Animated Middle-Earth – The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and Return of the King

Posted: February 14, 2012 in FILM REVIEWS/COMMENTS
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I was introduced to Lord of the Rings mainly because of curiosity of  a jigsaw with a bearded man that later found out was Gandalf.
Later as a boy the 1978 animated movie stuck with me mainly because of its creepy Rotoscope figures, I’d never been a huge fan John Ronald Reuel Tolkien or one of those that reads his work at least every year, I’m certainly not a Middle-earth guru either, but I love fantasy and the genre is usually tied to Tolkien in some way.
On first viewing of the long awaited film adaptation Fellowship of the Ring brought to life by Peter Jackson, I was initially disheartened, I thought it was a watered down version of the book and a bloated movie that could have been edited to tighter 90 minutes in a zipping ride, a digestible chunk of entertainment. How wrong I was, I should have applauded Fellowship. On revisiting film along with The Two Towers and Return of the King, I’ve grown to appreciate them more and more with each viewing, not only for the genius usage of every film technique in the book but for their ability to take you away to another time and place.  The extended versions offer an epic saga – it’s perfect escapism.
*With a film adaptation Hobbit imminent it seems fitting to revisit Middle-Earth not for the celebrated Award Winning Jackson visions but to share a few everyday man’s  thoughts on the animated versions of Tolkien’s work, the ones that got away.
*[Edited 2016]  Bilbo journey, The Hobbit trilogy, while financially a success were not as well received. Nevertheless like their predecessors the extended versions are much more rounded and are fitting companion pieces to the prequels connecting the two trilogies.
The Hobbit (1977) (TV)
Prompted by Gandalf the Wizard, Bilbo the ‘burglar’ reluctantly goes on an adventure to aid a band of dwarfs get back their treasure from a dragon.
Naturally this 1977 incarnation is of its time and suffers from the trappings of made for TV animation. It’s look is that of a pre-cursor ‘Flight of the Dragons’ (1982). It’s hard to believe it budget was 3 million.
The pace is slow, while it feels close to the book its a shame the makers didn’t read the other Rings books to realise that Gollum was once a Hobbit. The Hobbit boasts John Huston’s talent as Gandalf and Brother Theodore painfully voices the lethargic Gollum who both return of The Return of the King (1980).
While clearly made for children it’s 70’s colour scheme, animation gives it an unintentional eerie quality and tone. The music and songs certainly capture the spirit of The Hobbit book but the folk-ballad soundtrack quickly becomes arguably  tiresome.
It’s not as stylistic or as interesting Lord of the Rings (1978) and while it doesn’t follow The Hobbit to the letter Tolkien fans may enjoy this a little more than the casual viewer or young child.
The Lord of the Rings (1978)
Frodo and friends embark on a journey to destroy the One Ring and end Sauron’s reign over Middle Earth.
Ralph Bakshi brings Middle-Earth to life in this 1978 adaptation which still retains an eerie quality that spooked me as a child thanks to its usage of Rotoscope. Costing 4 million The Lord of the Rings is a little more slicker than its unlinked Rankin/ Bass’ 3 million budgeted predecessor The Hobbit (1977). In addition, Gollum is realised better in this incarnation.

Even back then John Hurts voice would have been suited for Gandalf more than Aragorn, that said, the voices are all cast well including Anthony Daniels as Legolas and the production tries it’s best to stay true to the source material. Despite errors with names (notably Saruman being referred to as Aruman at times), the pacing being a little off, the animation/art far from perfect and an abrupt ending there’s adequate entertainment to be found. While it’s a long slog for the causal viewer and too dark for young children there’s something charming about the production.

For the most part The Lord of the Rings is enjoyable thanks to its elusive atmospheric tone and made memorable due to its ethereal visuals.

The Return of the King (1980) (TV)
Two Hobbits struggle to destroy the Ring while their friends desperately Sauron’s forces in a final battle.
In amongst an over complicated exposition opening accompanied by some folk music Return of the King is a direct sequel to The Hobbit (1977) which loosely follows the Lord of The Rings (1978) – all complicated stuff. Between these three animated features they haphazardly form Hobbit through to The Return of the King.
The animation and artistry has improved since the 1977 outing but the pacing is choppy. There’s some great background plates and swordplay even if a bit skimmed over and brief. There’s flashbacks, dreams and visions that are unnecessary, adding nothing to the already wishy-washy narrative.
Roddy McDowall is the perfect voice of Samwise Gamgee and a great talent. John Huston’s Gandalf (voice) serves for the most part as narrator purely for exposition. Gollum voice is once again Brother Theodore.
Ultimately, it’s all a little jumbled. There’s lots missing as you’d expect for screen adaptation, but music at times doesn’t fit and harks back to the The Hobbit’s hippie/folk music which would be fine if it fit the on screen going-ons. Also if the great dramatic score wasn’t included it may have faired better being one or the other.
Overall, like it’s predecessor and source material it’s a little to dark for young children, nevertheless, it’s good introduction to Tolkien even if somewhat disjointed.
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