Orcs singing in the Rankin/Bass Return of the King cartoon.

Review of Rankin/Bass “The Return of the King” (1980)

Orcs singing in the Rankin/Bass Return of the King cartoon.This cartoon…  This is the one that broke me…  I feel drained after watching this.  Before there was Peter Jackson, there were three cartoons almost unrelated to one another, and I made the mistake of deciding to review all of them.  The first was a children’s animated TV special by Rankin/Bass that removed almost every element that made The Hobbit great.  The second, based on the first half of The Lord of the Rings, was at least for adults, even if it was a poorly-rotoscoped cartoon that payed little attention to the subtleties of the book.  The third, which I’ll be reviewing today, is called Frodo: The Hobbit II, but it’s more commonly known as The Return of the King: A Story of the Hobbits.

For Kids!

I’d like to know just what genius finished reading a book with a recurring motif of mutilated corpses and said to himself, “This would make the perfect basis for a light, friendly children’s TV special!”  Because apparently severed heads falling from the sky just screams “kids’ cartoon!”!

Despite coming closer than its prequel ever came to being good, this cartoon somehow manages to be even worse.  How this is possible baffles me.  This cartoon defies all logic!

Roots and Beginnings

Frodo of the Nine Fingers in the Rankin/Bass cartoon.
They got the right finger, at least.

The film seems to have two beginnings; the first is Gandalf telling us what happens at the end, and the second is Gandalf telling us what happens at the end a second time.  Then we get a scene of Bilbo’s birthday party.  The problem is that it’s happening after the Quest of Mount Doom.  We get a taste of some of the bad acting to come, and then Bilbo falls asleep.  As it turns out, Bilbo and Frodo are voiced by the same actor, who does little to differentiate their voices or even to give an enthusiastic performance in general.

The Minstrel of Gondor in the cartoon.It’s all very confusing, and then it gets more confusing as there’s a third beginning: Glenn Yarbrough as the Minstrel of Gondor recapping the previous film in song.  As I said earlier in this review, this isn’t a sequel to Bakshi’s film; it’s intended as a direct sequel to Rankin/Bass’ cartoon adaptation of The Hobbit, so it glosses over everything that happened in The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers.

Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom

As for the song, it’s called Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom, and it’s terrible.  Again, Glenn Yarbrough has a great voice, but it really doesn’t work here.  The lyrics are awful, a perfect example being the very beginning of the song:

“When Bilbo found that shiny ring in Gollum’s cave of gloom, he never thought that it would turn into a ring of doom!”

Gandalf holds up the One Ring in the Rankin/Bass cartoon.There are so many things wrong with this I don’t know where to start.  Firstly, “turn into a ring of doom”?  The ring didn’t turn into the One Ring; it was always the One Ring—they just didn’t know it till Gandalf discovered its true nature many decades after the Quest of Erebor.  Secondly, “a ring of doom”?  The use of the indefinite article makes no sense; it is the Ring, not a ring.  Moving on, the chorus is laughable, but it’s nothing compared to some of the awful songs yet to come.

“Frodo… of the nine fingers… and the Ring of Dooooooom!  Why does he have nine fingers?  Where is the Ring of Doom?”

Laughable.

The Choices of Master Samwise

Sam tries to rescue Frodo from the orcs in the cartoon.And so we finally come to a part where something sort of happens; our story begins as Sam tries to get into the tower of Cirith Ungol (which this film calls “Sirith Ungol”) and rescue Frodo.  This is conveyed through narration, and immediately we take a break for a credits sequence set to yet another bad song.  We’re shown a bunch of shots of Frodo in The Shire that serve almost no purpose in this thing, although—being the opening credits—we do get a list of people to blame for the way this thing turned out.  After all that pointlessness, we get our first close-up of the One Ring, described in the book as being “the least of rings” (essentially just a simple gold band with no visible markings).  So what else should the cartoon give us but a ring covered with ornate markings!

