• Year: 1980
  • Director: Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass
  • Starring: Orson Bean, John Huston, Roddy McDowall

Alright, I haven’t done this since A Christmas Carol 1982, but I need to rant about this cover before starting the review. What happened here? We see two hobbits, who look like none of the hobbits featured in this cartoon. We can assume they are Frodo and Sam, but Frodo and Sam walk the entire film. They do not once mount a horse! Is this supposed to imply Frodo is the king who’s returning? (Spoiler: It’s Aragorn.) On either side of them, we have a dwarf. Great, Gimli’s in this movie right?


I’m just gonna assume he’s in that processional somewhere. He doesn’t have any lines though, and he sure doesn’t seem to look like those Snow White-looking guys on the cover. There also appears to be a DRAGON of all things flying above one of the castles. Alright, let’s get to the review itself.

Oh Rankin/Bass we meet again. Famous for Christmas specials like Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Rankin/Bass expanded their horizons a bit in the late 70’s and onward. We got a pretty competent, albeit short, TV version of The Hobbit in 1977 and the most hilariously overblown Christmas special of all time in 1979 with Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July. After Ralph Bakshi got screwed over by the studio and didn’t get to make another Lord of the Rings film, Rankin/Bass decided to give it another go with the third installment in Lord of the RingsThe Return of the King… just The Return of the King. So you made The Hobbit and now we’re just gonna skip to the end of The Lord of the Rings? What could possibly go wrong?

While The Hobbit was a mere 78 minutes, The Return of the King at least gets a full 98. It’s not enough to do complete justice to Tolkien, but when you look at all the things they stuffed into Christmas in July, there’s at least potential. Here is my estimation of how the conversation between Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass went after they learned they got more time to work with:

Rankin: Think of how much we could squeeze into the extra running time. This might actually make sense and not feel rushed.

Bass: Or we could add a whole ton of songs.

Rankin: But there aren’t that many songs in the book. Wouldn’t it kind of feel forced?

Bass: What’s a Rankin/Bass special without random singing? Also, with all this time, we could do three title cards!




Alright, I get that the first one was called The Hobbit and you want some continuity, but this just sounds stupid. These are THE HOBBITS, not just your regular run-of-the-mill hobbits (Actually Ted Sandyman was the hobbit who ran the mill, but that’s neither here nor there). Why don’t you just go all out pretentious and call it Sunrise: A Song of Two Hobbits? There’s enough singing in it!

At least Rankin/Bass is trying to embrace the epic scope of Lord of the Rings, right? Not by doing anything of course, but by telling us it’s an epic in the opening narration. That’s all we need, I guess. You just tell us the genre and we’ll assume.

Sports drama.

Sure it was, Tommy.

Alright, so do we start off where Bakshi left off? I mean, I know it’s not technically a sequel to his film, but a little continuity would be nice…

They had glasses in Middle-earth?

Nope, we start in Rivendell at Bilbo’s 129th birthday party. The ring has already been destroyed and we’re getting the story in flashback. There are certain stories that work in flashback, but The Lord of the Rings? The main dramatic crux of the story is destroying the ring, but you’re just going to tell us right off the bat that it’s already happened? I’m not even saying we should be surprised that the ring eventually gets destroyed in the book, but come on. What’s the point in this?

Also, the scene starts with Frodo and Sam walking to Rivendell to meet up with Gandalf, Merry, Pippin and the others.


This is fine, except later in the film (but earlier in the timeline), we see them all together in Gondor celebrating the victory. Did they all leave at separate times? Is there some Middle-earth roadside attraction that Frodo and Sam just had to see?

Once the group has eaten, Gandalf introduces them all to the Minstrel of Gondor… who apparently has been standing there the whole time. What, didn’t he get to eat?

I had a long trip too, almost got killed by this Headless Horseman…

The minstrel is voiced by Glenn Yarbrough, who also was the off-screen singer in The Hobbit. This is obviously a non-book character, so I’m not sure why they decided to make him look like this, when the real Glenn Yarbrough looked like Chris Christie’s kind, less bridge-closey brother.


The songs in The Hobbit (mostly) worked, because they were from Tolkien’s work and the story had a simpler feel to it. There are occasional songs in The Lord of the Rings, but they aren’t featured here. Instead we get forced songs that just won’t stop playing. “Frodo of the Nine Fingers” and “The Bearer of the Ring” seem to pop-up every single time there’s a serious moment, and they just suck all the drama right out of them.

Sam, I have to use the bathroom.
Frodo, he had to pee.
You will stop singing that song, or I will do to you what Rankin/Bass did to Fellowship and Two Towers

I’m really only a fan of minstrels in movies if they get eaten halfway through, and sadly that is not the case here.

