Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Recent Watches: The Return of the King (1980)

Over time, the 1977 television version of “The Hobbit” has developed a decent reputation as a minor classic. I have no idea how it was received back in the day but interest in Middle-earth seemed to be high in the late seventies. The next year, Ralph Bakshi’s animated adaptation of one and a half of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” novels rode into theaters. Though critically dismissed, including by me, the film did fairly well at the box office. Despite the public demand seemingly being there, Bakshi never produced the second half of his “Lord of the Rings,” the forever-destined to be unresolved cliffhanger ending being just one of the frustrating things about that film. However, a sequel of sorts was made. In 1980, Rankin-Bass would return to Middle-earth, picking up the storyline Bakshi abandoned. “The Return of the King” resolves Bakshi’s storyline but is otherwise far more linked to Rankin-Bass’ “Hobbit” adaptation. It’s also not much of a film in its own right.

One of the biggest issues facing “The Return of the King” is that it has to sequelize two, mostly unrelated films. The somewhat awkward way the movie revolves this is with a framing device, set during Bilbo’s 129 birthday, sometime after the end of the war of the ring. Inquiring about Frodo’s missing finger, Gandalf and a minstrel begin to tell the tale. Despite this, those coming straight from “The Hobbit” to “The Return of the King” are going to be very confused. The story proper roughly begins where Bakshi’s film left off. Gandalf and his band of heroes are fighting off an army of orcs, Sauron’s evil eye watching over the battlefield. Frodo has been captured by the bad guys, Samwise holding onto the One Ring and debating about rescuing his friend. The film tosses you into this with only brief explanation. Because it picks up plot points elaborated on in another film, it’s not a satisfying sequel to “The Hobbit.” Yet it’s far too different from Bakshi’s film to be a satisfying sequel to “Lord of the Rings.” This leaves fans in both camps displeased.

Even if “The Return of the King” was a better sequel, it’s unlikely it would be a better film. Remember in “Clerks 2” where Randell says the “Lord of the Rings” movies are just long sequences of people walking? He was wrong, Kevin Smith needlessly trolling Rings fans. However, this movie mostly is walking. Samwise rescues Frodo from the empty orc tower and the two begin walking towards Mount Doom. Occasionally, they run into an evil flying horse or a marching army of goblins but mostly they just walk. When the film isn’t focusing on that tedious journey, it’s instead explaining events off-screen with expositionary voiceovers. An incredibly unnecessary, and needlessly long sequence, has Sam being tempted by the Ring. Maybe that scene was made to make unaware viewers aware of the Ring’s power. It’s still a belabored moment. We only see glimpses of the great battle raging below, quick scuffles between the heroic forces and the evil orc army. Mostly, Gandalf explains what is happening. Those looking for action will definitely be disappointed.

Even as a general non-fan of MiddleEarth, I have to say this “Return of the King” is a fairly lousy adaptation. Aragon, the titular king who eventually returns, does not appear in the film until it’s half-way over. When he does show up, we still don’t learn very much about Aragon, even with Gandalf explaining his role in the story. The rest of the Lord of the Rings gang is nowhere to be seen. Legolas, Gimli, Shelob, Saruman and others might as well collectively be re-titled “Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Film.” When the movie does hew closer to the source material, it’s likely to confuse fans who haven’t read the books since high school. The subplot involving Denethor does not pay off in any way. Lord Theoden, and his accompanying army, appear suddenly with little build-up. The Lord of the Nazgul, whose goofy voice makes him sound like a cousin of Skeletor, appears as if he was an important character who had been here all along. Eowyn, looking especially anime-esque, appears in one scene, with no build-up or further explanation, kills the bad guy, and disappears. Gollum shows up out of nowhere, appearing only when the plot needs him. As punishingly long as Peter Jackson’s films were, they were never this confusing or badly written.

Something else hampering “The Return of the King’s” pacing is a number of unnecessary and downright bad musical numbers. The songs in “The Hobbit” advanced the plot, fit the tone of the film, and were genuinely catchy. The songs in “Return of the King” impend the pacing, stick out among the dark story, and are forgettable if not irritating. The opening number, which references Frodo’s nine fingers and the ring of doom, goes on far too long. The lyrics in general are repetitive. The melodies are indistinct. Moreover, the songs add nothing to the story. Though, I’ll admit, “Where There’s a Whip” is catchy, even if its disco-beat is incredibly out of place.

The animation is of the same quality as “The Hobbit.” Occasionally, character movements are stiff or repetitive. However, many scenes are swiftly, vividly animated. The appealing character designs from “The Hobbit” are maintained. I especially like that the movie just says “Fuck it!” and makes the goblins and the orcs the same species. While the animation isn’t perfect, it’s preferable to the cheap rotoscoping of Ralph Bakshi’s film. Much of the voice cast from “The Hobbit” returns as well. John Huston continues to be brilliantly cast as the voice of Gandalf. His deep voice, more then once, makes the heavy-handed exposition go down easier. Orson Bean returns as both the elderly Bilbo and the younger Frodo. Brother Theodore’s eccentric delivery as Gollum really livens up the last act. Some of the new additions work less well. Roddy McDowell seems quite uncertain and possibly miscast as the voice of Samwise. Casey Kasem’s immediately recognizable voice is very distracting as Merry. It makes you think Shaggy has just showed up on Middle-earth.

“The Return of the King” ends with a non-too-subtle suggestion that the hobbits evolved into man and that the film actually takes place in the distant past of planet Earth. Gandalf caps this information off with a fourth wall breaking glance at the audience, in case you didn’t get the point. The film does not have the charm of Rankin-Bass’ adaptation of “The Hobbit” though I suppose it’s slightly better then Bakshi’s movie. At least it has an ending, is only ninety minutes long, and doesn’t feature any audience-insultingly bad animation.  [5/10]

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