Sam stumbles upon the One Ring in the 1980 cartoon.As he tries to enter the tower, Sam stumbles upon the Ring just lying on the ground, and we are meant to assume that Frodo just dropped it.  Then he finds Sting nearby and has a conversation with the blade.  This contrasts starkly with the book, where he took both these things off of an unconscious Frodo, whom he assumed to be dead from Shelob’s sting.  Samwise is voiced by Roddy McDowall, best known for his role in Planet of the Apes.  He’s one of the few actors who actually seems to be trying despite seemingly being given almost no direction at all.  Of course he has no idea how to pronounce any of the names in the story, and one of the first lines we hear from him refers to “the Dark Lord Soren.”  Then, despite knowing in this version that Frodo’s alive, Sam decides to leave his master behind and go destroy the ring himself.

Then it gets crazier.  You see, in the book, the ring made Sam give in to despair; it made him want to curl up and die.  In this version, however…

Samwise the Strong!  Samwise the Strong!

Cartoon Sam fantasizes about being Samwise the Strong.Sam goes off on his own despite knowing that Frodo’s alive (no, I’m not letting that go), and the voice actor seems to have no idea what emotion he’s meant to be portraying.  This is going to become a serious problem throughout the cartoon.  Anyway, instead of almost driving him to suicide, the ring decides in this version to tempt Sam with power, and he claims the Ring and becomes “Samwise the Strong,” leading men into battle, claims Barad-Dûr for his own, makes Mordor blossom into a lush paradise, and—I shit you not—transforms all the orcs into cute woodland critters.The cartoon orcs in the Rankin/Bass version turn into forest creatures.  It’s then revealed that this was all in his head and the orcs are still orcs, but that really doesn’t make this any better.

When I first saw this—and when I first wrote this article—I searched the books for this scene as I didn’t remember it.  I was unable to find it and therefore assumed it was a Rankin/Bass invention.  Thanks to a reader named Mike in the comments, I’ve found the passage so thanks to Mike for the correction!  Indeed, Samwise is tempted in the book with visions of Samwise the Strong, and he does imagine Gorgoroth becoming a flowering garden.  All the same, I still think the cartoon’s execution of the scene remains a betrayal of Sam’s character; the scene in the book didn’t make him seem like a buffoon.  Of course, it’s all exposited in song, and the song’s just as bad as the others:

“The bearer of the ring, the wearer of the ring, he hears a voice compelling him; filling him with thoughts that echo in his mind.  It should be telling him.”

I swear—ninety percent of this movie is just these songs repeated over and over!  And, wouldn’t you know it!  Immediately following that number there’s another terrible song.  This time the animation’s even worse than usual.

Meanwhile in Minas Tirith

The Ringwraiths ride pegasi in the Rankin/Bass version.We then cut to Minas Tirith (here called “Minus Tirith”), where rages the Battle of Pelennor Fields.  Instead of riding on their Fell Beasts or even their Mordor-bred horses, we see that the cartoon’s Nazgûl soar through the air on pegasi.  Then the cartoon introduces us to the insane steward Denethor, who immediately orders his own execution.  Anyone who’s read the book or seen the movie knows at this point that something’s missing.  Can you guess what that is?

That’s right; what’s missing is pretty much everything!  The most important thing that’s missing is obviously Faramir, who doesn’t appear in this film at all, meaning that The Pyre of Denethor has little to nothing in the way of stakes as Denethor here intends only to kill himself.  Also absent is what drove him over the brink of madness, as Boromir’s death is never even mentioned—nor his existence in general, for that matter.

Pippin the Poorly-Voiced

The animated version of Pippin Took is poorly acted.And then… we’re introduced to the worst actor in any of these cartoons: Sonny Melendrez as Pippin Took.  Remember how Billy Boyd nailed the role of Pippin in the Peter Jackson epic?  Well, Melendrez is not Billy Boyd.  Every line Melendrez utters is delivered in a manner befitting nothing better than a parody of an primary school play.  Then it’s back to Gandalf’s narration, and he tells us that he and the Gondor generals are waiting for help from someone called “Thiodan of Rowan” (I assume he means Théoden of Rohan).

