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History of the Animated Middle Earth Movies

This is a topic I have wanted to cover ever since my original video essay “3 Reasons The Hobbit (1977) is better than the Peter Jackson Trilogy” was released. Since then I also released video essays on The Lord Of The Rings (1978) by Ralph Bakshi and The Return Of The King (1980) by Rankin/Bass. With the release of these video essays, I have seen an increase in the confusion of these animated middle earth movies and numerous questions have been popping up in my comment section. What is the chronological order? Are they all canon? Do they tell a congruent and continuous story? These are all questions I have read in my comment section and I hope to answer them all in this article.

You can read the full history below.

Explaining The Animated Middle Earth Movies

History of the animated middle earth movies

So this is a video I have been wanting to make ever since my very first video essay on the Rankin/Bass release of The Hobbit. Since then I have released videos on both Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord Of The Rings and Rankin/Bass second Middle Earth film  The Return of The King. However, many seemed confused about how these films all fit together. 

What is the chronological order? Are they all canon? Do they tell a congruent and continuous story? These are all questions I have read in my comment section and I hope to answer them all in this video as we EXPLAIN THE ANIMATED MIDDLE EARTH MOVIES.

The Hobbit (1977)

Our adventure begins in 1977 with the release of Rankin/Bass adaptation of The Hobbit which was of course written by English author J. R. R. Tolkien. Rankin/Bass Animated Entertainment was an American production company known primarily for their seasonal television specials such as Rudolph The red nosed reindeer and the little drummer boy. Rankin/Bass’ traditionally animated films were often edited by Japanese companies, and the hobbit was no different, being animated by Topcraft, a precursor to studio ghibli. While Topcraft produced the animation overseas, the concept artwork was completed at the Rankin/Bass studio in New York under the direction of Arthur Rankin.  The film was produced and directed by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass and was adapted for the screen by Romeo Muller, who had worked on several other Rankin/Bass productions.

Sticking to the source material written by J. R. R. Tolkien was incredibly important to the team. Rankin loved the Tolkien works and decided that not a single thing was to be added to the story. Jules Bass primarily adapted Tolkien’s original lyrics for the film’s musical interludes, drawn primarily from the songs that feature prominently in the novel. Maury Laus was called in to assist with the composition of the film one original soundtrack The Greatest Adventure (The Ballad of the Hobbit). The song was sung by Glenn Yarbrough and reprised it for the film’s sequel “The Return Of The King.” But we will get to that soon enough. If there is one thing that you take away from this video, please let it be this…. LISTEN TO THIS SOUNDTRACK! It is amazing and easily one of my favorite movie soundtracks of all time.

The film itself of course followed the titular Hobbit Bilbo Baggins as he is recruited by a band of dwarves and travels across middle earth. The movie captures the wonder and magic of the original novel and the most noticeable departures to the story was the compression of some scenes and the complete removal of others due to the time limitations of a television feature. The adventuress hero, Bilbo Baggins, is voiced by Orson Bean and is accompanied by noted Hollywood director and actor John Huston as the voice of Gandalf. 

The animated movie was received with mixed reviews surprisingly with the biggest point of contention being the animation. Reviewers and critics alike both praised and criticized it. Some reviewers regard it as a strong point of the film and praised TopCrafts unique designs, but that is in turn what many reviewers didn’t like… The drastic departure in designs. From Gollums froglike appearance, green-skinned and grotesque Wood-elves, an incredibly hairy Smaug all became reasons to dislike the film… Even something as simple as Gandalfs hat being traded for a hood was seen as non-sensical. These points continue to divide fans to this day. 

I for one loved the new and unique designs and continually praised them in my original Hobbit video, but I do understand the annoyance of having an adaptation make such drastic changes to the appearances of beloved characters.

But the arguments between critics did not end there. The story and plot continued further arguments and infighting in the community. Tolkien scholar Douglas A. Anderson described the film as “execrable”… which I had to Google – and it means “extremely bad or unpleasant”. A few critics said it was confusing for those not already familiar with the plot, whereas some Tolkien fans questioned the appropriateness of repackaging the material as a family film for a very young audience. Many other critics praised the film’s ability to adapt the story into a TV movie and enjoyed its simple yet effective take on the novel. In 1978, Romeo Muller won a Peabody Award for his teleplay for The Hobbit. The film was also nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation but lost to Star Wars. Before The Hobbit aired on NBC, Rankin/Bass and its partner animation houses were preparing a sequel. But something else was appearing along the horizon…

The Lord of The Rings (1978)

In 1978, Ralph Bakshi released his adaptation of the J.R.R.Tolkien classic The Lord Of The Rings! The Lord Of the rings had been stated to be a book series that would be impossible to adapt to screen. But even since 1969, a potential movie had been in development. An infamous dropped draft of the film was set to cast the Beatles in prominent roles. Even directors David Lean and Stanley Kubrick were approached to direct the film. The latter said that an adaptation would be unfilmable. John Boorman was also approached to write a script for the adaptation.

