The Return of the King is the final animated adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s work. Since Ralph Bakshi was overwhelmed by the response to his incomplete version of The Lord of the Rings, Rankin/Bass jumped at the opportunity to finish it. Sadly, The Return of the King was very much a sequel to The Hobbit (that’s not confusing at all). A Best Picture winner of 11 Academy Awards this is not. Since the TV special was every bit the crudely animated unnecessary musical that The Hobbit was. Scenes from the 1977 film are used along with Orson Bean voicing both Bilbo and Frodo.
The 1980 film actually starts with elderly Bilbo celebrating his birthday after the One Ring was already destroyed. A very annoying minstrel sings the story of Frodo and his nine fingers. We pick up right where The Two Towers ended, but neither Bashki, nor Rankin/Bass depicted Frodo’s encounter with Shelob. Instead Frodo is already kidnapped by overly cartoony orcs. Leaving a fairly dignified Sam to come to Frodo’s aid. It really feels like a Hobbit sequel based on how much attention is given to the hobbits in comparison to everyone else.
Despite the title, Aragorn is barely in the movie to return as the king of Gondor. Legolas and Gimli are surprisingly never seen. Arwen is still absent, but at least Eowyn gets her female empowerment moment. The Battle of Minas Tirith is vaguely intense with Gandalf, Pippin, and eventually Merry fighting off orcs. It’s just Frodo and Sam avoiding Sauron’s eye atop Mount Doom that takes up most of the 1 hour & 38 minute runtime. The green Gollum from The Hobbit attacks Frodo, but his accidental destruction of the Ring is due to clumsiness. Frodo then departs to the Grey Havens in an ending with almost no weight to any of it. The Return of the King tries its best, but thankfully Peter Jackson came along to make the story a masterpiece.