When we do get to the actual story, we start around where The Return of the King book picks up, with Frodo captured by orcs and Sam with the ring. We spend a lot of time with Frodo (Orson Bean) and Sam (Roddy McDowall) getting closer to Mount Doom and struggling with the ring, but it’s always ruined by music. I really like Orson Bean as Bilbo, but they really shouldn’t have cast him as Frodo too. It’s distracting, because he doesn’t really change his voice, and it’s not like Bilbo and Frodo are father and son. They’re uncle and nephew, so why would they have the same voice? Roddy McDowall is a fine actor, but he brings nothing of note to Sam and he’s really over the top… but he’s still better than this guy.


The events of Fellowship and Two Towers aren’t even referenced, but the events of The Hobbit are, which makes Gollum’s appearance really bizarre. Gollum being Frodo and Sam’s guide to Mordor is not mentioned, but Sam still awkwardly name drops him shortly before he appears. I suppose he stayed in his mountain all that time but got a sneaking suspicion someone took his ring to Mordor and went there, just happening to run into Frodo and Sam. Got it. At another point, Sam pulls out a vial of light that was given to him by Galadriel in the book, but since that didn’t happen here, it just magically happens to be in his bag. Is that a deus ex machina in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?

We also get a sequence in which Sam is tempted by the ring, leading him to dream of a green and fruitful Mordor where he asks his servants to “Behold the gardens of my delight.” I thought this was a kids’ movie!

Oh… right.

Meanwhile in Gondor, we do have one of this film’s very few redeeming qualities—John Huston’s Gandalf.


He has less to work with than in The Hobbit, but he’s still great, adding a richness to Gandalf’s voice that no one else has ever brought. Since the story is compressed to an absurd degree, he often does a lot of narrating. I wish this much narration wasn’t necessary, but since it is, I’m glad he’s the one doing it.

Gandalf spends his early scenes with Pippin, and they are joined later by Merry. I found it strange that Casey Kasem voiced Merry, but I remembered that he was also the voice of Shaggy, so obviously he was a talented voice actor… but he just sounds like Casey Kasem here. Yep, a radio DJ in Middle-Earth, but not just one. Pippin is voiced by Sonny Menendez, another American radio DJ who sounds like he’s going through puberty. Every time they open their mouths, it completely takes you out of the movie.

In Gondor, Gandalf and Pippin meet with Denethor (William Conrad), even though we have had no buildup to this character and have not met his sons Boromir and Faramir. Denethor is supposed to be a tragic figure, a once-respected ruler who is falling into madness.


Instead, we get what looks like the Old Man from a stoner version of The Tell-Tale Heart and sounds like the most cliched sniveling villain the writers could come up with. We’ve had no buildup to what a palantir is, since they didn’t adapt The Two Towers (Gandalf briefly describes it as a “crystal ball”), so it kind of comes out of nowhere… again.

Of course, just like in the book, Denethor is burned alive… nah who am I kidding? This is a kids’ movie. He just has his guards surround him and the scene cuts to some flames, letting us infer how he died. After Denethor’s death, Pippin asks Gandalf if there is any hope, and Gandalf says there’s none unless the ring is destroyed. Wait, wasn’t that the only hope all along? They could win every battle across Middle-earth, but if Sauron gets the ring back, it’ll all moot. Why are they acting like now that’s the only hope?

Undoubtedly, one of the coolest moments in all of The Lord of the Rings is the confrontation with the head Nazgul, the Witch-king of Angmar. Confident in his Shakespearean prophecy that no man can ever defeat him, the Witch-king wreaks havoc on Gondor, only to be brought down by the tag-team of Eowyn and Merry. Eowyn has been brushed aside by the men who went to battle, and Merry has felt like the load in comparison to the other hobbits. However, they band together for one of the most heroic moments in Tolkien’s work and form a lasting friendship as they heal of their wounds. This moment only truly works if you adapt the whole story, though, because in Fellowship, it’s established that Merry’s sword was forged by the enemies of the Witch-king. Again, it’s called buildup and payoff.

I’ll admit the introduction of the Witch-king here is actually pretty effective, with the dark music, creepy design and John Huston’s narration.


Even when he takes his hood off, the floating eye design still works.


Then he talks, and it just ruins the entire atmosphere. He sounds like someone put The Knights Who Say “Ni” in a blender. I really can’t imagine why someone thought this wavering voice sounded creepy. It sounds way more like a villain in a parody film where the bad guy turns out to be a wimp, and it reminds me a bit of the mayor’s changing voice in The Christmas Tree. Eowyn comes out of nowhere (shocker) and challenges him, and after Merry gives some shoe-horned exposition about her, he joins in with his assumed-to-be-normal sword and helps defeat the Witch-king.