In 1975, Bakshi convinced United Artists to produce The Lord of the Rings as two or three animated films, as well as a Hobbit prequel. Work began on scripts and storyboards. But a series of conflicts, drama, and firings resulted in Bakshi developing the script himself. Bakshi was passionate about Tolkien’s work and has stated “My promise to Tolkien’s daughter was to be pure to the book. I wasn’t going to say, ‘Hey, throw out Gollum and change these two characters.’ My job was to say, ‘This is what the genius said.”

However, scripting The Lord Of The Rings was not an easy process and many drafts were written, and many scriptwriters were brought in before settling with Peter S. Beagles script for the movie. 

My favorite draft was the film that was ultimately cut was written by Chris Conkling and told the bulk of the story in flashback, from Merry Brandybuck’s point of view. It would then lead directly into the sequel in real-time, and I think that would have been quite an exciting way to bring the two films together. This draft also included Tom Bombadil, who, even after Peter Jackson’s films, continues to, unfortunately, be omitted from any adaptation.

Like most of Bakshi’s films, Rotoscoping was used. This is an animation technique where live-action footage is filmed and then animated over. Publicity for the film announced that Bakshi had created “the first movie painting” by utilizing “an entirely new technique in filmmaking”. This new form of animation saved the production costs and gave the animated characters a more realistic look and more realistic movements. Marea Boylan writes that “up to that point, animated films had not depicted extensive battle scenes with hundreds of characters. By using the rotoscope, Bakshi could trace highly complex scenes from live-action footage and transform them into animation.” Some of the actors who contributed voices to this production also acted out their parts for rotoscoped scenes. The actions of Bilbo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee were performed by Billy Barty. Sharon Baird was surprisingly cast as Frodo and shocked many with her performance.

The voice actors took primary credit for the portrayal of their designated characters, however. The Legendary John Hurt was cast as Aragorn, William Squire was cast as Gandalf, and Christopher Guard was cast as Frodo Baggins.

Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of The Rings was ultimately comprised of The Fellowship of the Ring and the First half of the Two Towers. Critics gave mixed responses to the film, but generally considered it to be flawed, but had redeeming qualities. The reviews for the movie are numerous and varied, with many singing Bakshi’s praises for his attempt at tackling the impossible film, but many were almost vicious in their hatred for it. The fans of the novel in particular were described as hostile. Many blamed the experimental animation and despised the ending. Many fans felt that they had been robbed of a conclusion, as since the film was titled The Lord of The Rings, it would include the complete story.

The film could be considered a financial success, however, and it even won a Hugo award for best dramatic presentation and Bakshi won a Golden Gryphon for the film. It was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Original Motion Picture Score and for The Saturn Awards for Best Fantasy Film.

Currently, The Lord of the Rings was selected as the 36th greatest animated film by Time Out magazine and ranked as the 90th greatest animated film of all time by the Online Film Critics Society. Despite its success, the controversial nature of the film ensured that none of the proposed sequels or hobbit prequel were green-lit, and Ralph Bakshi’s story was left unfinished. But this was not the end of the animated middle earth movies.

The Return of The King (1980)

After the original airing of The Hobbit on ABC work on a sequel was greenlit and development on the project began. Production on The Return of The King began under the supervision of Rankin/Bass with the original working title of Frodo: The Hobbit 2. The original cast from the previous film returned to reprise the voices of the characters with new actors joining them. Orson Bean returned to once again voice Bilbo Baggins, as well as the new lead Frodo. John Huston returned as Gandalf with Brother Theodore reprising his role as Gollum. Glen Yarbrough also returned as the principal vocalist, this time credited as “the Minstrel of Gondor”. And with the return of Glen, I once again have to mention the phenomenal soundtrack, which may not reach the high quality of the original soundtrack, but still manages to include some phenomenal tracks like “Where there is a whip there is a way” and “Frodo of the nine fingers”. The animation was once again completed by the Japanese animation company Topcraft.

The film followed the basic plot of the novel “The Return Of The King” however, due to its compressed run time, many omissions to the book were made. Some of the most outrageous omissions include the characters of Legolas, Gimli, Arwen, Saruman, Éomer, and Faramir. Even Aragorn doesn’t have much dialogue or screentime despite being the ‘King’ of the movie’s title. Shelob’s lair and any mention of the ents march on Isengard are also omitted from this version of the film.

