeheartedly. It's amusing to see that Sam's temptation boils down to really ambitious gardening, mind you. Some people just aren't good at being evil.
Sam's dialogue is wrong. He's become a Christian, saying "Oh my God". Other things aren't as good as they might be either, e.g. Gollum and his relationship with the hobbits being barely five per cent of what you'll be expecting, but basically for me, the movie worked. It felt about right. You'd never call it brilliant, but to me it felt like a solid attempt at The Lord of the Rings part 2.
I even quite like the character designs, for what it's worth. The hobbits look rather Children's Cartoon Hour, but that's okay. They're hobbits. Gollum and the Orcs though I loved, with an amphibious undertone that works really well. Gollum's a newt. All other Gollums look basically the same as each other, but this one's a newt. He's cool. As for the Orcs, I was mesmerised by their enormous toad-like throats and mouths. These are the only memorable Orcs I think I've ever seen in a Tolkien adaptation, in fact... Peter Jackson's Orcs look convincing, but I couldn't even begin to draw a picture of one. There's nothing in my memory. As for the other stuff here, Mount Doom is great and Minas Tirith looks a bit like Jackson's.
It's time to discuss the songs.
Believe it or not, they're acceptable. In context, they work. It doesn't feel ridiculous for this art style to be accompanied by regular sing-a-longs, especially when these include the amusingly mega-bass Doom Song. Most of the songs are basically noise, passing without comment and neither adding nor detracting, but I have to say I enjoyed "When There's A Whip There's A Way." Orcs singing an evil marching song are funky, especially when the band's rhythm section is a cracking whip.
There's also a subtle point in a couple of possible Jewish references. People sometimes ask if Tolkien was anti-semitic, largely because he was writing a long time ago and his dwarves are a conscious reflection of Jews. To quote Tolkien himself in a BBC interview... "The dwarves of course are quite obviously -- wouldn't you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic, obviously, constructed to be Semitic. The Hobbits are just rustic English people." More specifically, Tolkien based the dwarvish language on Hebrew and characterised them as secretive, fond of gold and liable to be involved in friction when in contact with others. However that's not the same as being racist. This became the Gimli-Legolas relationship, his reply to "Gentile anti-Semitism and Jewish exclusiveness". This brought resonances of real importance into the fantasy genre and helped to counterbalance the unfortunate effect of Tolkien's monstrous subhuman evil forces coming from the East.
Unfortunately this film has neither Gimli nor Legolas. This loses something important, I think, but instead they've put Jewish traits into the heroic humans! Aragorn sails to the rescue under a flag that looks like a menorah, while Gandalf has the most outrageous nose you've ever seen. I'll admit that the latter's a stretch on my part, though.
I should mention the voice cast, which has some interesting names. John Huston is Gandalf! Yes, him. The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, etc. Elrond and a couple of monsters are played by Paul Frees, i.e. Doctor Who in the English dub of King Kong Escapes. There's both Scooby Doo (Don Messick) and Shaggy (Casey Kasem). Theodore Bikel is wasted as Aragorn, if you look up his CV, while Roddy McDowall's in there too. However I'm afraid the main thing I took away from all that was the observation that Huston sometimes sounded as if had too much spit in his mouth.
Incidentally Pippin looks like Lupin III, but without sideburns.
Would I recommend this film? Not really. Did I enjoy it, though? I think so, yes. It holds together, despite a number of points (e.g. the songs) that you'd expect to derail the whole endeavour. It's solid enough in fact that I'd call it a success. It achieves what it was trying to do. Of course it's not without goofs, e.g. the armour designs mean that that Orc must be hilariously stupid to think Frodo and Sam are Orcs because they're wearing it. That's as believable as them being Page Three girls. However on the upside, once again there's Sam-Frodo gay subtext, this time when Sam kisses and cuddles a half-naked tortured Frodo in hurt-comfort fashion. Is this mandatory for Lord of the Rings adaptations? If not, it should be.
Surprisingly reasonable. If one makes appropriate allowances, I'd even say Bass-Rankin did well.