Watching Series: The Animated Lord of the Rings Trilogy

by Alex Vo | Wednesday, Dec. 04 2013

On this edition of "Watching Series," we take a look at the three loosely connected animated Tolkien movies from the late 1970s: The Hobbit (1977), The Lord of the Rings (1978), and The Return of the King (1980).

The Return of the King (1980)

I watched the last movie of the animated Lord of the Rings trilogy first for this article. This was done out of practicality -- The Return of the King DVD was the first used copy I found in the area -- and also to attempt recreating the '80s home movie experience. People who were kids in that decade know the scenario: your parents come home in the evening, one of them grabbing a random VHS from the rental store. The Return of the King is exactly the kind of tape ol' pops would have brought home to his kids, whenever he could remember that he'd already checked out Encino Man a million times before. You have no choice but to watch whatever makes its way to your home.

So let's say we are all very young again and there is The Return of the King playing in the VCR in my living room. Inured on arcades and football, I have no concept that the cartoon is the conclusion to a larger story. No concept of J.R.R. Tolkien. And certainly no idea that halfway around the world, a teenage Peter Jackson, who had by now seen the animated trilogy, was getting an idea, that maybe it'd be up to him to tell Tolkien's tale on-screen better than this.

Were I still the naive '80s child and had just saw The Return of the King, I'd guess I'd have been delighted by the movie's color and animation. And find the rest completely incomprehensible.

This TV-movie was directed by Alan Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass (their powers combined, they are Rankin/Bass Productions, most famous for their stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer specials). Rankin and Bass were tasked with the unenviable job of following up on Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings, which had come out in theaters a year earlier in 1979. Bakshi covered The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers novels, and the movie he put out was violent, weird, and scary. The Rankin/Bass modus operandi is to make movies for kids. Exciting but not super scary adaptations, with a helluva lot of Glenn Yarbrough on the soundtrack.

So Rankin and Bass needed to tone down everything Bakshi made too dark for television, and with less money and less time than he had. Rankin/Bass were concluding a story they had no part of before, and with all the events of Return of the King having already been set previously in motion, they didn't even get their own chance to properly introduce the characters. Frodo, Sam, Aragorn and the rest are locked on a rail, pushed mechanically towards the resolution, just so it could finally be said that Tolkien had been adapted for the screen.

Trying to recreate the '80s watching experience was a failure then. I had to use my adult memory of the Peter Jackson films as a shorthand to decipher the action and characters in this RotK. The only significant addition in this RotK is a scene where Samwise is tempted by the Ring, a moment that further sharpened the corruptive nature of Sauron's jewelry.

RotK stretches its limited animation to pad out the run time, like using extra-long establishing shots of villages and Minas Tirith, or scenes of hands gliding over motionless strategic maps of Middle-earth. Those moments actually stood out to me: it was like watching living storyboards to the live-action movies. Incidentally, I share Bilbo's love for maps, and had I watched RotK as a kid, I would've rewound those map and village scenes over and over, just to study the lines and trails. Regardless if you thought the movie was faithful to the book or not, I think seeing Middle-earth come to animated life that young would spark anyone's imagination.

The Hobbit (1977)

I next watched The Hobbit, also by Alan Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass, adapted for television three years before The Return of the King. The Hobbit is easily the best of the trilogy, and remains (until next year) the only film that shows Tolkien's first novel in its entirety.

The Hobbit and The Return of the King are visually consistent, Rankin/Bass having used the same crew for both films. Art and animation was done by Topcraft, a Japanese studio whose bankruptcy in 1985 would lead to the founding of Studio Ghibli. Indeed, the landscapes in the two films have a handsome, pastoral quality, very much in the vein of Nausicaa. The art is more accomplished in Return of the King, but thematically fits better with The Hobbit's lighter adventuring.

The film captures the novel's simplicity and joy. The irony of Bilbo being thrust into a ridiculously dangerous journey is not lost on this movie, using it to establish a narrative arc that witnesses Bilbo's ability to learn, question, and discover inner bravery. The Hobbit, originally conceived as a standalone piece, moves free from the dramatic, portentous weight of the future Lord of the Rings. When Bilbo puts on the Ring and disappears, it inspires whimsy and a spirit of fun. One can enjoy the moment, and not have to think about Ring-wraiths and Sauron and all that upcoming sad stuff. And Gollum is not shown as a revered, tragic figure, but a weirdo in a cave who gets off on riddles. And then there's Smaug himself (wonderfully animated) to consider, along with the Battle of Five Armies, secret messages in maps, forest trolls and giant spiders -- this is pure adventure, briskly paced and packed with incident.