Then it’s off to Rohan, where we see that Merry is voiced by Casey Kasem, best known for his role as Shaggy in Scooby Doo.  Needless to say, he was infinitely better in Scooby Doo.  Then it’s back to Gondor, where instead of “I am afraid he will kill himself, and kill Faramir too!” or even “Denethor has lost his mind!  He’s burning Faramir alive!,” Pippin reads in his blatantly American accent:

“He’s gone looney, I tell you!”

The Pyre of Denethor

Animated Denethor decides to commit suicide.Now we come to The Pyre of Denethor, one of the book’s darkest and most memorable scenes.  Needless to say, they screw it up from before it even begins, as Denethor has been introduced in this cartoon as neither Faramir’s father nor a character unto himself, so we’ve no reason to care whether he succeeds in burning himself alive.  Again, there’s no Faramir, so he’s killing only himself in the cartoon.  In the end, this once dark and powerful scene is reduced here to a cheap exposition dump, and our heroes just let Denethor kill himself for no reason.  In fact, they follow his advice and abandon hope themselves!

The Tower of Cirith Ungol

Sam gets past the Watchers, but the Phial of Galadriel is never explained so to the average viewer it will make no sense at all.  He finally—and I mean finally—enters the tower of Cirith Ungol, where the orcs have all killed each other.Cartoon Sam talks with an orc.  Instead of overhearing the few survivors’ dialogue as in the book, Sam has a conversation with one cowering orc, who promptly falls to his death once he’s given enough exposition.  Needless to say, the story the orc tells bares only a faint resemblance to the book.  One such difference is that in the cartoon Sam is revealed to have Frodo’s mithril shirt, whereas in the book it was taken by the orcs and later used by the Mouth of Sauron to demoralize Aragorn at the the Morannon.

Cartoon Frodo's eyes show a reflection of Sam.
“I’m telling you… I’m telling you that you took my piggy bank!”

In any case, Sam rescues Frodo, whose delivery sounds more bored than anything else—not tired nor panicked, but bored.  Then we get a few songs—one after the other—and the animation starts to resemble Paddy the Pelican.  They leave the tower in a scene that’s far too long to be in a movie this short.  We see a Nazgûl flying on a pegasus, and for the umpteenth time we get a commercial break.

More Mispronunciations

Sam mispronounces the word Gorgoroth, saying instead “Goragoroth,” Frodo’s delivery is wooden, and then we hear Gollum mentioned for what might be the first time in the film (not counting song lyrics, of course).  As the hobbits first look upon the Plateau of Gorgoroth, sam utters what will become a recurring and very grating catchphrase throughout the rest of this film:

“God help us!”

God?  Really?  Couldn’t even give pronouncing “Elbereth!” a go, could you?

It’s So Easy Not to Try

Immediately we get another terrible song, called It’s So Easy Not to Try—must have been the motto of everyone who worked on this thing.  Afterwards we get some superficial dialogue between Frodo and Sam, a poor substitute for the deep conversations of the book.  O, and if you’re waiting for the unforgettable scene where sam says “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!” then prepare to be disappointed.  Apparently Rankin/Bass decided it wasn’t worth including.  Instead they devote time to discussing the hobbits’ exhaustion in gruelling detail.

Where There’s a Whip, There’s a Way

It’s here that we come to the most infamous part of the cartoon.  First a terrible ‘80s synth baseline starts playing, and then the orcs start singing a song called Where There’s a Whip There’s a Way.  It consists of the orcs singing the song’s title over and over to the tune of the baseline.  Then comes the first verse:

We don’t wanna go to war today!  But the Lord of the Lash says: “nay, nay, nay!”  We’re gonna march all day, all day, all day!  Where there’s a whip there’s a way!

Cartoon orcs march to the sound of '80s synthesizers.This is by far the worst song in this entire cartoon.  I don’t think I can properly articulate just how unpleasant this song is.  It sounds like the B52s on every hard drug you can think of!  And I don’t mean good B52s; I mean Groovenians B52s.  Frodo and Sam get discovered, mistaken for orcs, and forced to march in the orc army.  This should be a dark, bleak scene, but it goes right back to Where There’s a Whip There’s a Way.

