THE RETURN OF THE KING (1980) is an attempt by Rankin/Bass to finish up J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings story in animation (begun with their version of THE HOBBIT and left unfinished with Ralph Bakshi's THE LORD OF THE RINGS two years before). It is a valiant attempt, and fairly entertaining, but will likely leave fans of the story disappointed and leave newcomers utterly confused.
The story concerns mainly the third book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, with the first two books (mostly) being covered in Bakshi's film. The story up to this point is quickly recapped in a prologue and song -- we learn that Bilbo's nephew Frodo Baggins has inherited the ring discovered in THE HOBBIT and has learned from Gandalf of its origins and evil powers. Frodo and his companions begin a quest to destroy the ring (by returning it to the land of Mordor and dropping it into the fires from which it was forged). The evil wizard Sauron wants to recover the ring so he can rule Middle Earth. Consequently, he has sent his minions (such as Orcs and Ring Wraiths) to stop the hobbits and their allies.
Actually, most of that is the plot of Bakshi's movie. THE RETURN OF THE KING focuses on the last stretch of Frodo's quest and the final battle between the forces of good and evil.
The film has several flaws, but probably the most glaring one is the fact that it seems to assume that you have not seen (or read) the beginning to the LORD OF THE RINGS story... yet it also doesn't want to take the time to explain it very well. So, instead, the story is constantly presenting inadequate, two-minute summarizations for hundreds of pages of text, and then launching you right into the final action pieces. There are many jarring transitions in the movie that will make little to no sense to anyone who is not all ready familiar with the plot. And, of course, the plot of the novel has been extremely simplified, so even fans of the story are likely to be frustrated.
But, even with its story flaws, I'm glad that the film was made, as it is a chance to revisit some of my favorite characters from the superior animated edition of THE HOBBIT. The original voice talent returned (and even added Roddy McDowall as Samwise, who is wonderful as always) and the animation is of the same quality. The music isn't as good, but is also strangely appealing -- every time I watch the movie, I get "Where There's a Whip, There's a Way" stuck in my head for weeks. It makes a fun conclusion to these entertaining (but certainly flawed) animated adaptations of Tolkien's work.
I only wish that Rankin/Bass had ignored Bakshi's version and done the entire LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. That could have at least made the films more consistent in tone and style. And could have also avoided the script issues that this final installment seems to have when trying to tell over a thousand pages of plot in 98 minutes -- and still have time for musical numbers.
RETURN OF THE KING is presented full-frame (1.33:1), the proper aspect ratio for a television production. Much like THE HOBBIT, colors are pretty well represented -- bright and crisp. There are a few brief sequences where the picture appears momentarily soft or damaged, but it is only a minor distraction. I noticed no digital artifacts and only a slight amount of noise in the picture. Overall, it's an improvement over the previous VHS editions, but not any sort of major restoration.
The audio on the DVD is presented in the original mono. The sound betrays its made-for-TV nature by having an extremely limited dynamic range, but it is always clear. Musical sequences have a bit more life to them, but also lack any sense of depth. Dialog is well presented and always easy to understand.
Aside from the usual cast and crew page and a couple of screens of fairly useless trivia, there are no extras on this DVD. Subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.
I have a soft spot in my heart for this film, but it is mainly because of fond childhood memories. Many things that I enjoy about THE HOBBIT still hold true for this installment -- the animation style, the music, the voice talent. But I get the sense that with this final film, they may have bitten off more than they could chew from a script perspective. The story is confusing, muddled, and more simplified than even the adaptation of THE HOBBIT was. Still, it manages to be fairly entertaining. I can recommend the DVD to fans of the film (like me) who enjoy watching it from time to time... you will be satisfied (but, again, not amazed) at the picture and sound quality. Everyone else should probably proceed with caution and consider renting before buying, although the price is cheap enough that it may be worth a gamble. Recommended (with caveats).