Tuesday, August 15, 2023

The Return of the King (1980)

Hot Gollum-on-hobbit Action!

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "The Return of the King" (Rankin-Bass Productions, 1980). Following the events of "The Hobbit," Bilbo Baggins's (Orson Bean) nephew Frodo (also Orson Bean) sets out on a quest to destroy the old hobbit's ring of invisibility, revealed to be the ultimate weapon in the war for Middle Earth!
The ring you don't want to commit to!

To keep the ancient artifact out of the hands of Sauron, the lord of evil, Frodo and his servant Samwise Gamgee (Roddy McDowall) must take the ring to the fires of Mount Doom, deep within the enemy's territory. It's not just Sauron's legions of orcs and goblins that they'll have to contend with, though: The creature named Gollum (Theodore Bikel) is out of his cave and he wants his "birthday present" (the ring) back!

A little background

This is the third animated feature-length film based on author and linguist J.R.R. Tolkien's works. While the previous film in the series, "The Lord of the Rings" (Fantasy Films/Bakshi Productions, 1978) was made by a different production company and had its own unique style (apart from Rankin-Bass's "The Hobbit" from 1977), this production picks up a little bit after the events in that film and reprises the Topcraft Japan animation and design that made "The Hobbit" so memorably painterly (as I have stated in my previous review, Topcraft would eventually disband and reform under the name "Studio Gibli").

And by "a little bit after," I mean, "jumps ahead significantly."

First, the bad

It's by far the least faithful of all the adaptations of this story that I have seen. There are big things like the fact that the story almost exclusively follows Frodo and Samwise throughout their journey after the Fellowship of the Ring has broken up. There is a bit of story following Gandalf the Grey (John Huston) and the hobbit Peregrin "Pippin" Took (Sonny Melendrez) as they attempt to defend the city of Minas Tirith from an army of orcs until the army of the Rohirrim horse riders and fellow hobbit Mariadoc "Merry" Brandybuck (Casey Kasem) arrive.

A lot of the non-Frodo story revolves around this part.

While this is accurate to the book to a degree, the insanity of the Steward of Gondor, Denethor (William Conrad) completely leaves out his distress over the loss of his sons Boromir and Faramir (who are never depicted… sort of) as the cause of his breakdown.
It does still include Denethor's Palantir, though, which even the Jackson version leaves out.

Fellowship characters like Gimli the dwarf and Legolas the wood elf are entirely absent, and while the future king Aragorn is shown he isn't really a driving force in this production.
Aragorn: Largely absent from this film.

Little things like the depiction of the Nazgul border on ridiculous, with weird flying horses and long-haired skeletons taking the place of the black riders on their foul birds.
By far the least compelling design in the film.

There's also almost no distinction between the character models or armor for the men of Gondor or of Rohan, which mistakenly makes them seem united before the arrival of Aragorn.

Be forewarned, there is a lot of music and singing in this movie, and it may not be to everyone's taste.

"The Minstrel of Gondor" might have more screen time than Aragorn.

Folk singer Glenn Yarbrough returns this time as "the Minstrel of Gondor," and his songs are used to catch up the story and set moods in certain scenes, while harder fare like "Where There's a Whip There's a Way" are a bit goofier but in my mind's eye adds charm.
"Where there's a whip, there's a way!"

The good

Despite some (pretty big) minuses, there's still a lot to like here. For starters, Samwise Gamgee doesn't seem quite as… "special needs" as he does in the Bakshi movie, and Roddy McDowall gives a pretty emotional performance overall.

There is an annoyingly long time spent inside one of Samwise's ring-induced daydreams, though.

There are bonus orc-to-animal TFs for you fetishists out there, however.

The art direction, while at times inaccurate to the source material, still runs circles around the Bakshi version, though admittedly it doesn't have the larger scope of that production.
This is still how I picture Minas Tirith in my head-canon.

There is content that was left out of the Jackson movies, such as the watchers at the gate in the Cirith Ungol watchtower, which while not incredibly important to the story is still a bit scary and a welcome addition.
These things are still creepy even to this day.

My two favorite character designs in this movie are Gollum and the Witch King of Angmar. The Gollum design is a reprisal of the one used in "The Hobbit," and he looks more like a frog than in either the Bakshi or Jackson versions, and I much prefer the look as it suits his aquatic nature.
Still my favorite Gollum design. So interesting to look at!

The Witch King of Angmar really hits it out of the park, though: His design is far more accurate to the book than even Peter Jackson's version, and he looks exceedingly creepy having no visible head and a crown floating above two glowing red eyes. Also, his voice (acted by Don Messick) has a hollow reverb added to it which is, again, much creepier than the Jackson version which disappointed me after seeing this.
Legitimately creepy.

I need to vent these grievances

Real talk/sidebar: The Jackson versions of the Ringwraiths are just awful in my opinion. While they were initially very scary and book-accurate creepy, the fact that Aragorn, a mortal man is able to drive them away from the hobbits just completely makes them seem like weenies. In the book, he drives them away with Narsil, his sword and birthright with the broken blade that originally cut the ring from Sauron's hand, and as an item of power over their master it drives them off, but in the movie version he just… Throws fire at them. Lame (but kind of funny).

Some "ultimate evil."

Add to that the laziest Witch King design they could have come up with (literally the same hooded figure with a crown over the hood), and they're just not all that cool anymore. 
Really?! THIS is how you chose to interpret it?

Also, and this is a constant complaint of mine, the "oliphaunts" depicted in every translation of this story are always shown to be giant monsters of incredible size.

Yes, even here.

This always bothers me, because in the book they are very clearly meant to be regular-sized elephants that seem incredibly large because they're being observed by the diminutive hobbits. Also they're probably called "elephants" too -- the (humorous) term "oliphaunt" is used by the uneducated gardener Samwise because he's struggling to remember what they're called, never having actually seen one before. This is the most annoyingly consistent literal misinterpretation of what was clearly meant to be a joke that I have ever observed in fiction, and shows how readers gloss over Tolkien's love of language to the detriment of not getting the message.
No. No. No. WRONG!

Safe for kids(?)

There's no foul language, no nudity or sexuality (well, Frodo starts the movie off in just his shorts, but he's still wearing his shorts), and no visible on-screen deaths.

"One ring to nude them all! Er, RULE. I meant to say rule."

Well, the Witch King dies on-screen by the hand of the Lady Eowyn (Nellie Bellflower) and possibly quite horribly, but he is invisible, so I'm not sure that counts.
Girl boss.

Oh, and there is an actual dismemberment, but it's not very graphic (still difficult to think about if you're a kid, though).
For your consideration: This is it. This is the dismemberment. can you see it?

It's a pretty soft PG overall.

Where can you watch it?

Unlike "The Hobbit," as of this writing I was unable to find any streaming services that carry this version, but you can still find it on DVD if you look hard enough.

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