The orc army runs into an army of men who serve Sauron—uruks in the book—and Sam gets the two armies to start fighting so they can slip away.  Of course that bloody song starts playing again, but the hobbits do manage to slip away.  Then there’s a commercial break.

Daleks in Gondor

The Witch-King rides a pegasus in the Rankin/Bass cartoon.Back in Gondor, Grond is in the process of breaking down the gates, and the poorly-acted Pippin decides to go fight alongside Gandalf.  The Witch-King’s arrival is narrated, of course, and of course he arrives on a pegasus.  Coming face-to-face with Gandalf, the Witch-King casts back his hood and speaks.  In my Hobbit cartoon review, I said that Bard’s stiff acting made him sound like a dalek, but the Witch-King really does sound exactly like a dalek—with the robot effect and everything

A friendly orc waves to Frodo and Sam.The eye lifts from Frodo and Sam despite Aragorn being days away from even deciding to go to the Black Gate at all, and we get another song.  Frodo has a dream about waving to friendly orcs, and then Sam turns into an orc and Frodo wakes up.  As they near the Cracks of Doom, there’s yet another song.  Frodo and Sam act out of character for a bit before continuing on their way.

Almost Good

Finally we see Gollum, for the first time in this film; Brother Theodore’s scenes are always the high point in any of these cartoons, and this is as far from an exception as it gets.  You’re not going to believe me, but there is one scene that this movie comes dangerously close to handling better than its Peter Jackson equivalent.A scene on Mount Doom comes close to being better than Peter Jackson.  I am referring to the scene in which Sam, faced with the chance to kill Gollum on the slopes of Orodruin, finally feels pity for the creature and spares his life.  Now, Peter Jackson’s version essentially glossed over the scene, and the fact that the cartoon has it at all is certainly a point in its favour.  Brother Theodore, as always, does a good job as Gollum despite being the tiniest bit restrained.  Indeed, I started to actually feel something at this point.  Unfortunately, this being the Rankin/Bass version, they somehow found a way to drag even this scene down.

McDowall’s Delivery

When Sam, instead of killing him, orders Gollum away, the actor needs to emote internal turmoil: a chaotic mingling of pity and disgust with a good deal of anger thrown in.  Just as with “what have I got in my pocket?” in Rankin/Bass’ earlier adaptation of The Hobbit, the line delivery here is so bad that it changes the meaning of the scene.  Far from imbuing his delivery with all the internal turmoil Sam should be feeling in this scene, Roddy McDowall delivers the line in the most one-dimensional manner possible.  Despite staying mostly true to the book, the script for this scene makes some very detrimental changes.

Wally McDowall botches a line delivery.In the book Sam finally realizes just how wretched Gollum is and spares him out of compassion, despite his hatred of the creature.  Here the one-dimensional delivery and changes to the lines make it seem like Sam’s only reason for not killing Gollum is that he’s just not worth killing.  This would not have been a good enough reason for sparing Gollum’s life; killing him, from Sam’s perspective, is the safe and just thing to do.  Gollum poses a threat to Frodo, giving Sam good reason to kill him—merely not being worth the trouble isn’t an excuse that works here.  The actor should be portraying both pity and disgust, but all I got from his performance was the latter.

The Small Things

All this takes a scene that could have been great—should have been great—and reduces it to a disappointment.  Rankin/Bass did this with no more than seemingly small changes to the scene, whether it’s a few offhand sentences or a lack of direction, which just goes to show how important the small things are when you’re telling a story.  We saw the same with Bilbo’s “Ta-ta!” in their version of Riddles in the Dark.  Indeed, the choice of whether to kill Gollum or not has never been brought up anywhere in Rankin/Bass’ version of the tale.  With the subject of pity nowhere to be found, is it any wonder that they screwed up yet another scene that should have addressed it?

The Battle of Pelennor Fields

Casey Kasem reacts to Théoden's death.
“You are tearing me apart!”

