Like many hobbits, Sam Gamgee
was particularly stingy with his
private stock of peppermint schnaps.
(This review assumes that you have a working knowledge of J.R.R. Tolkien's books. If you haven't read the books and want to be surprised by Peter Jackson's live action version of the story next year, stop reading now.)
When the second part of Ralph Bakshi's animated adaptation of Lord of the Rings proved to be so much vapor, the good people at Rankin-Bass stepped in. You remember Rankin-Bass: they produced delightful stop-motion musical movies for television in the '60s and '70s, including Christmas favorites like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Year Without a Santa Claus. In 1978 (the same year that Bakshi made his regrettable version of Lord of the Rings), they were responsible for the most faithful film adaptation of any Tolkien work to date, The Hobbit. Resplendent animation, coupled with original music that not only advanced the plot but was also keenly felicitous to Tolkien's written verse, has made The Hobbit a favorite among fantasy lovers and Middle-Earth aficionados in particular.
"Frodo... of the Nine Fingers...
and the Schnoz of Doom!"
Baskshi's animated LOTR film, as we've stated elsewhere, was putrid. Poorly animated and miserably acted, it failed in all the ways that The Hobbit succeeded. After the release of the first installment of Bakshi's planned 2-part series, it became evident that the second film would never be made. Enter our friends at Rankin-Bass, who knew an opportunity when they saw one. In 1980, an adaptation of the final book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Return of the King, was shown on TV. It didn't pick up exactly where Bakshi's film left off, and Rankin-Bass may well deny that they made the film to capitalize on the gaping hole left by their competitor's unfinished work. (We haven't asked them.) It did, however, provide a form of closure for those who had seen the Bakshi LOTR but were too lazy to pick up the books and read their way to the end of the story.
Bilbo just didn't have the
heart to tell Elrond that
his oven had a slanted floor.
Return of the King features a framing sequence (not present in the novel, but using events depicted therein) with the Hobbits, Gandalf and Elrond sitting around chewing the fat. An elderly Bilbo (voiced by Orson Bean) notices that Frodo (also voiced by Orson Bean) is missing one finger. This cues the Minstrel (singer/song writer Glenn Yarborough) to start singing his hit song, "Frodo of the Nine Fingers," a song that is nearly goofy enough to distract us from the fact that the Minstrel's nose is so grotesquely large that he looks like Opus the penguin.
Before the Minstrel can get more than a couple of verses in, Gandalf (John Huston) takes over the narrative, explaining that Frodo, while on his mission to destroy the One Ring in the Crack of Doom in Mordor, has been captured by the Orcs in one of the fortresses that defends that land. Sam was not captured, and stands outside the fortress with the Ring, yelling his intentions to save Frodo. Then he decides to destroy the Ring, so he yells about that. Then he realizes that will be hard, so the song "It's So Easy Not to Try" ("To let the world pass you by...") plays mournfully while the camera lingers on his pensive face. With all this going on, you have to wonder how the Orcs don't hear him outside their castle walls and come pouring out to have Sam for a midnight snack.
"...and when Brainiac and Lex Luthor
get here, you're really
going to be in trouble!"
Those Tolkien fans offended by any implication that Sam's feelings for Frodo may be more than friendship will probably not be pleased to hear that Samwise is voiced by Roddy McDowall. McDowall brings an appropriate amount of drama to the role, even if it does seem that Sam spends half the movie standing in the middle of Mordor, shouting to himself.
This sequence introduces an element of Return of the King that will dominate it thereafter: pointless musical numbers. In The Hobbit, the songs moved the plot along, but an overeagerness to duplicate that formula has filled this sequel with a surplus of music that stops the story in its tracks. There aren't as many natural places in this book adaptation for songs to fit. You know they're stretching things when you get to the Orc marching song, "Where There's a Whip There's a Way." As irrelevant to the plot as it may be, this catchy '70s-style ditty is still the best tune in the film.
Turns out that all along
his "precious" was a SAG card.
Like the book, the movie hops from location to location, following the hobbits and their friends on their separate adventures. Those who haven't done the reading will be lost, since little explanation is given for each character's journey. We're supposed to take it for granted that Sam and Frodo divorced themselves from the main group and that the other hobbits, Merry and Pippin, found themselves in the employ of the kings of neighboring lands. Most disturbing is the fact that Merry is voiced by Casey Kasem, which makes for a confusing cartoon experience. Hearing Shaggy's voice coming from a hobbit can send an unwary Gen-Xer into fits of hysterics. ("Zoiks! Like, it's the Nazgul, Scoob!")
Those of you who have read the books will probably spend your first viewing ticking off the plot elements that were discarded. The characters of Gimli and Legolas are omitted. Likewise the evil wizard Saruman, who is often considered the book's true villain. Fortunately, some of the more heroic moments have been preserved, including Eowyn's battle with the Nazgul Lord. (Another off-putting cartoon moment occurred when we realized that the Nazgul King has the same voice as every otherworldly arch-fiend on The SuperFriends.) Of course, much of the screen time is devoted to the plight of Frodo and Sam, who do little but wander Mordor and trade insults with Gollum. Gollum's presence is never satisfactorily explained, but by this point you'll be used to accepting new story elements as Gandalf's narration doles them out. This style of storytelling is vaguely akin to a baseball game: there's a lot of sitting around and listening to the announcer, which is occasionally punctuated by brief moments of excitement.
"Uhhh... are you sure this is
where the 'Short, Studded, & Sexy'
party is being held?"
Where Return of the King feels most incomplete is in its treatment of Aragorn, the title character. Aragorn's return to his kingdom in a fleet of black-sailed ships (which are at first mistaken for enemy vessels) is one of the high points of the movie, but we can't help but feel it lacks buildup. True, the scene is helped by the fact that Glenn Yarborough finally shuts his yap ("It's so easy not to try..." Argh! Get it out of our heads!It burns! ), but so little of the preceding action takes place on screen that even the initiated may be metagrobolized. Who's that guy again? And what are those dudes doing outside that castle? Gandalf's narration handles so much of the story that this movie isn't so much an adaptation of the novel as it is an animated version of the Cliff's Notes.
J.R.R. Tolkien's son Christopher has long maintained that his father's books are simply unsuited for film adaptation. When it comes to The Hobbit, we must disagree, but Rankin-Bass's attempts to repeat that first success have certainly met with defeat. The fact is that the later trio of books are lengthier and more mature in nature, with a slower story arc and adventures that are not quite as episodic as those in The Hobbit. The Lord of the Rings trilogy doesn't lend itself easily to film adaptation, and the animators truly crippled themselves in this case by lopping off the exposition in the first two books. It's comforting to hear John Huston in the role of Gandalf again (no one says "Behold!" quite like he does), and it is tempting to think that Rankin-Bass might have done a bang-up job with a television mini-series. The actual product we were left with, however, just doesn't ring true.