By Bob Clark
The story of how J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings came to be adapted for animation is a strange one that begins from different directions, particularly different directions of American animation. While Rankin/Bass productions, even by then an institution best known for their stop-motion Christmas specials, got things rolling with a Japanese-crafted 1977 take on The Hobbit that got the essentials of the book into a slim 70 odd minutes, the first attempt of the Lord of the Rings tome proper would be begun by notorious rabble-rousing animator Ralph Bakshi. His film, covering about the first half of the trilogy, spanning Fellowship of the Ring to somewhere in the middle of The Two Towers, represented something of a transitional effort for the director, bridging his earlier efforts that concentrated on aggressively adult sex and violence (the R. Crumb adaptation of Fritz the Cat and the urban grime of Heavy Traffic and Coonskin) to increasingly lighter, more adventure-oriented fantasy works (the sci-fi Wizards, the Frank Frazetta inspired Fire and Ice) that would ultimately culminate in his return to television cartooningwith the brief Saturday Morning run of Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures (which kickstarted the careers of John Kircfalusi and Bruce Timm among others, but only before it was cancelled amid controversy for a cocaine gag).
The sheer range of Bakshi’s career demonstrates the wide attraction that Tolkien’s work can and has had on any number of filmmakers over the years (one wonders if Stanley Kubrick hadn’t decided the books were unfilmable int he 70’s whether he would’ve used those NASA lenses and recycled Napoleon material on Middle Earth instead of Barry Lyndon). In the case of Bakshi and the contrasting animation done on the Rankin/Bass Hobbit, the clash of different styles shows even further the different mixes any creative team can pull off from the same material. While Rankin and Bass’ animation mixes the best of their physical, posture-heavy stop-motion style with the expert hand-drawn artwork and economic pacing of Japanese anime (courtesy of Topcraft, the production house that would soon become Studio Ghibli), Bakshi offers a blend of heavy rotoscope and classic Americana cartooning techniques that is sometimes a surreal match for Tolkien’s text. It’s a style that he would go on to develop in his subsequent fantasy adventure films, which in some ways makes up for the fact that he didn’t get the chance to finish the story he’d started with the second half of The Lord of the Rings. In any case, it only makes the renewal of the Rankin/Bass style that much stronger and stranger when one views 1980’s The Return of the King: A Tale of the Hobbits, officially a sequel to their earlier effort and by now a de-facto climax to an unofficial trilogy.
Indeed, it’s stranger still that the pair would decide to adapt Tolkien’s prelude to his hallowed fantasy trilogy and its final installment, skipping over the majority of the text itself and all of the plot and character development it entails. It was with a bit of luck that their 90 minute special came so closely on the heels of Bakshi’s film, which more or less covered the material they’d jettisoned, thus providing a lot of the exposition you might expect in order to have any real emotional investment in the apocalyptic stakes of the Dark Lord Sauron’s invasion of Middle Earth and Frodo & Sam’s quest into Mordor to destroy the One Ring. Yet it’s to the film’s credit that it can be viewed without any real knowledge of the larger context of Tolkien’s work, or at the very least without any knowledge of anything besides their previous adaptation. Serving as a darker companion piece to the more innocent and carefree adventure of The Hobbit, Rankin and Bass’ Return of the King does a fine job of continuing the stylistic formula laid down in their initial work– that distinct blend of American cartoon and Japanese anime, and the oddly appropriate period flair of 70’s folk ballads to bridge one sequence to the next.
To find that same light, breezy style being used to tell the destruction-laden story of the tiny hobbits journeying to the volcanic hellscape of Mount Doom and mankind’s last stand against the forces of darkness at Minas Tirith carries a melancholic, poetic spirit that defies the expectations of the text, but feels appropriate nonetheless. Throughout the dark story we’re brought in and out of by the soft music and its accompanying visuals, often light illustrations of Frodo or Sam imagining a return to a simple Shire life, allowing this production to perhaps get closer to some of the themes that Tolkien obsessed over in his writing. We get little of the medieval martial obsessions that Peter Jackson would stretch out in his live-action films, where the quest to destroy the Ring often seemed little more than a formality amidst the foreground spectacle of the human, dwarf and elf kingdoms going to war against the forces of Mordor. Rankin, Bass and screenwriter Romeo Muller continue to emphasize the down-to-earth charm of the hobbits and their pull to modest country life– honest work, a loving family, good food and a nice smoke, and all that other hippie crap. Jackson’s films strain to focus on the heroism of fighting and warfare, but Rankin and Bass take care to show what’s worth fighting for in the first place.