Next Roddy McDowall calls Sammath Naur “Sammath Nor.”  Big surprise, right?  Moving on.  Now we’re back to The Battle of Pelennor Fields, where Merry and Pippin are reunited.  The actor voicing Pippin cannot act to save his life.  Moving on.  Remember in the book when Théoden’s horse is killed by the Witch-King and crushes him when it falls?  Well, here it just bucks him off and he dies.  Moving on.

Cartoon Frodo laughs like a cartoon villain.Back in Sammath Naur, Frodo refuses to destroy the ring, and we get another song!  Frodo laughs maniacally before he puts on the ring, because it’s for kids, and kids won’t know he’s under the ring’s power unless he laughs like a cartoon villain.

No Living Man

The Cartoon Witch-King rides a Fell Beast for the first time.Back at Pelennor Fields, Dalek Witch-King arrives on his Fell Beast.  O, now he’s riding a Fell Beast!  Then what were those pegasi supposed to be?  Éowyn reveals herself and butchers her lines with wooden delivery.  Casey Kasem delivers exposition because we’ve never seen Éowyn before.  Then the two of them battle the Witch-King in the closest this movie ever comes to a good action scene.Éowyn of Rohan in the Rankin/Bass cartoon.  Then Éowyn uses magic even though she doesn’t have magic, and she and Merry defeat the dalek once and for all.  Then Éowyn proclaims that she has avenged her uncle, and she sounds almost as robotic as the Witch-King did.  Confusing exposition follows, and Aragorn arrives on the black ships and wins the battle.  The Army of the Dead never appears so I’ve no idea how he wins the battle, but he does.

The Battle of the Morannon

Rankin/Bass version of Aragorn on his horseLater in the war tent, Aragorn (despite just having entered the story) decides to march upon the Black Gate.  Unfortunately his reasons for doing so are utterly different from those in the book.  You see, in the book he hoped to draw Sauron’s gaze onto himself long enough for Frodo to destroy the ring.  It was a diversionary tactic that made perfect sense, but that’s not why the cartoon version of Aragorn decides to do it.  Here he just wants to make such an end as will be worth a song, which sounds more like Théoden than Aragorn.  As they march, we get a song, and it’s almost as bad as Where There’s a Whip There’s a Way.  O, and the Nazgûl are back to riding on pegasi.

On the Timing of Events

Now we meet the Mouth of Sauron, and Aragorn delivers his lines in such a wooden, stilted manner that I almost wondered if the actor actually knew a word of English at all.  The Mouth retreats back into Mordor, and the song resumes; it’s terrible.  Then we find out that Frodo and Sam have just been standing around in Sammath Naur for the past several days doing nothing, because the timing of everything that happens in this cartoon is off by a large margin.  If Frodo is wearing the ring, then why is he not long gone by now?  And more importantly, why haven’t the Nazgûl arrived at the mountain yet and killed the hobbits?  This cartoon makes no sense!

Cartoon Aragorn is crowned king of Gondor.A song plays as Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger, and because this is a kids’ cartoon there’s no blood whatsoever.  Gollum then falls into the fire, and despite making perfect sense in the book, the scene was storyboarded so poorly here that it doesn’t make sense.  Then Frodo and Sam explain to the children watching this exactly what they just saw happen.  Then the eagles carry all the soldiers to safety, which is a bit odd, as all they did in the book was kill the orcs and rescue Frodo and Sam.  Then at Aragorn’s coronation we’re made to suffer through yet another song.  I don’t think I need to tell you how bad this one is.

The Film Ends

The Minstrel of Gondor finishes his terrible song.If you think omitting The Scouring of the Shire was bad, then just you wait.  We cut back to the Minstrel of Gondor. who is still singing “Frodo of the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom.”  He finishes and everyone claps even though the song was terrible, and then we get a failed attempt at humour.  Then Sam delivers some largely wrong exposition:

“The orcs and trolls are gone to dust.  The elves are slowly departing.  Dwarves have disappeared into their misty mountains.  And there have been no dragons for ages.”

Debatable.  Correct.  Wrong.  Wrong.  But that’s not even the worst of it.  No!  Then he says:

“Will there be no room for hobbits in this new age of man?”

