From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Films of High Adventure: The Hobbit/The Return of the King

For a few months now, we (meaning Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer) have been re-watching old fantasy and adventure films that influenced one or both of our respective childhoods and blogging about whether or not, for us, they withstand The Test of Time. So far we’ve done, among others, Conan the BarbarianTank Girl, and here at Fantasy, The Company of Wolves and Legend. This month we up the proverbial ante by doing a double feature–that old Hobbit cartoon everyone’s watched a million times and the Return of the King same-studio-deal that should never be watched even once.

The Films: The Hobbit (1977) and The Return of the King (1980)

WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, first and foremost—those guys. Admittedly the original stories are from some author-dude you’ve never heard of named Ronald Reuel or something like that, but since even the superior cartoon, The Hobbit, eliminates much of Tolkien’s voice and pacing, we’ll place the blame squarely on Messrs. Rankin and Bass. Like some sort of super deformed two person voltron, the combining of forces known to the world as Rankin/Bass Productions, Inc. led to the creation of many of the most cringe-inducing childhood entertainments of yesteryear, including all those nightmarish stop-motion animated Christmas specials such as Rudolph, Frosty, and Nestor, the Long Eared Christmas Donkey. Also, um, Thundercats. There is no more fitting monument to their work than their official website, come to think of it. Bass and Rankin directed, produced, and did much of the music for both Tolkien adaptations, but the one crime of which they are innocent is screenwriting, for which one Romeo Muller is guilty. Muller was longtime collaborator, and the list of his transgressions is roughly the same length as Bass and Rankin’s imdb directorial credits, including but not limited to Flight of Dragons, one of the worst animated war crimes of the 80s. Sadly, our video store doesn’t carry it, and it’s been taken down from Google Video, so don’t expect us to do it for FoHA anytime soon. . . which is regrettable, because among other questionable decisions in that film, there is a Yellow Wizard who is, um, “Asian,” rides on a sinuous oriental dragon, and, if I recall correctly, talks like this: “Ah, so, my most honourable brothers.”

Anyhow, back to the cartoons at hand: the casts are made up of members of the Rankin/Bass stable as well as veteran  directors who presumably wanted to get in on a Tolkien adaptation even if they weren’t directing it themselves and even if it was just a goddamn made-for-tv cartoon, which led to John Houston and Otto Premminger rubbing animated shoulders with former stand-up comedian Brother Theodore and Paul Frees. Oh, and we mustn’t forget dear, dear Orson Bean, who voices both Bilbo and Frodo, or Richard Boone, who handles Smaug. The Return of the King cast is, where applicable, identical, with the additions of Roddy McDowall, Casy Kasem (!), and some other names who add nothing in the way of humor to this already lengthy section. Oh, and Glenn Yarbrough deserves a special kick in the privates for providing us with the voice of a minstrel in King, as well as most of the folksy ballads such as “The Greatest Adventure” and “Frodo of the Nine Fingers.”

The Hobbit Quote: “Elvish singing is not to be missed, in June, under the stars!”

The Return of the King Quote: “And if you keep the books of the hobbits, as Frodo asked, ages from now, when your stories are still told, it will be those humans who might well wonder, is there hobbit in me… (::Gandalf looks straight at the camera::). . . is there?”

First viewing by Jesse: The Hobbit at maybe eight years old, and the Return of the King at twelve or so—meaning I adored the former and was bored out of my skull by the latter.

First viewing by Molly: Oh, Christ. I’ve no idea how young I watched The Hobbit, but pre-sentience, surely. I think my dad read the book to me when I was still in the womb, or at least as soon as I was birthed. I can’t remember a time not knowing about Bilbo and his adventures, and I watched the film early enough that Gandalf and Smaug will forever look as they do in the cartoon. I do recall my first viewing of Return of the King, though. I was very young—not yet in 4th grade—and a friend and I were allowed to each pick a movie. My friend picked The Princess Bride, which was my first time seeing the film, and I discovered Return of the King in the animated section, which entranced me but alternately terrified and bored her.

Most recent viewing by both: Last Night.

Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: I had a really boss six or eight cassette tape recording of The Hobbit growing up, possibly the Mind’s Eye version—the tape cases were color coded, but I don’t remember much more than that, and the reader’s spirited declaration of a dwarf’s request for mince pie and cheese at the unexpected party—and it, along with my Hitchhiker’s Guide audio book, were played on car trips and such long before I even gained sentience, and so the story of Bilbo Baggins was imprinted on my brain at the reptile level. If I had seen the cartoon a few years later I might have been more critical but as it stands it was pretty goddamn perfect to a child with a Sackville-Baggins’s greed for all things shiny and hobbit-like. The audio book had a bigger part on my development than the cartoon, and the unabridged book a larger influence than either once I was old enough to read, but to this day when I think of Smaug I picture him close to the Rankin/Bass version. The Return of the King, by contrast, had a much smaller impact—my first two attempts to read the trilogy never made it past Helm’s Deep, and so the LotR story lacked the same impact on my childhood that the Hobbit plot had (to this day I prefer stories with a smaller scale to the conflict than OMG-the-world-is-screwed-unless-you-do-this-thing [Molly gives an enthusiastic huzzah to this sentiment]), and even at twelve or so I thought the cartoon was big old mess.

Impact on Molly’s childhood development: High, high, high. My dad read to me every night he wasn’t traveling, and it’s hard to say if we read The Hobbit or The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe more times. The cartoon stuck enough to the text and was engaging enough visually to satisfy Young Molly, but then again, I remember viewing The Return of the King with enough excitement that I think the formula of “wizards ‘n’ shit” was enough for me to think a movie was pretty OK. Come to think of it, not until I viewed Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards did that change. . . but we all grow up and realize not every wizard is awesome, and not every cartoon is more worthy of being watched than being ritually burned.

So that in mind, it wasn’t until later in life that I came to understand The Hobbit cartoon was truly superior in all ways, including its lush watercolor backgrounds lifted from Tolkien’s own sketches. I bought both The Hobbit and RotK on VHS out of some video store’s bargain basement bin when I was in college, and after re-watching, promptly discarded RotK, whereas I still have my Hobbit VHS, which is what we watched. Still, the conditioning of childhood is hard to resist, and even after that college view-and-spew, I still remembered RotK with fondness. But I think that’s because, to a younger, more forgiving me, that scene where Eowyn takes of her helm and her blond hair is all blowing in the wind off the battlefield as she talks mad shit to the King of the Nazgul. . . that was enough for me.

Random youtube clips that haven’t been taken down for copyright infringement:

The Hobbit:

Return of the King:

Let’s cheat and put up one of the only–if not the only–good scene from this film, shall we?

Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: In all sincerity, the only proper word for the occasion is dread. Not so much for The Hobbit, which we’d re-watched one bored evening a few years back, but because rather than punishing ourselves with Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings cartoon, which I at least don’t remember, Molly was adamant we take on RotK for our planned painful cartoon double feature. I’m not saying I think the Bakshi one would have been much better, and the fact that it’s longer implies quite the opposite, but at least if we watched that rotoscoped disaster I wouldn’t have to re-experience the horror of orcs singing about how they don’t want to fight:

The half-assed attempt to humanize the orcs makes the whole experience even more goddamn depressing—I’m all about subverting the (literally) black and white simplicity of Tolkien’s text, which even Jackson failed to address, but if the extent of your addressing this problem is to lay a funk backbeat and a wahwah paddle over recycled animation then count me out. (Molly says: But check out the goblin helms! You can see it on Sam and Frodo the best, if you make it to them, but it totally looks like some ancient inspiration for Blizzard’s Horde symbol from World of Warcraft, amiright?)

Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: I was excited about The Hobbit, ambivalent about RotK. Jesse wanted to do the Bakshi LotR, but I refused outright. I rented the Bakshi as an older, more discerning kid—around the same age I rented Wizards, come to think of it—and turned it off with the quickness for any number of crimes, including terrible rotoscoping and their decision to make Sam into some sort of moon-addled halfwit. Also, I declared it “just made more sense” to watch the two Tolkien adaptations out of the same studio, but really it was because Jesse was fighting me on it, and I do so enjoy digging in my heels just to be frustrating. I knew I just shooting myself in the goddamn foot by insisting, but to be honest, deciding between watching the Bakshi and the Rankin/Bass Lord of the Rings adaptations is really just a whole “the lady or the tiger?” decision, but set in Middle Earth (Jesse says: more of a tiger or a panther decision, I should think).

Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: The Hobbit functions serviceably well as a kid’s cartoon and possible introduction to Tolkien, but I hold that any kid who would enjoy the movie would be better served by an adult reading the novel to said child beforehand so their conception of the characters and setting is not forever tainted by Rankin/Bass’s dubious representations. Granted, a few of the creature designs are neat, and the background and interiors are often impressive, but who wants to picture Bard of Laketown as Burt Reynolds (Molly says: in a miniskirt!) or Bilbo as somebody’s squat little grandmother? Other than me, I mean.

In addition to the personality-is-all-in-the-nose style that is the hallmark of Rankin/Bass’s character design, and the folk tunes, the movie suffers from dumbing down the characters to the point of incredulity. According to this cartoon the dwarves are complete  morons who don’t know the first thing about forged items or, you know, ancestral dwarf holds—two of the few things dwarves are genuinely agreed upon to be versed in. On the other hand, The Hobbit has that “Down, Down to Goblin Town” song that genuinely terrifies my wife, so it’s not all bad.

The Return of the King, on the other hand, is a big pile of. . . you know, whatever filthy noun I put here is going to fall short, regardless of any colorful adjectives I tack on. This cartoon is an abomination. I’m not just saying that because it was sloppily put together, awkwardly paced, or insanely written, I’m saying that because it is so interminably boring that one longs for the breakneck pace of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a three hour Russian art film about an overgrown meadow (full disclosure—Stalker is pretty awesome, but exciting is not a word I or any sane human would ever apply to that crazyass SF flick). The songs, which were so frequent in The Hobbit, are nearly constant in RotK, and by and large unbearable. Characters from the novel are introduced only when they are essential to furthering the plot, such as Aragorn and Eowyn, or are glimpsed only in the background, assuming that one goofy looking guy was supposed to be Faramir, or, best of all, left out entirely, such as Legolas and Gimli, who are presumably off in some fanfic scenario none of us really want to contemplate. Admittedly, some cool details from the text are included, such as the Red Arrow used to summon Rohan, and Denethor’s use of a palantír, but that hardly excuses Gandalf’s semi-permanent state of befuddlement or the simply bizarre framing device of a bard singing “Frodo of the Nine Fingers” to a dozing Bilbo.

Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: Damn, RotK sucks. Big time. Like, to the point that I was severely contemplating turning it off and only doing The Hobbit. Yet. . . it’s kinda amazing to watch RotK because it starts out at a high level of completely nonsensical bullshit and gets progressively more baffling. I mean, this is a film that begins (since I know you didn’t watch the full clip above) with Elrond, Gandalf, and the FrodoSamPippinMerry coalition all gathering for a senile Bilbo’s eleventymillionth birthday, wherein it is revealed that Bilbo has no idea where Frodo’s been for a year (?) and after noticing Frodo’s missing finger for the first time (?!?), Gandalf reveals that the Bard of Gondor (!?!?!) has been hanging out in the corner all night (???omgwtfbbq!???!111?@%!??) and is happy to sing the tale of how the Ring of Power got destroyed and stuff (nooooooo!!!!).

Then the film devolves into a patched-together quilt of crazyful non-drama. Jackson’s decision to cut down on the amount of time spent on “two hobbits wandering through a barren wasteland” has never been more appreciated—the film spends an absolutely unpardonable amount of time with Frodo and Sam stumbling around aimlessly and complaining. Vaguely better are the scenes in Gondor, but only by comparison. Though apparently the Rankin/Bass RotK is an unofficial sequel to the Bakshi Fellowship/Two Towers, I really feel that making this cartoon was a mistake. It gives no indication that it follows the Bakshi, and the long-winded infodump explanations of Characters that Appear or Things that Happen seem to internally deny that it’s a sequel. Honestly, unless it’s Frodo, Sam, or Gandalf onscreen, events go down like the example in the “random clip” above, e.g. “Hey, it’s Eowyn! Who is awesome for Reasons!”

