After the 1977 release of The Hobbit, Rankin/Bass took three years to create and release The Return of the King in 1980. They really should have taken longer, as this adaptation wasn’t nearly as charming as the first film.
The film has Sam and Frodo reminiscing about the final events before the One Ring was destroyed in Mount Doom. He tells of rescuing Frodo from the orcs at Cirith Ungol, the final journey to and up the side of the volcano, and the final struggle with Gollum.
The animation in The Return of the Kingwas on par with the earlier film, so pretty standard television special film quality. I really enjoyed the animation, and it did a great job artistically capturing the feel of Middle-Earth. The various goblins and orcs were designed well, though perhaps a bit too humorously (they really didn’t look all that scary). This worked well in The Hobbit, since it’s a children’s book turned into a children’s film. This film is based on a book aimed at an older audience, so the cutesy feel of the animation didn’t work so well here.
The music was enjoyable, though it again felt somewhat childish, and therefore didn’t really fit the source material. The various special audio effects, on the other hand, were great. They had an otherworldly feel that worked well for the magical realm of Middle-Earth. They were my favorite part of the film, outside of the animation and character designs.
In some cases, the informational content in books is not terribly dense. It can therefore be pretty easy to include most of the plot points and important bits in a film adaptation. Tolkien’s works are informationally dense, however. A quarter of The Return of the King is spent on added content which was not from anything Tolkien wrote. Because of this, it is very difficult to get through everything important, making the plotting and pacing in the film suffer.
I think it was a mistake for Rankin/Bass to do only The Hobbit and The Return of the King. Though they are animated by the same team, there is little to connect the stories in an effective manner. We are instead left with two films that feel like they belong together, but which are separated by decades of time and only three connecting secondary characters.
I will watch The Return of the King again in the future with my children, as it (along with The Hobbit by Rankin/Bass) is basically an animated introduction to the books. While this film does hold some nostalgic appeal, it does not have the depth to make it an excellent (or even good) adaptation of the book.
Original Air Date: May 11, 1980 (USA)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Alcohol/Drugs: 1 (some tobacco use, some social drinking)
Violence: 1 (some fighting, Frodo loses a finger, some death, none of it is graphic)