Yakmala Rewind: The Return of the King

Any excuse I can find to post this will be used whenever possible, but for today, I present it almost in context:

In the late 70s, Rakin-Bass, producers of the stop-motion “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” specials turned back to animation with their adaptation of “The Hobbit.” True to the book, it features songs. Many, many songs. It follows the overall plot of the book, but omits a great deal. Beorn is completely excised, for example.

Following “The Hobbit,” maverick animator Ralph Bakshi produced a feature version of “The Lord of the Rings” that I’ll talk about another time. It’s relevant here because that feature omits the final third of the story. When that movie floundered, Rakin-Bass picked up the opportunity to conclude the story in its own song-filled way.

The film begins in Rivendell on the 129nd birthday of Bilbo Baggins. In between his constant naps, Bilbo notes his nephew Frodo is missing a finger. The old Hobbit also wishes to know what became of his magic ring. Before Frodo can begin his tale, Gandalf summons forth that most horrible of beasts, Glen Yarbrough, aka: The Minstrel of Gondor.

Tolkien nerds might notice the Minstrel’s preamble claims “The Hobbit” took place during the First Age of Middle-Earth, when Morgoth, a power more greater than Sauron, ravaged the land on a SPIDER THE SIZE OF A VEGAS CASINO.

But I digress.

Following the first half of the song, Gandalf tells us evil waved over the land “like a festering malignancy” and that Aragorn, the rightful king of Gondor, could not reclaim the throne until the Ring was destroyed. There’s some more singing. Finally, we are introduced to Frodo and Sam as they appear to be escaping from Shelob’s lair. I say “appear” because the only mention Gandalf makes of anything prior to “The Return of King” is this: “Frodo and Sam had many brave adventures.” Tolkien nerd note: Shelob is the daughter of that Giant Spider Morgoth rode around on.

Frodo is captured near the tower of Cirith Ungol and the second half of “Frodo of the Nine Fingers” plays. The Minstrel is back this time by the Gorgoroth Valley Orcs Choir.

Then we get to the credits, accompanied by another Minstrel composition, “It’s So Easy Not to Try.” Sadly, YouTube does not provide this song by itself.

The film resumes in Mordor with Sam trying to push his way into Cirith Ungol. Eventually, he finds the Ring and Sting, Bilbo’s dagger which he handed to Frodo during one of the lads “many brave adventures.”

I just want to note pronunciation here. As Tolkien nerds and Peter Jackson know, “C” is a hard sound in Tolkien’s language. Therefore, Cirith is pronounced “Kirith.” Well, not in this version. Here, the C is soft, so the tower is referred to as “Sirith Ungol.” There are many fun mistakes like this in the film. Sauron is pronounced at various times as “Sorrin” and “Soar-on.” Minas Tirith is pronounced “Minus Terith.” It’s a smal detail that will only perturb Tolkien nerds like myself, but it also indication an inattention to details. I mention this because the film also has absurdly minute visual accuracies like Aragorn’s winged crown and the White Ship.

Granted, it’s not a inattentive as the “Auroman/Saruman” mix up in the Bakshi film.

Again, I digress.

With the Ring in hand, Sam embarks on a musical version of “The Choices of Master Samwise,” which introduces another Minstrel Classic, “The Bearer of the Ring”:

This is immediately followed by Sam reconsidering conquest for farming and the song, “Less Can Be More.”

Did I mention we’re twenty-five minutes into this?

Sam finds a way into Sirith Ungol and rescues him from the two or three remaining Orcs in the tower. The rest killed one another. A brief reprise of “The Bear of the Ring” occurs when Sam gives the Ring back Frodo. Dressing as Orcs, the pair escape into the Gorgoroth Valley, er … “The Vale of the Gor-o-goroth,” where they come into contact with with a pack of musical Orcs from the top of the post. While they sing, Sam finds a way to escape.

Oh, meanwhile, Gandalf and Pippin defend Minus Tirith from a force of Orcs, Trolls, and the Nazgul: “Soar-on’s Phantom Lieutenants.” They await Merry and friendly reinforcements from the neighboring kingdom of Rohan, which Gandalf calls “Rowan.”

After escaping the Orcs, Frodo and Sam hide in a hole and another Minstrel track plays, “Leave Tomorrow Till It Comes”:

Back at Minus Tirith, plenty has happened. The Orc battering ram, Grond, has smashed the gates of the city and Gandalf stood forth against the Lord of the Nazgul, who is, sadly, never identified as The Witch King of Angmar. When it looks bleak, the Rohirrim arrive. Not that they’re ever identified as such, mind. The Nazgul leaves the scene and the battle resumes. Tolkien note: Grond was also the name of Morgoth’s mace, which he wore when riding the GIANT SPIDER who would give birth to Shelob.

Frodo and Sam continue their trek across the valley. There may be more singing at this point, but it’s probably a reprise of one of the other songs.