Here’s the thing: even if we disregard the excellent writing, the sheer length of Tolkien’s original text alone gives us some reasons why we should we give a shit about Gondor, Theoden’s arrival to save them, Frodo and Sam’s quest, the titular return of the king, etc. We learn pretty quickly in Fellowship that Aragorn is a Somebody, a Bad Ass, “Good,” and all that goes along with that, and thus we care and are impressed by his awesomeness when he returns with the Black Ships full of ghosts or whatever (OK, well, at least that’s what happens in the movie, but lest someone call me out, full disclosure: I haven’t read RotK in maaaaaaybe a decade, if not longer). We understand (and care) that should Gondor fall, nothing will contain Mordor’s forces from ruining Middle Earth, which we have spent time wandering around, and are thus invested in it not being destroyed. And on, and on. The cartoon gives us nothing of that, and is thus really, really stinky.

But! The Hobbit! So good. OK, maybe “so adequate” would be more accurate, but my childhood affection allows me to ignore the stuff Jesse was perhaps rightfully bitching about. Gandalf’s voice alone is so evocative of sitting on the floor of the living room of the house I grew up in that it makes me a little misty every time he says that line about “I am Gandalf. . . and Gandalf! Means! Me!” with unnecessary lightning behind him. Also, it’s better because the songs, which I’m woman enough to admit there are simply too many, are at least mostly if not all out of the actual book. This makes them better than the songs in RotK, which are uniformly execrable. Compare, if you will:

with (around the 48 second mark)

OMG.

And yet–and this, I should say, is an as-I-am-literally-posting-this-to-Fantasy addition to the column–watching that lone clip of Eowyn makes me realize why I loved RotK as a kid. I mean. . . watch it. I know Jesse and I both took issue with the “Here’s this person!” script, but that at least provides a moment of “hellz yes!” when the only girl in the movie appears and just straight butchers the Witch King. That impressed me as a youngling, and it still does, kinda sorta. Uncle! I have avenged thee!

High Points: Not the songs. John Houston’s voice as Gandalf, especially his intro in The Hobbit. Gollum’s gross little tail—ugh. Smaug flexin’ for Bilbo:

Low Points: The music, especially in RotK, especially the not-on-youtube climactic musical number where I believe there is a lyric that goes “the return of the king/the end of the ring.” Good writing, guys! The omission of my favorite character other than Eowyn in Tolkien, Beorn, from The Hobbit (Jesse says: don’t believe Molly, her favorite character in Tolkien is Tom Bombadil, followed only by Bill the Pony) (Molly says: At least I never once drunkenly confessed my disappointment that “there is no mortal woman as luminous as Goldberry”). The final scene in RotK where an ancient Bilbo naps on the deck of the Elvish ship in the driving rain. The part at the end of RotK listed above where Gandalf looks right at you and asks if you have a little hobbit in you—the only thing missing is Pippin piping up to ask the viewer, with a sly wink, “well, would you like one?” The cheapness of Rankin/Bass in general, who apparently found it acceptable to use recycled animation like no one would notice.

Final Verdict: Though often silly and potentially confusing to those not familiar with the text, The Hobbit could be much worse. . . as evidenced by The Return of the King, which is simply wretched.

Jesse Bullington is the author of the novels The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart and the upcoming The Enterprise of Death, and his short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in ChiZine, Brain Harvest, Jabberwocky, and several anthologies, including Running with the Pack and The Best of All Flesh. He lives in Colorado and can be found online at www.jessebullington.com.
Molly Tanzer is the Assistant Editor of Fantasy Magazine. Her nonfiction has appeared in Herbivore Magazine, and her short story “In Sheep’s Clothing” is in Running with the Pack. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and two bad cats. You are welcome to visit her any time over at her blog.