Z's ranting on Rankin/Bass' "Return of the King"

ROTK videoBack in the early 80’s, Rankin/Bass’ animated TV movie, “The Return of the King” was broadcast on ABC. It was supposed to be the third part of “The Lord of The Rings” trilogy, although it did not dovetail neatly or exactly with Ralph Bakshi’s animated movie “The Lord of Rings”. Bakshi’s movie covered “The Fellowship of the Ring” and half of “The Two Towers”. Since ROTK picked up starting with the 3rd book, that means the net result of adding them together is that half of “The Two Towers” is missing. So, what we never see in animation is:

I remember being anxious to see it, because I had hoped that it would be better than Bakshi's LOTR. It wasn't. The only real advantages that it had over Bakshi's film was the way that the quality of the animation was completely consistent from start to end (no radical midpoint drop in animation quality), the way that orcs wore armor instead of tattered robes, and the depiction of Sam as being somewhat more determined and intelligent than Bakshi's retarded doofus. Oh, and the intricate watercolor paintings (of Minas Tirith, in particular) are detailed and quite beautiful.

The most extreme problem is with the script. ROTK alters the story drastically and succeeds in butchering Tolkien’s tale- to the point where the movie has only a scant resemblance to the book. Absurdity upon absurdity is piled on until what's left makes absolutely NO SENSE. I would give ROTK the award of “Worst Tolkien Adaptation Ever”.

Where can I start? ROTK uses the framing device of a newly-made-up 129th birthday party for Bilbo in Rivendell as a means to tell the story in the form of a flashback. I would guess that the reason for this was to assure children in the viewing audience that no matter how dire things become, they'll already know that Frodo and Sam would survive their adventure (because the kids can see them alive and well in Rivendell).

At the party, only 6 people attend. Elrond, Merry, Pippin, Frodo, Sam and Gandalf. Merry and Pippin, oddly enough, still act like impulsive teenagers and seem obsessed with getting a slice of cake. Well, so much for the character development and growing up process that Merry and Pippin were SUPPOSED to have gone through as a result of the quest to destroy the Ring.

Bilbo's 129tth BirthdayBilbo is portrayed as a doddering, senile old coot in ROTK. Apparently, he, as the previous owner of the Ring, had no idea of how evil it really was. He attended the council of Elrond, didn’t he? Was he asleep the entire time? What’s even more bizarre is seeing Bilbo argue with Frodo about WHY the Ring needed to be destroyed in the first place! Bilbo is in complete denial of its evil power, and even defends the Ring on the grounds that it helped him defeat the dragon, Smaug? Is that clueless and senile or what? Bilbo sinks back and sighs, “This is all so confusing”, which gives Gandalf the opportunity to bring in a minstrel to sing of “Frodo of the 9 Fingers and the Ring of Doom”. Bilbo’s original finding of the Ring is described as happening “2 AGES past”. Funny, 50 years isn’t supposed to be 2 Ages…

With all this prologue and a bunch of nauseatingly sugary songs, the first 2 books are whisked through with the line “Frodo and Sam had many adventures until they reached the rocky border of Mordor”. We already have pacing problems, since there’s plenty of room for songs, irrelevant parties and recaps of the previous movie, The Hobbit, yet it takes 10 minutes for the real story to start with Sam banging on the gates of Cirith Ungol. Frodo has been kidnapped and taken to the Tower. Sam fumbles around and finds Frodo's cloak and Frodo's sword, Sting. Sam spends way too much time talking to himself or shouting at the top of his lungs. He’s trying to SNEAK into Mordor and he’s yelling things like “I do it for you, Frodo!!!” or “I COULD BE SAMWISE THE STRONG!”. Idiot.

Sam uses the "Phial of Galadriel" to open the gates, although the movie doesn’t explain what it is. Sam finds a bunch of dead, stubby orcs and wonders what happened to them. He finds a live one and interrogates it. The orc explains that they were fighting for the "hobbit's pretty cloak, once he reveals its hiding place" and Sam announces to the orc that he has the cloak. Stop right there! Does this make any sense? If the Orcs had waylaid Frodo, what made them think Frodo's first priority was to HIDE THE CLOAK? What made them think that Frodo even had time to hide it? Why would Orcs fight to the death over a cloak that their prisoner doesn't even have? Sheesh.

Stubby OrcsSam fights with the orc and frees Frodo after the orc falls through a trapdoor and is killed. Then Sam and Frodo flee and start a long, weary trek across the plain of Gorgoroth, disguised as orcs. They doze off and wake up during the day and are discovered by orc troops. The orcs (with their stubby little legs) are supposedly marching out of Mordor to fight a war with Gondor. That's right- they march across huge distances on those short legs and do that at a decent pace. I'd consider that to be a physical impossibility. I guess that singing "When there's a Whip, There's a Way" keeps their morale high. Sam and Frodo are forced to join the column and head back to Cirith Ungol. They meet up with a column of evil men (Mordor's allies) at a fork in the road. The Men and the orcs argue over who goes first on the roadway, and Sam plays up a fight. The orc commander does a ridiculous little stamping dance and the rest of the orcs join in. When the melee starts, Sam and Frodo escape. Then Frodo falls into a pit.

