Watched all in a row, the animated movies The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Return of the King form their own peculiar Tolkien trilogy. Granted, they’re movies made by two different studios with two different styles, and they don’t really align storywise, and one was a feature film while the other two were TV movies. But all together, they form a vaguely coherent story of the One Ring, from its finding by Bilbo to its destruction by Frodo and Gollum. It’s almost fitting, really, given the wildly divergent versions of the Germanic myths and legends that inspired Tolkien in the first place. If The Lord of the Rings really were an ancient tale handed down over centuries, as this movie proposes in its gobsmackingly weird final moments (we’ll get to that), it would likely resemble the animated trilogy more than any other version.
That’s not to say all those versions are equally good. Rankin-Bass’s 1977 The Hobbit (previously discussed here) and Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 The Lord of the Rings (covered in Part I and Part II here) are both masterpieces. The Rankin-Bass 1980 TV movie follow-up to those movies is… not. In fairness, Rankin-Bass had a task almost as impossible as Frodo’s: How do you make a stand-alone Return of the King movie that is both a direct sequel to your own The Hobbit and an unofficial, quasi-sequel to Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings? The answer is: awkwardly.