The Return of the King (1980) — Still better than the Hobbit trilogy

“I have come but I do not choose to do now what I have come to do!”

Justin’s rating: That’s it. NO more Tolkein movies for 21 years!

Justin’s review: In 1978, Ralph Bakshi’s highly-anticipated animated version of The Lord of the Rings came to the big screen. It was notable, I should note, for two outstanding reasons. One, it was a steaming pile of letdown. Two, Bakshi never quite advertised that it was really Two-Thirds of the Lord of the Rings. As viewers waded through his incredibly bad adaption, they discovered that it only covered the first book and a chunk of The Two Towers. Then it ended.

Fantasy fans screamed and fell to the theater floors in horror, while their dates shook their heads and just walked out. Since Bakshi became a pariah in Tolkien circles, it fell upon The Hobbit makers Rankin and Bass to pick up the slack and conclude the tale.

Lacking the bloodthirstiness of its predecessor (as well as any mention of Legolas and Gimli, because who needs those guys?), the only thing that Rankin and Bass carried forward was The Lord of the Rings’ inability to make coherent sense.

Since The Return of the King was a made-for-TV version aimed at the kiddies, they decided not to continue from the last scene of the previous movie. Instead, we get a ham-fisted introduction where Bilbo has a birthday and asks Frodo what happened to his 10th finger and, you know, that pesky ring. A bard nearby (sure, you remember him from the books!) is eager to help out with poorly-penned folk tunes. Thus, the entire film becomes a crappy flashback. In SONG.

The theme of this film is No One Ever Shuts Up. If someone’s not talking, someone’s doing some serious inner narration. If there’s no inner narration, then someone’s singing in the background. If there’s no singing, then someone’s gabbing their trap again. The Return Of The King is probably the same experience to you if you’re blind or not, since all action is talked about before and during:

[SAM starts to climb some stairs.]

SAM: Wow, there sure are a lot of stairs! And they go UP!

[SAM takes one step forward.]

SAM: I hope I don’t get tired, climbing these stairs! Where do they go, I wonder? Well up, of course, but to what end?

And while that’s certainly bad enough, the filmmakers obviously had no idea how to cram in all of the relevant information that’s necessary to follow the plot of Tolkien’s book into this 90-minute spectacle. So they ended up throwing in large gobs of pointless exposition that usually has nothing to do with the scene at hand. This serves only to confuse the 10-year-old kids that were targeted by this animated special.

My favorite example of this technique is when Sam is rescuing Frodo from the orc tower. Frodo, depressed and shirtless, starts moaning about evil. “You can’t get away from evil,” he tells Sam. “Evil is everywhere. You can’t escape it. And only the elves can escape Middle-Earth. They built big white ships that will let them sail to a far off land.” And lo and behold, the scene fades to white ships sailing on the ocean, as the blasted minstrel of the film sings about an ocean voyage.

I swear to you, I did not change one iota of that scene; that’s literally how it happened. A musing on evil, then a weird, disjointed segue to elves (of whom we’ve only seen one in the movie so far), and then a cut to ships and a song. Bizarre doesn’t begin to cover it. It’s so ridiculous that I had to pause the film, I was laughing so hard. It’s like they wrote down the plot to the books on index cards, shuffled them, then randomly assigned narrative duties out to the various characters. “Okay Gandalf, here you’re fighting a battle, and that would be a great time to talk about how Aragorn wants to be king but can’t. Oh, and throw in something there about the history of the Shire, too.”

I mean, hey, I watched the Peter Jackson version of the film and read the books many times, and this movie version still confounds me. But at least the dialogue is so overwrought that it brings a sarcastic smile to my heart.

And for a film about a king and his ballyhooed return, we see very little of Aragorn. In fact, the filmmakers decided to make Sam and Frodo the main story, which makes little sense as they didn’t really do much in the final book. The solution is (a) time-wasting songs, (b) endless dialogue between Sam and Frodo or between Sam and Sam, and (c) events that didn’t strictly happen in the book, such as Sam turning an orc army against a human army so they can sneak by. At various points does Gandalf and the siege at Minas Tirith make appearances, but they’re really just special effects bookmarks.

Let’s just say that there’s a good reason that even die-hard Tolkien fans quickly forgot this film series. That doesn’t mean we should, however. This is perfect material to rent in front of your disbelieving rental clerk’s eye and inflict on your little cousins, dashing their hopes after you told them you’d be getting them “those Lord of the Rings movies!”

Didja notice?

  • The film literally spoils itself as it shows and tells you ALL of the endings in the first couple minutes
  • Frodo’s soooo nonchalant about getting rid of the ring when he tells Bilbo
  • The shameful plug for “The Hobbit” thrown into a flashback montage
  • Okay, Frodo is talking like a bad English term paper. I’m pretty sure none of his opening exposition was in the books.
  • Nobody’s told Bilbo ANYTHING about this major quest. That cracks me up. Bilbo acts so surprised about the ring being gone and Frodo’s missing finger.
  • OH CRAP! They’re gonna SING the whole story as a flashback! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!
  • Also… “The minstrel of Gondor”? Was he anywhere near a Tolkien book?
  • Another “Hobbit” flashback scene! Way to get your money’s worth out of your previous film!
  • Eight minutes in, they’ve already covered all of the books, more or less.
  • The narrator goes on and on about how brave and gallant Sam in, all while Sam is shown trying to physically ram down 100-foot iron doors with his shoulders. Stupid fat hobbit.
  • There’s TWO titles for this film (“Return of the King” is shown twice)
  • Sam’s horrible inner narration
  • Sting not only pulses, but makes a terribly annoying sound
  • Sam keeps screaming up to the tower, where the enemy is right in front of open windows.
  • Sam’s horrible outer narration
  • Sam envisions himself as a conqueror… heh.. You’re so stupidly cute, Sam.
  • The ring, the ultimate evil power, causes Sam to… become a global gardener? Sam, you’re not very good at being evil.
  • Minas Tirith actually looks a bit like the film version
  • Okay, minute 23 and they’re still feeding us chunks of exposition trying to explain the plot
  • Everyone in this film talks way, way too much
  • Gandalf becomes a big wuss, moaning and being scared
  • So Sam has no idea what the Elvish vial is and what it’s for?
  • The ring can make you glow green, too!
  • Apparently, if Frodo tells anyone about the “secrets” of the vial the elves gave him, the “power will die”
  • Roddy McDowall and Casey Kasem as voice talents (Merry‘s voice sounds like Shaggy)
  • Gollum laughs like a melodramatic super villain
  • Dude, Eowyn is cute! For a cartoon character.
  • Aragorn finally gets a line, 1 hour and 18 minutes into the flick.
  • The eagles airlifting an entire army


  1. It’s so fantastic, for reasons the filmmakers probably did not intend. I mean…….singing disco orcs?! WAAAAHAHAHAHAHA!
    Sam’s temptation taking the form of an uber-gardener comes straight from the book. I think it’s meant to show how Sauron/The Ring truly did not “get” people who do not crave power at all. He was working with what he had available (Sam loves plants) + trying to turn it into a power play. + failing.

  2. I think there may have been a minstrel of Gondor in the novel, though almost certainly quite different from whatever is shown here.

    And speaking of such things, though not a full song, the line, “Where there’s a whip, there’s a way,” is a line that appears in the novel.

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