ROTK bounces over to the second sub-plot, which is the Siege of Gondor, although it’s main focus is on Frodo and Sam. The two plots are juggled back and forth confusingly, so I'll deal with them individually, instead of attempting to preserve the original (and disjointed) flow of the movie in this review.

DenethorIt’s almost offensive the way Denethor is portrayed…Denethor is shown as a kooky, toothless old man. He has 3 teeth total, and sprouts insane speeches and cackles like a madman. The mix of language is weird, too, because Denethor uses “thee” and “thou” extensively. So when Denethor orders “his own” execution (in a strangely deserted palace with only one guard), Pippin runs off to find Gandalf, saying, “He’s gone loony, I tell you!” (???)

Gandalf, in the meantime, is at the battlements, watching and waiting. He’s waiting for salvation from King Théoden of Rohan (go figure) and believes that only Théoden could save the day for Gondor! (Boy, this premise is weird!). Gandalf rushes to the palace and Denethor waves around his Palantír and babbles that "we are all doomed". Then Gandalf tells us, "So passes Denethor, Steward of Gondor". I think it's implied that Denethor perishes in flames, because of the fire crackling noises and the sound of horses neighing... but I'm not sure, because a later scene shows Denethor slumped in a chair, looking reasonably uncooked.

Nazgul deflatesMerry is dispatched to give Théoden a summons. Théoden agrees to ride to Gondor to help, and in ROTK, it was a piece of cake… the roads weren’t blocked, and he didn’t need to get help from the Wild Men to get to Gondor. So, once Théoden and Co. arrive in Gondor, and the citizens of Minas Tirith (and Gandalf) cheer their savior (???). Théoden fights bravely in the soon-to-be-famous Battle of Pelennor Fields, but his horse Snowmane gets spooked and throws him when daylight is blotted out (what? No poisoned dart?). Théoden dies and then finally, a Nazgûl flies in to gloat. One of the soldiers wards him off, and she reveals herself as Éowyn, King Théoden's niece. The Nazgûl is slain by Éowyn and Merry, although due to lack of any introduction, no one knows (or cares) who the heck she is! Then the Nazgûl is revealed to be a balloon-type puppet, since it deflates with a hiss. Éowyn disappears after this scene and we see her only briefly towards the end.

With the death of the Nazgûl, the orcs retreat. But Gandalf dramatically tells us that their fortunes had shifted again, with the arrival of the Black Fleet, meaning that South Gondor had fallen, and that the enemy was now invading them from the south. But instead, thrillingly, the lead ship's standard is revealed to be that of Aragorn, described by Gandalf as "he who would be our King". Again, since the first two books were whizzed through in one sentence, new viewers would be puzzled- who the heck is Aragorn?

The character of Aragorn is short shrifted in a MAJOR way. He really didn’t do anything particularly difficult or heroic. Seems that all he had to do was sail a few black ships into Minas Tirith… where even Gandalf was anxiously awaiting his arrival so they could all proclaim Aragorn as King… it’s all as easy as that.

Impatient AragornAragorn comes off as an arrogant, impatient jerk. It seems that he didn’t have to earn his kingship... everyone was anxious to put a crown on his head simply because... well, actually, ROTK never gives a good reason why . With the complete lack of personality, Aragorn also didn’t seem to have any real friends or loved ones… no relationship with Elrond, or Arwen, or Faramir, or Éomer, or Éowyn or (gasp) the hobbits. The only person who Aragorn would even TALK to was Gandalf! You’d never get the impression that there EVER was a “Fellowship of the Ring”, because Legolas and Gimli are completely absent and you’d never know that Aragorn was involved in any way with the long hard quest to destroy the Ring at all!

So, “The Last Debate” begins. Gandalf explains that their real choice is to endure a constant siege or march out to be overwhelmed. Aragorn insists that his army should march on Mordor through the pass of Cirith Gorgor. He insists that they have the enemy "on the run" and should pursue them (yeah, right! As if he thought he was going to win, instead of simply striking a diversionary blow to buy Frodo more time on the Ring quest… but that would mean that Aragorn has to KNOW Frodo, and this ROTK gives the impression that he does not). Aragon also does not seem to know the difference between "west" and "east", since he thinks he's supposed to march north, then west to reach the Black Gate.

The combined troops of Gondor and Rohan march for several days. At the Black Gate, Aragorn, annoyed by the orcs' singing, shouts, "Silence!". Then he arrogantly demands that "The Black Lord must come forth, atone for his evils and depart". The "Mouth of Sauron” meets them at the gates and mocks him. Aragorn’s only response is a testy, “We shall see…”. (This scene is completely pointless, since Sauron's servant forgot to bring tokens of Frodo's alleged capture to bluff the Men of the West into surrendering. That WAS the book's original purpose of "The Mouth of Sauron"!)