As Frodo and Sam draw closer to Mordor, they have to join an Orc troupe in what is perhaps the best and worst scene in the movie… let me explain. First, it’s a scene right out of the book, and while it may seem preposterous that Frodo and Sam could be mistaken for Orcs, it does seem that all species of creatures are on the side of Mordor. Even the Orcs come in all shapes and sizes.

It is also made very clear that the average orc doesn’t really want to go to battle. Just look at their expressions.


This goes a long way in characterizing them as more than just evil mooks to kill off, something Tolkien himself took issue with. It’s sort of ruined, though, with the totally out-of-place “Where There’s a Whip, There’s a Way,” a funky marching song that belongs in Middle-earth about as much as Casey Kasem does. However, the lyrics themselves put forth this same message of forced fighting, so I guess it’s an attempt. I still really like the scene, though, because Frodo and Sam only escape when the Orcs and men, fighting for the same side, end up killing each other over a petty dispute.

After a long (I mean, I guess we only see a few days of it) and perilous (Surely there’s a little peril) quest, Frodo and Sam finally reach Mount Doom.


Mordor looks absolutely hellish in this thing, and Mount Doom definitely lives up to its name, both inside and out.


Just like in the book, Frodo claims the ring for his own and slips it on, disappearing in front of a distraught Sam. However, instead of immediately being attacked by Gollum, Frodo apparently walks around Mount Doom for days with the ring on! Alright, it’s question time.

  1. It’s clear this change was made because Rankin/Bass didn’t have their timelines matching up, but how hard is this to change? Why couldn’t you just have the Gondor battle scenes take place earlier? How did you not realize this until the last minute?
  2. If Frodo wears the ring for days, what is he doing the whole time? Is he just exploring all of Mount Doom? What does he eat or drink?
  3. How has Sauron not seen him by this point? In the book, Aragorn’s raid on Mordor was to distract Sauron as Frodo slipped through the back door, but here the raid isn’t even planned until Frodo is at Mount Doom with the ring on! He’s literally right there unguarded.

Aragorn and company do march on Mordor, but Aragorn (you know, the titular king) only has a handful of lines in this thing. He’s just a plot device, but again, that’s what happens when you only adapt the climax of a story!


Anyway, after three days or so in Mount Doom, Gollum attacks Frodo, grabs the ring and, mid-celebration, falls into Mount Doom with it. Frodo and Sam are rescued by the eagles as Mordor crumbles around them, and everyone is reunited in Gondor. Well at least that scene is done right.


And now, a moment of silence for all the things lost in this adaptation:

  • The Paths of the Dead
  • Saruman
  • Grima Wormtongue
  • Prince Imrahil
  • Sympathy for Denethor
  • Faramir

Oh wait, maybe this is Faramir?


  • Arwen
  • Legolas and Gimli’s friendship
  • The Scouring of the Shire

One of the greater themes of The Lord of the Rings—heck, perhaps the main theme—is the changing face of Middle-earth. The rings led to a lot of the magic in the world, good and bad, and that magic is now fading. Elves are departing across the sea, and wizards are leaving for one reason or another. Here, we get hit over the head with a very confused version of that message. Gandalf explains that Frodo is taller than Bilbo, and Merry and Pippin are taller than Frodo, meaning that hobbits will eventually evolve into men. I’m not really sure what the point of this is.

And Merry, you will go on to host American Top 4o until Ryan Seacrest takes over.

At least we end with Frodo going across the sea with Gandalf and Elrond. As much as I dislike the songs in this, the extended version of “Roads” Glenn Yarbrough sings here is pretty nice. It’s at least a nice send-off to the Rankin/Bass Middle-earth I enjoyed in The Hobbit.

Alright, let’s attempt to score this thing.

Adaptation (18/50 Points)

I’m not sure how you’re supposed to adapt just one-third of The Lord of the Rings, but it isn’t with musical numbers every five minutes. Characters come out of nowhere, plot points make no sense without the buildup of previous installments, and even the serious moments get ruined by stupid ones. The ring is destroyed, and at least that is kind of handled well.

Cast (11/25 Points)

John Huston is back as Gandalf, and he is the best part of the film. I’m fine with Orson Bean being back as Bilbo, but he really shouldn’t have voiced Frodo. The radio DJs voicing Merry and Pippin are just awful, and the bizarre-sounding Witch-king is hilarious.

Experience (9/25 Points)

STOP SINGING! Alright, enough about the singing. The animation is typical Rankin/Bass, meaning hit or miss. Mordor looks great, and the atmosphere is occasionally effective in other scenes, too. However, the misses are hard misses.


The Hobbit was a kids’ book, so the cartoon worked well enough. This is just a quickly-thrown together mess, filled in with narration and songs. Unless you’re dying to see it, you won’t get much out of it.

The wait is over. Next week, I’m going to revisit Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring and see if I’ve just been way too picky all these years.




2 thoughts on “The Return of the King (1980)

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