I forgot to mention the hilarious cameo by Denethor, Steward of Gondor. He’s portrayed as googly-eyed crazy as opposed to John Noble’s grief-stricken crazy in the Jackson film. He kills himself because he’s looked into the Palantir and seen a black fleet approaching Minus Tirith. I mention this now because the black fleet arrives to the delight of the Orcs. It’s short-lived because the fleet raises the standard of Aragorn. It’s one of the few effective things in the film. This is the first time you get a good look at Aragorn and he arrives as a savior. With the Orcs repelled, Gandalf and Aragorn debate the next course of action. Aragorn decides to ride out and meet Soar-on’s main force at the Black Gate, which is identified as “The Towers of the Teeth” in the film.

And you best believe their be song involved in this one. This one is almost as good as “When There’s a Whip.”

One interesting thing is how unrelated to the plot Aragorn seems. He’s just another man who does not believe in the Ring’s trickery. Instead of creating a diversion, this Aragorn intends to fight Sorrin to the last orc.

Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam find Gollum has followed them from their “Many Brave Adventures.” The tussle on the side of Mt. Doom. Sam corners the foul creature, giving Frodo a chance to run into the Crack of Doom. (Snicker now and get it over with) The Crack of Doom does get it’s own song, but no one on YouTube has posted it by itself. At the Crack, Frodo goes cuckoo-bananas and chooses to keep the Ring for himself. The “Bearer of the Ring” reprise from the earlier video is part of this scene.

Sam follows Frodo deeper into the crack where he finds Gollum fighting the invisible Frodo. Gollum bites off Frodo’s finger while “Frodo of the Nine Fingers” reprises and dances with join into the firey depths from whence the Ring came. Surprisingly, Gollum does not get a song of his own while plummeting to his death.

With the Ring destroyed and Soar-on defeated, Frodo and Sam are carried upon the Eagles to Minas Tirith where he sees the coronation of Aragorn. Yes, there’s a song, which folds back into “Frodo of the Nine Fingers.”

Following this, Bilbo announces he is leaving Middle-Earth with Gandalf and Elrond. Frodo asks if he can come and, oh, just watch the rest for yourself, there’s more song:

If you watch the video, riding in behind Aragorn is Eowyn and … Faramir? Eormer? The shots make it seem like he’s important, but this person does not appear in the film previous to these moments. Eowyn, for her part, does defeat the Lord of the Nazgul in our only clip from the film not to feature song, but instead a conflict of idioms:

While there are MANY, MANY more songs in the Professor’s work, the Rankin-Bass version of “The Return of the King” illustrates the folly in trying to include that material in a film version. There’s already so much material to cover that focusing on song means something gets left behind. That something is Faramir, Eomer, Gimli, Legolas, Arwen, Galadriel, the Scouring of the Shire, Saruman and Grim Wormtongue … I could go on. Even the non-musical material presented gets the short-end. The characters are fairly flat and despite Gandalf’s great voice, he’s kind of a tool. Aragorn is a shadow of the character the Professor presents.

And despite all the time we spend with Sam and Frodo, do we really ever care if they do what they set out to do?

“The Return of the King” is a tough ending in any form. Peter Jackson’s version seems to go on with three extra hours of curtain calls. Tolkien’s introduces a new plot with the Hobbits having to free their homeland before a long period of rest followed by the goodbyes at the Grey Havens. That said, neither of those presentations has Sauron/Sorrin/Soar-on defeated through song.

About Erik

Erik Amaya is the host of Tread Perilously and the former Head Film/TV writer at Bleeding Cool. He has also contributed to sites like CBR, Comics Alliance and Fanbase Press. He is also the voice of Puppet Tommy on "The Room Responds."
This entry was posted in Projected Pixels and Emulsion and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Yakmala Rewind: The Return of the King

  1. Clint says:

    This post has caused me to ponder that Peter Jackson decided to put the GIANT SPIDER in Act II. Take that, Jon Peters!

    Or does the third movie of a trilogy count as Act III?

    • Erik says:

      It’s act 3.1, which is more structure than the professor gives it. The GIANT SPIDER occurs late in The Two Towers novel.

  2. Clint says:

    Right, I was just speaking from a cinematic perspective, seeing as the GIANT SPIDER is the deadliest killer in the insect kingdom[sic]. Considering how long RotK ended up being I almost think it was a mistake not to hold to the books and put the Shelob sequence in Two Towers instead.

    Oddly, RotK is by far the shortest of the books if I remember correctly, with most of its bulk taken up by world building appendices rather than narrative.

  3. Erik says:

    The problem is having the Shelob chase right after the Battle of Helm’s Deep makes “The Two Towers” lopsided as a film. Granted, the material Jackson’s team cooked up to replace it isn’t all that great. Faramir’s arc pretty much comes down to Sam’s speech about stories. This is an underlying structural problem that only becomes apparent when trying to dramatize “The Lord of the Rings.”

    I suppose one solution is to use the Shelob chase as a Bond-style opening set piece for movie three.

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