Gollum fallsBouncing back to Sam, Frodo and the Ring Quest, Frodo stupidly kicks over their last water container in the pit. They mysteriously get out, because the next time we see them, they are literally crawling their way up Mount Doom. (This is all happening when the Battle of Pelennor Fields is raging). They meet up with a green frog-like Gollum, and Gollum rolls a rock on them, knocking them back down the mountain. Gollum attacks Frodo to get the Ring back, and Sam threatens Gollum with Sting. Sam sends Frodo off to destroy the Ring, while Gollum grovels and pleads for his life. Sam decides to send Gollum away- not a smart move, because Frodo is off on his own, and Sam has just dismissed Gollum, without extracting any promises or any oaths. Put two and two together… Frodo all by himself and a vicious mortal enemy was just let loose by Sam… what do you THINK is gonna happen?

The conveniently-hobbit-sized door to Sammath Naur (doorway to the Cracks of Doom) is WIDE OPEN, so Sam can just walk in, anytime (geez, what more could Sauron do to aid them? Put out a "Welcome to Mount Doom" doormat?) Sam walks in and finds Frodo at the Cracks of Doom. Frodo has a disturbing look of madness in his eyes (hint hint). Frodo refuses to destroy the Ring. Instead, he claims it, puts it on and disappears. (At the same time, in Gondor, this is when the Nazgûl Lord confronts Éowyn).

Sam hunts for Frodo for several days. He finds Gollum struggling with something invisible. Can it be…? Gollum bites down HARD and severs Frodo's finger (surprisingly, with no blood). Gollum seizes his prize, the Ring. Frodo becomes visible again, rolling around in pain and clutching his hand (the wound caused by severing a finger has already magically closed up and has healed neatly in a matter of seconds). Gollum dances around and gloats and slips on the edge of the molten pit and falls in. The Ring is destroyed, and the fortress begins to crumble.

King AragornGwahir and his Eagles fly into Mordor and pull Frodo and Sam out of harm’s way. So, when Aragorn is ready to enter Gondor in triumph and to receive his crown, guess what? Éowyn and several other great lords (probably Faramir and Éomer) get to ride alongside of the new King in a place of honor. And what of the hobbits and the wizard who made this triumph possible…? The hobbits (all of them) and Gandalf get a nice parapet seat to watch the proceedings from a distance. They wave from afar, while Aragorn rides by, looking and acting like a perfect stranger. The common people of Gondor get a much better view of the new King. Boy, this is bizarre.

So, that brings us back to Rivendell and Bilbo’s 129th birthday, where the guest of honor has fallen asleep to the tale! The hobbits ask Gandalf about the upcoming Age of Men, and sound concerned about their place in this new world. Gandalf ridiculously assures them that they will find a place, and comes up with a half-baked evolutionary theory that hobbits get taller with each new generation, and eventually evolve(?) into Men (???).

Rivendell port (?)When Elrond and Gandalf mention that they are leaving Middle Earth, and taking Bilbo with them across the sea, in reward for his service, Frodo pretentiously asks Gandalf, "Have I served thee well, too?" (remember- this was the same party where Merry and Pippin squabble over getting a slice of cake!). Elrond and Gandalf smile and tell Frodo that he can come with them and sail on the morrow (i.e. tomorrow). Right. As if Frodo's departure with them was an afterthought.

Sailing from RivendellSo, ROTK ends with a ship sailing away, carrying Elrond, Gandalf, Bilbo and Frodo. The other hobbits wave 'goodbye' and ride back to the Shire. Wait a minute- how exactly is the ship supposed to sail from Rivendell? It's not as if Rivendell had a water route to the Gray Havens, some 600 miles away. Normally, the Elves would have to get to the Havens by a land route, taking them near the Shire, so how and why would Frodo just ditch his Hobbit companions at Rivendell and sail off without returning to the Shire, without helping them get things back in order there, or writing his memoirs?

Finally, the torture is over when the movie ends. Rankin/Bass did an excellent job with their animated movie, “The Hobbit”. That story wasn’t dumbed-down to such an extent, and the only scenes that were missing were the meeting with Beorn at the Carrock and the parley with Thorin over the Arkenstone. “The Hobbit” really is worth seeing but there's no way to get around it: Rankin/Bass' ROTK is a complete travesty! If you liked Tolkien, this movie would either make you a) incredibly frustrated b) ill c) amused in a perverse way at seeing how far a script can deviate from a book and STILL retain the book's title. Ralph Bakshi’s LOTR looks a LOT BETTER, all of a sudden. At least Bakshi treated the material with respect, and didn't make his LOTR into a kiddie-movie.

Note: All text in yellow indicates deviations from JRR Tolkien's original book, or scenes that were made-up by Rankin/Bass that were never a part of Tolkien's books.

Rankin/Bass vs. Peter Jackson- Where Rankin/Bass wins a few rounds

I really loathe admitting this, but there actually are 2 places where Rankin/Bass did a better job on some plot points than Peter Jackson's recent live-action epic ROTK.

Related Pages:

More Observations about Rankin-Bass' Return of the King

Ralph Bakshi's Lord of the Rings


This article is Copyright 2003, K.F. Louie. May not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

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