Rather than allow Ralph Bakshi to finish “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the property was instead given back to Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass, the two responsible for the production of “The Hobbit”, as well as a handful of famous Christmas specials. Oddly enough, it was only the third of the books that they were told to adapt, rather than do their own versions of “The Fellowship of the Ring” and “The Two Towers”. Much as you might expect, this leaves “The Return of the King” as a semi-sequel to their “Hobbit” movie, and merely attempts to gloss over the rest of the trilogy. Not that the stuff that happened between those two books was all that important anyway.
The framing device for the story is that after having destroyed the ring, Frodo and his friends are celebrating Bilbo’s 129th birthday. He’s incredibly old and senile now, apparently having no idea what’s taken place since the ending of “The Hobbit”. A minstrel (voiced by Glenn Yarbrough, so settle in) is called in to recap the events of not only “The Hobbit” (which is actual footage from the previous film), but also fill in the events of the rest of the series that led up to this point (including no footage from the Bakshi movie). When this ends, giving us a very loose sense of the plot, we get into the story proper, which is an abridged version of the final book.
The voice actors from “The Hobbit” return to reprise their roles, Orson Bean as old Bilbo (and Frodo, as well), the iconic director John Huston as Gandalf, and Brother Theodore as the frog standing in for Gollum. The rest of the acting is decent, including Roddy McDowall as Samwise and Casey Kasem as Merry, and again no effort was made to make any of these characters British. Like the voice acting, the rest of the movie is executed almost identically to “The Hobbit”, from the drab and colorless backgrounds to the constant stream of narrative and thematic musical accompaniments. Yes, Glenn Yarbrough returns to give us another barrage of his whimsical and vibrato voiced folksongs. They’re again used to speed things along, filling in what would normally be used for character development, though on occasion, they bring the somewhat plodding plot to a screeching halt, padding out what should only be a few seconds of screen time. Sam’s inner musical battle with temptation over the ring goes on so long it overstays its welcome and then it continues on for a few more minutes. That said, the orc song, “Where There’s a Whip, There’s a Way”, is damn catchy.
The vast majority of the plot actually follows Frodo and Sam, rather than the other fellowship members, as they march their way to Mount Doom. While I can appreciate the simplicity, the cost is that other characters, like Aragorn (voiced briefly by Theodore Bikel), Legolas, and Gimli, are reduced to cameos. Even Gandalf has a significantly reduced part in the story. It’s stripped down to the basics, in this case being the walk to the volcano and smatterings of the battle of Minas Tirith. It feels like a lot is missing from the story and much more so than was the case with “The Hobbit”. I don’t think just skipping the first two entries in the trilogy was a wise decision. There are a large number of characters that have no context without them, and the events of “The Hobbit”, the only movie this seems to be canon with, only give you so much as far as backstory. Honestly, it helps if you’ve read the books or at least seen the Ralph Bakshi or Peter Jackson movies, but then this will only upset you for all that was left out.
It’s a difficult recommendation, given what this movie is. It’s just a small piece of a much larger story, and there’s little context for its place within it. If you’re a diehard fan of the Rankin/Bass “Hobbit” special, then maybe. Otherwise, it’s far better to just skip it. Or better yet, toss this stinker back into the fires from whence it came.