With The War of the Rohirrim set to open in theaters this December, The Lord of the Rings will soon be returning to the big screen for the first time in a decade. The new film is another prequel, like how the Hobbit trilogy was, except this story is focused on the ninth King of Rohan, Helm Hammerhand (voiced by Brian Cox), several hundred years prior to the events of The Lord of the Rings. While it is set within the same continuity as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, there is one key aspect of The War of the Rohirrim that sets it apart: it’s an animated film.
While it may be a shock to some that a franchise as major as The Lord of the Rings would make its grand return with an animated feature, the growing popularity of animation – specifically with films like Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse and The Boy and the Heron – makes now a perfect time to attempt this kind of movie.
However, it’s also not the first time that there has been a major Lord of the Rings animated movie. In actuality, it’s the fourth. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, there were a handful of animated movies based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Some of them were great, while others left more than a little to be desired. As we get ready for the release of The War of the Rohirrim, we’ve decided to revisit these films and rank them from worst to best. Here’s how they stack up:
3 The Return of the King (1980)
The animated version of The Return of the King from 1980 is one of the most forgotten adaptations of Tolkien’s writing. The film was created as a television special, which aired on ABC, and it followed an adaptation of The Hobbit, which was released in the same manner a few years earlier. It was a co-production between Rankin/Bass, which had produced animated holiday classics like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, and the Japanese studio Topcraft, which would go on to produce Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and be instrumental in the formation of Studio Ghibli. It did not receive any particular love or praise upon its release, and it has only become less and less popular in the decades since.
What Makes It the Worst Lord of the Rings Film
The key reason for the lack of longstanding interest in The Return of the King is that it’s just a flat-out terrible Tolkien adaptation. The film adapts just the final book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, skipping over, summarizing or altogether removing essentially everything from the first two books. It throws the viewer right into the middle of the story, and many of the best characters (such as Legolas and Gimli) have been cut entirely. Even Aragorn, the titular king in the film’s name, doesn’t show up until the last 15 minutes – the film itself is nearly 100 minutes long.
There’s no magic to the Rankin/Bass Return of the King. Anyone unfamiliar with the story will be completely lost when watching it, while anyone who has read the book or even just watched Peter Jackson’s version will be utterly disappointed with how it has been brought to life in this version.
Stream on Internet Archive
2 The Hobbit (1977)
Preceding The Return of the King by a few years was The Hobbit, the first adaptation of Tolkien’s work that was undertaken by Rankin/Bass and Topcraft. Unlike The Return of the King, this adaptation actually tells the entirety of the story it’s based on. The film follows Bilbo Baggins through his recruitment by the wizard Gandalf, his subsequent adventure with the Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain, his competition of riddles with the creature Gollum, and his ultimate confrontation with the dragon Smaug. However, at just 78 minutes long, each of these elements are reduced to their bare essentials, making this version of The Hobbit feel more akin to a general summation than a faithful adaptation.
The Hobbit was a Better Fit for the Rankin/Bass Style
Although it does not bear any of the signature heart or sense of adventure that makes Tolkien’s stories so great, the Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit is mostly harmless. The animation with Topcraft is actually pretty solid for a television special, with real attention to detail shown when designing the various creatures and landscapes of Middle-Earth.
Its brevity, while it may take away from the depth of many scenes, is also a benefit, as it makes the film a breeze to watch. It’s not the kind of film that should be someone’s introduction to Tolkien, but it’s certainly worth a watch if you’re already a fan, if not just to see how far the series has come.
Stream on Max
1 The Lord of the Rings (1978)
the lord of the rings
- Release Date
- November 15, 1978
- Ralph Bakshi
- Christopher Guard , William Squire , Michael Scholes , John Hurt , Simon Chandler , Dominic Guard
Finally, the last animated film we have to talk about is 1978’s The Lord of the Rings, directed by Ralph Bakshi. This film is notably different from the two Rankin/Bass adaptations, as it was a production by United Artists that was given a full theatrical release, rather than being a television special. The film adapts a majority of the first two Lord of the Rings books – The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers – giving specific highlights to many of the best moments found within them. Like 1977’s The Hobbit, it is fairly rushed in its storytelling, but overall, this adaptation goes over a lot smoother than the previous two on this list. A sequel that would’ve covered the rest of the story from The Return of the King was planned, though the critical and box office disappointment of the film led to its cancelation.
Ralph Bakshi Brought His Own Flavor to Tolkien’s Legend
What really sets Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings apart from the Rankin/Bass adaptations is that there is a clear creative vision driving the whole thing. Bakshi’s passion for Tolkien’s work is evident throughout the entire film, and he was experimenting within the medium of animation as well. Specifically, the film makes use of rotoscoping – where live-action material is shot and then animated over – throughout many of its action sequences. It also features a solid cast, with notable inclusions such as John Hurt as Aragorn and Anthony Daniels as Legolas.
The film does a great job of capturing and translating the overall atmosphere of Tolkien’s writing, as it can be somewhat scary when it needs to be while still maintaining the overall adventurous tone. Not everything in the film goes over great – the Balrog, specifically, is pretty rough to watch – but it’s easy to see Bakshi was at least trying to do something with the material. It’s far from a perfect film, but it’s easily the best animated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings to date, and its willingness to take big swings with its presentation and adaptation of the material makes it more than deserving of the cult following it has developed.
Rent on Apple TV