And then we get perhaps the stupidest part of the movie; Gandalf responds:

“I think so, for of us all, Hobbits are the closest to man, the most human, and one day they will be as men are.  Look you!  Frodo is a bit larger than Bilbo just as you are larger than Frodo, and younger still than you—and larger—are Merry and Pippin.”

Alright, there’s a bit to talk about here.  It’s true that hobbits are the closest-related to men, but the rest of this is utterly asinine.  Merry and Pippin were tall because they drank the Ent-draughts—not because they’re turning into men!

“And if you keep the Book of the Hobbits as Frodo asked, ages from now when your stories are still told, there will be those humans who might well wonder, ‘is there hobbit in me?’”

Cartoon Gandalf breaks the fourth wall.And—I shit you not—he actually turns to the camera and asks all the children watching this if they might have some hobbit in them!A cartoon drawing of an Elven ship.  It fades to a shot of the elven ship leaving the Grey Havens, and we get a quite fitting reprise of It’s So Easy Not to Try.  It is at this point that the film just ends.  That’s right!  No scene of Sam returning to his family—no “Well, I’m back.”  Nothing!  This film is an insult.

A Torturous Abomination

The Rankin/Bass cartoon's design for Théoden of Rohan.The Rankin/Bass Hobbit cartoon was annoying, Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings frightfully boring, but this…  This one was physically painful to sit through!  Every instinct in me compelled me to turn it off, and I felt drained after watching it.  The backgrounds were all beautiful watercolours, but that’s just about where the good parts end.  The animation, for one thing, is horrible, for the most part.  Théoden’s character design was the only one that was pleasant to look at, and he was only in there for about a minute of screen time.

Beyond that, the voice-acting is dreadful; everyone is either completely wooden or struggling to act without direction.  The only actor who seems to know what he’s doing is Brother Theodore, and he’s only in the film for a few minutes.  Even the better actors in this thing ruin entire scenes with their directionless delivery, but by far the worst was the voice of Peregrin, whose every delivery is stiff and unnatural.

Characters

Numerous characters are cut from the story, including a third of The Fellowship; Legolas, Gimli, and Boromir don’t exist in Rankin/Bass’ world.  With Legolas and Gimli missing, the racial tensions between the Elves and the Dwarves are never addressed; Indeed, not a single dwarf or elf appears in this cartoon.  Because there’s no Boromir, there’s no reason for Pippin to swear fealty to Denethor.  Because there’s no Faramir, Denethor’s suicide carries little weight, as he’s only just been introduced and is only trying to kill himself.  Other characters wholly absent and never mentioned include Galadriel, Éomer, Shelob, Arwen, Saruman, and more whom I’ve likely forgotten about amidst the throng that this thing leaves out!

Plot

In the book, everything felt important, but this cartoon is the opposite; everything feels inane.  Everything in this cartoon is unclear and confusing.  Nothing makes sense.  What’s worse is that nothing is shown; everything’s shoved down our throats in painful musical interludes that do nothing to move the plot forward—what there is of it.  Failing that, there’s John Huston to narrate everything that the songs don’t tell us.

Don’t Watch This Thing

An army of cartoon orcs.This is what happens when you take a dark story for adults and adapt it into a family-friendly romp for five-year-olds, but not even that can account for even half of its problems.  It’s just bad.  Do not watch this thing; it will hurt you.  And certainly don’t watch it alone!  Frodo: The Hobbit II or The Return of the King: A Story of the Hobbits or whatever it’s called is an abomination!

4 thoughts on “Review of Rankin/Bass “The Return of the King” (1980)

  1. Although it’s a strange choice to include it in the adaptation, the vision of Samwise the Strong is indeed in the book:
    “Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dur. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.”
    ….The orcs morphing into strange mammals….well, that’s fever dream material

    1. Thanks so much, Mike! You gave me a shock because I did search the book for that scene and couldn’t find it. Seems I was looking in the wrong chapter. I wasn’t sure how to update my possibly harsh criticism of that scene, but I went back and read the scene in context. I want to be fair to Rankin/Bass, as that is entirely a valid scene to include in the movie. Afraid I still don’t think much of Rankin/Bass’ execution of the scene.

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