Together they capture much the same English pastoral spirit that the studio’s Wind in the Willows animations would continue, and in a way bring the themes of Tolkien’s work into a context that could well be described as universal in the post-60’s American climate. Theirs is a homey, intimate picture of ordinary happiness, rather than the gratuitous caricature of country bumpkins, overly domesticated fussbudgets and Peter Rabbit inspired tomfoolery. Their treatment of the hobbit characters overall throughout the film stands out, particularly in how homely and physical they are portrayed throughout. Frodo and Sam may be rendered a little more cutely than Bilbo was in The Hobbit, but they’re still short, stout, pot-bellied and with faces lined by wrinkles and baggy eyes even in youth– a far cry from the prettified, almost bishounen faces of Elijah Wood and the like from the live action films. The halflings of the live-action films seem almost like a boy-band by comparison– in the hands of Rankin and Bass, we get real hobbits, whose weathered forms suggest a genuine connection with the earth and toil that’s harder to fake for real. It emphasizes just how centrally Frodo and Sam are placed in the foreground of importance, rather than being relegated to the B-Story in favor of the traditional action-heroics of Aragorn and his Dungeons and Dragons assortment of allies. Indeed, the King of the title barely figures into much of the film, coming in only at the last twenty minutes, mainly as a deus ex machina plot device that pointedly doesn’t really solve much of anything.
That’s not to say that battle and warfare are forgotten entirely in the accompanying portions of the film, although it’s certainly here where any casual fan of either Tolkien’s books or Jackson’s films will be able to tell just how much material is missing. Major characters like Theodyn and Eowyn get little more than walk-on roles, though the latter’s show-down with the Witch King of the Nazgul stands out as a high point. Rankin/Bass and the animators at Topcraft manage to imbue the character with a level of nobility and grace that helps justify the drama surrounding her reveal in ways that the 2003 film just couldn’t quite manage in the post-Xena age (let’s be honest, the character of the book herself doesn’t seem quite so novel even looking at her in a post-Wonder Woman age). That they’re able to sum her up this quickly as a kind of bishoujo Joan of Arc in just one scene is impressive, especially given that they match her up against a rendition of Tolkien’s supernatural Witch King that borders on the absurd– nothing but red glowing eyes underneath a ghostly levitating crown and barking a robotically shrill voice, he looks and sounds like a cross between Cobra Commander and one of the floating political icons from Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury (particularly George W. Bush in his Roman helmet phase).
Here and in other areas the Rankin/Bass production has a more pronounced American feel than their Hobbit did, carrying the same surreal, impossible-to-take-seriously flights of fancy that some of Saturday Morning cartoons (and looking forward to their own in the form of Thundercats). In particular the manner in which the monstrous threat of orcs, goblins and trolls are rendered falls a little childishly flat at times. On the one hand, they have a refreshingly monstrous design sensibility, most of them looking like a mating experiment between bulldogs, komodo dragons and the various minions of the Wicked Witch of the West from the Victor Fleming Wizard of Oz. They’re far from the dark-skinned, dreadlocked, hook-nosed cannibals from the live-action films that all too often looked like steroid-injected versions of the unfortunate racial caricatures that Tolkien drew from in his writing. The fact that Sauron’s human forces are portrayed as generic vikings rather than the swarthy, turban-wearing and tattooed “Men of the East” is just as welcome– even Mordor’s battle Oliphaunts are depicted here not as Indian war-elephants but as wooly mammoths, upping the fantasy ante and dodging another racialist bullet.
But for all the points gained by the genuinely inhuman design for the orcs, Rankin and Bass fumble in making them so short and generally unthreatening in comparison to the human forces they spend most of their time fighting. Perhaps it’s to put them closer to the hobbits and make the time spent menacing Frodo and Sam more grounded, and perhaps it’s just a hand-me-down element from the design of the previous film where goblins seemed to tower over Bilbo and the dwarves, but here it draws out much of the momentum from any of the short scenes we get of warfare and combat throughout. What drive there is mostly comes from the gravitas and energy derived from John Huston’s magesterial narration as Gandalf, and from the inventive illustration and design that the directors use to flesh out much of the human side of the story. In particular, Denethor’s presence impresses even in his one scene, rendered here less as an abusive tyrant and more as a man gone mad with the fear and trauma of perpetual warfare. At their best, the secondary plot of Gandalf and his human company fighting off the legions of Sauron serve to express a tug of war between light and darkness in the hearts of all mankind, and especially as a kind of outward embodiment of the war within Frodo himself as he bears the burden of the One Ring, weighed down by temptation and delusions of grandeur as he seeks to destroy it.