Reception to the TV special has fans divided to this day. Some fans view it favorably as an adaptation that both parents and children can enjoy. While the more critical view it with disdain and loathing. Often comparing the film unfavorably to Ralph Bakshi’s attempt which was noticeably darker in theme. Glenn Yarborough’s songs are widely derided, however, many admit to enjoying “Frodo of the Nine Fingers”, and especially “Where there’s a whip, there’s a way” becoming a cult classic among fans. Director Arthur Rankin Junior later stated We tried to do Return of the King… but it is an awful lot to put into it. I think Peter Jackson is having the same problem in his films. You can’t deviate from these books, or somebody’ll wait on the street for you! …[In] The Return of the King, we had to summarize what had happened before, and then put it all together in 2 hours. It’s not a very good film.”

The release of the film was not an easy one either. The release was threatened by a lawsuit filed by the Tolkien Estate and Fantasy Films on the basis that Rankin/Bass had not secured the U.S. and Canadian television rights to the book. The lawsuit was settled in a friendly and peaceable manner, allowing it to proceed with a May 1980 release.

When asked why he chose only to make The Return of the King, instead of making the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, Rankin admitted, “I didn’t know that the audience would sit still for it. I was wrong.”

How the films fit together

And with that, we have discussed a brief history behind the production of the animated middle earth films. And so to answer the questions I brought forward in the introduction of my video – What is the chronological order? This is by far the easiest and most straightforward question to answer. The chronological order of the films actually matches the release of the films. So the story starts with The Hobbit, Continues in Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord Of The Rings, and concludes with Rankin Bass’s The Return of The King.

The following two questions I will try to answer together, and they are a lot more complicated… Are they all canon? Do they tell a congruent and continuous story? In short… Yes and No. In the absence of an official sequel to Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King has come to be marketed by Warner Bros. as the final part of a loose animated Tolkien trilogy, preceded by The Hobbit (to which Rankin/Bass originally presented The Return of the King as a direct sequel). The three films have since been available as a boxset for purchase with all three films pushing the narrative that the 3 films were always supposed to be a trilogy.

However, this was never the case. Rankin/Bass began work on the return of the king as a direct sequel to the hobbit before Ralph Bakshi even released his version of the lord of the rings. And Ralph Bakshi was aware of Rankin/Bass TV special and was rather open about his dislike of the film and his objections to it. He has been reported as saying Lord of the Rings is not going to have any song for the sake of a record album.” in reference to the soundtrack from The Hobbit. During talks about Ralph Bakshi’s prequel to his Lord of The Rings Film Bakshi stated “They’re not going to stop us from doing The Lord of the Rings and they won’t stop us from doing The Hobbit. Anyone who saw their version of The Hobbit knows it has nothing to do with the quality and style of our feature. My life isn’t going to be altered by what Rankin-Bass chooses to do badly.” and later he called the film “an awful, rip-off version of The Hobbit.” Saul Zaentz who produced Bakshi’s Lord of the rings went as far as to try to stop the production of Rankin/Bass’s Return Of The King from being aired despite already being storyboarded before Bakshi’s film even came out. So it is clear that there was a ton of bad blood between the two companies in regards to telling the Lord Of The Rings story. 

To say that there was always a plan to have the three films become a complete trilogy is a complete fabrication and I am pretty sure that Rankin/Bass and Ralph Bakshi are quite annoyed that they are often compared to one another, and the fact that they are often grouped together in a collection or called a trilogy must be rather frustrating.

To say that the films tell a congruent and complete story is also quite far-fetched. The Ralph Bakshi film being in the center of the two Rankin/Bass breaks this unofficial trilogy with its stark difference in animation, story-telling mechanics, and themes. The Rankin/Bass films are heavily stylized musicals, that lend themselves to a more child-friendly audience. Whereas Ralph Bakshi’s adaptation is much darker in tone, not shying away from the grittier elements of Tolkien’s work. 

The fact that the three films seem to tell a congruent story is completely coincidental. The similar narrative beats are simply a result of adapting the same book series and have nothing to do with a plan to create a multi-movie story. From film to film narrative plots are also dropped such as Marry and Pippin with treebeard. A complete trilogy would not neglect entire story beats like that. 

The most obvious way to tell that these films were never meant to be trilogy is the art style and animation. Rankin/Bass and Ralph Bakshi have completely different animation styles and you can see it clearly.

So in conclusion, the statement that the three films make up an unofficial trilogy is just a happy coincidence that a marketing team was able to expose and take advantage of.