Peter Jackson vs. Rankin/Bass
The producers at Rankin/Bass found themselves in an opportunistic pickle. On they went to other, tougher choices, alas! making some pretty poor ones; but also making some right moves along the way. 

Analysis by Greg Wright


THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING
MONTHLY FEATURE: JUNE 2002

Peter Jackson vs. Rankin/Bass  

This page was created on June 14, 2002
This page was last updated on May 31, 2005

Peter Jackson vs. Rankin/Bass
What was Rankin/Bass thinking?

In 1979, the thinking world was stunned by the free-TV premier of the Rankin/Bass production of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Return of the King. Of course, Rankin/Bass had been regularly stunning the sensibilities of folk everywhere since the fifties, establishing a niche market in stop-motion animated holiday specials such as The Little Drummer Boy, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman. Just about any Boomer you meet can hum a few bars of one or more kitsch-tune classics spawned by the musical side of their productions. The studio had even managed to mount a couple of theatrical releases, and, earlier in the seventies, had produced the only adaptation of The Hobbit yet "filmed."
What was particularly stunning about their latest production was that it made very little attempt to cover for the fact that it began the story of The Lord of the Rings with the Muster of Rohan, and with Frodo already captured by the Orcs at Cirith Ungol. Worse, the adaptation tried to get away with this narrative affront through the device of "The Minstrel of Gondor," warblingly vocalized by Glen Yarborough. This invented minstrel opens the show with a rendering (did I mean to say rendition?) of the Lay of "Frodo of the Nine Fingers," sung as part of a further-invented birthday party for Bilbo at Rivendell sometime after the War of the Ring. Considering that the running time of the Rankin/Bass Return is 97 minutes, better than half of which is consumed by further Glen-warbling, it is rather shocking that the adaptation had the gall of inventing this scene at the expense of chopping so many others. On top if it all, the program got so many stinking things—like their visualization of the Ringwraiths—flat-out wrong.
So why the attempt? 

In 1978, the first installment of Ralph Bakshi's proposed two-part animated adaptation of The Lord of Rings hit the theaters: hit, and pretty much dropped to the ground. While warmly received by many Tolkien fans, the quality of the animation was spotty, and the film won neither the critical nor popular support needed to warrant financing the second installment. (To some degree, this turn of events motivated Jackson's insistence that all three episodes of the current effort be filmed simultaneously.) It quickly became apparent within the industry that the Bakshi saga would be left incomplete. Into the void stepped Rankin/Bass.
So the producers at Rankin/Bass found themselves in an opportunistic pickle. How could they take advantage of this licensing opportunity from Saul Zaentz, and still end up with a viable product? After all, Bakshi's version had complicated matters by adapting one-and-a-half of Tolkien's three volumes, covering half of the material in The Two Towers. The easy option would be to pick up the Gondor/Rohan narrative where Bakshi left off, and match up the Frodo/Sam narrative accordingly. And with this tough decision having been made, on they went to other, tougher choices, alas! making some pretty poor ones; but also making some right moves along the way.

The Rankin/Bass Visuals

One of the happier aspects of the Rankin/Bass production is the background animation. While the character drawings and most of the foreground action is awkward (galloping horses), goofy (teeny-headed women), and even downright insulting (say, the wraiths), the land- and cityscapes (such as Gondor itself) come very close to the style of Tolkien's own watercolors of Middle-earth, and remain faithful to the details of the author's minutely descriptive prose. In this regard, the production fares about as well as any, perhaps even surpassing Peter Jackson's.

The Rankin/Bass Spirituality

Opinion may be widely divided about the production's choices in this regard, but one thing must be remembered: The Return of the King, as produced by Rankin/Bass, was squarely targeted for children's entertainment. Tolkien's book was written for adult tastes and sensibilities; and while he might have argued that writing specifically for children is an artistically offensive endeavor, he was very much clear that the darkness of The Lord of the Rings would find a difficult audience even an the adult market.

So the Rankin/Bass production first brings the moral dilemmas into crisp, bright focus, primarily through songs such as "It's So Easy Not to Try," and "Less Can Be More." Where the good and bad in Tolkien's world can often be murky, the lines are clearly drawn for Rankin/Bass. The child in the audience will have no trouble drawing lessons about resisting temptation, seeing a job through to completion, or being a faithful friend.

More controversially, God is introduced explicitly into the dialog. More than once, when a particularly disastrous event occurs, Sam calls out, "God help us!" This is a far cry from Tolkien's ecstatic utterances in Elvish to Elbereth, bringing the monotheistic underpinning of Tolkien's mythology squarely to the fore. Again, this is for the children, and perhaps a recommendation for parents concerned about the spiritual dimensions of Middle-earth in general, and other adaptations in particular.

So how do Jackson and Rankin/Bass compare?

Unfortunately, this is an Apples-to-Oranges comparison which Rankin/Bass still loses. To be perfectly fair, the two can't be compared; but to the extent that Jackson meets the expectations of his audience, and to the extent that Rankin/Bass met theirs, Jackson wins hands down. Still, if a parent is seeking a way to introduce children to Tolkien without exposing them to the relentlessly graphic evil of The Fellowship of the Ring, or if the children simply must be placated with something, there are worse choices than The Return of the King. In terms of the moral and spiritual lessons to be learned from children's entertainment, it's pretty tough to beat.

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