It’s here that the film’s emphasis on the Ring and ruthless streamlining of the rest of the story serves its ultimate purpose in essentially making the whole story, in one part or another, serve the personal relationship between Frodo, Sam and eventually Gollum. As each falls under the seduction and power of the Ring, the consequences of the story’s turns feel much more pronounced than they do in live-action, where again the excessive attention to the War of the Ring has the effect of sidelining the importance of the Ring itself. The hobbit’s actions ripple outward to the rest of the film’s events in this adaptation, influencing the tide of the battles in ways that emphasize the importance of these smallest of characters and their impact onto the world. The intimate feel that Rankin and Bass achieve manages to make much of the relentless focus on their journey toward Mt. Doom carry a sense of ultimate importance, and the rest is at times barely missed. Though it would’ve been wonderful to see what they and their teams of designers and animators could’ve done if they’d matched the ambition of recent times and attempted to adapt the entirety of Tolkien’s work, the fact that they manage to make the book-end parts of his magnum-opus so strong is enough to impress, at the very least.
In the end it’s probably the lyricism and poetry achieved as a result of the streamlining narrative restrictions that make the Rankin/Bass adaptations such a joy to watch. From the sweet, sad folksy tunes throughout to the lovingly drawn simplicity of some of its best sequences towards the end, as Frodo joins Gandalf, Bilbo and the Elves to depart from Middle Earth, there’s a nostalgic melancholy at work throughout this film that underlines the romantic take on Tolkien’s pastoral themes present here and in The Hobbit. Perhaps it’s for the best that so much of their treatment of war is imbued with the ridiculous, for how it allows us some of the adventure and fun of this sort of medieval epic while also letting out a little of its hot air, and keeping it from being taken seriously. Instead the time we spend with the hobbits, their hopes and dreams of an ordinary life and home and the toil inflicted upon them by their quest with the Ring, communicates a far more personally scaled story of genuine loss and sacrifice. The fact that we get this from mildly grotesque halflings that resemble slightly overgrown leprechauns underscores the importance of foregrounding the personal rather than the epic register, and the emphasized physicality of Rankin, Bass and Topcraft’s artwork adds an element of hardline physicality to the old, choppy cel animation. Amidst stuttering and repeating frames, there’s a feel of genuine fear, of characters shivering from pose to pose, something that even Weta’s seminal work on Andy Serkis’ digitally crafted Gollum performance can’t match. Even the way that the film is drawn and animated evokes the old-fashioned charm and simplicity that Tolkien’s themes abound.
Finally, the focus on the hobbits leads to a conclusion that in many ways manages to rescue the Lord of the Rings enterprise from the stilted manners of its author’s sometimes overabundantly dense text and that Jackson’s sometimes patronizing perspective in adapting it. On film, the world of Middle-Earth has a distinctly post-lapserian logic to it, with elves, dwarves and hobbits embodying many of the positive aspects of mankind while actual humans often are portrayed with little more than their faults. The coming Age of Man and the departure of magical beings from the world is viewed with trepidation at best and outright fear and loathing at worst, with only the nominal hope of a human race (or at least certain human races) united under the banner of an almighty King. Contrast this, then, to the generous way that Rankin, Bass and screenwriter Muller end their take on Tolkien’s story. As the elves and Bagginses ready to depart Undying Lands, Sam asks Gandalf if he thinks that there will be any place for hobbits like himself or Merry & Pippin in the new world of man, to which the old wizard immediately says yes. Hobbits are, in his words, the most akin to human beings of all the other creatures of Middle Earth, pointing out how each successive generation has turned out just a little bit taller than the last. “Ages from now, when your stories are still told, will be those humans who might well wonder, ‘Is there Hobbit in me?‘” says Huston’s Gandalf, and with a wry smile straight to the audience, “Is there?”. If there is, there’s hope for us yet.