orcs singing about forced labor

Let’s Remember the Weirdest Animated Musical Moment Ever: “Where There’s a Whip, There’s a Way”

The animated Return of the King was WILD

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Earlier this week it was announced that Peter Jackson’s iconic Lord of the Rings trilogy would make its 4k IMax debut this month. Now, I’m not going to risk my safety or my family’s to watch my favorite trilogy on a really big screen, but the announcement did get Middle Earth on my mind as I walked the barren February landscape in my neighborhood. And I ended up with a very specific song stuck in my head.

Long before Elijah Wood and Sean Astin fought Shelob and scaled the side of Mount Doom, there was another version of JRR Tolkien’s The Return of the King, one that occasionally popped up on cable in the 90s and still haunts me to this day thanks to a distinct style and, most weirdly, one very catchy tune about forced marches and going off to war to die. Yes, friends, I’m talking about “Where There’s A Whip, There’s a Way,” the supremely strange orc marching song from the Rankin/Bass Return of the King.

I love everything about this insane few minutes of animation: the funky synths, the way the whip works with the rhythm, the counterpoint of “we don’t wanna go to war today!” with the trudging mainline, the obvious repetition of frames and entire segments of the song with identical animation for no reason … it’s all so strange, and it really typifies the overall weirdness of the animated The Return of the King

Now, you may be asking yourself: “Return of the King? Didn’t they do the entire trilogy and The Hobbit?” Not … really. In 1977 Rankin/Bass, the studio best known for claymation Christmas specials released an animated version of The Hobbit as a television movie, animated with Topcraft, a Japanese company that was actually a precursor to Studio Ghibli.

Now, the 1977 Animated Hobbit is fun and it works because, well, The Hobbit is for kids. But at the same time that Rankin/Bass was working on that, Ralph Bakshi was making The Lord of the Rings. I personally always get Ralph Bakshi and Rankin/Bass confused because of the R.B. initials and this whole mess. Bakshi’s move had a very different style, to say the least … and he only had the rights to the first two books in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He very also very clearly relied on animating over live action references … how can do I know? Well … look at this thing.

Yes, that’s a guy in a monster suit as the Balrog. It is very bad. It’s not a shocker that after this came out in 1978, Bakshi didn’t get to finish the story with Return of the King, Rankin/Bass and Topcraft did. They open the movie with a bard telling the story of “Frodo of nine fingers” (another song the echoes through my youth) which recaps both the Hobbit and the two books that couldn’t be adapted.

“Where There’s A Whip There’s A Way” occurs quite early in the book, since Frodo and Sam are already in Moria when the flashback story starts. It’s such a weird choice to put into a very earnest and straight-faced version of this story. The song has the weird effect, along with the general, shall I say, fluffiness, of the orcs of making them sympathetic slaves to Sauron, not evil monsters. I guess that’s an interesting choice given how Jackson and Tolkein generally depict them. Still, the sudden musical interlude with orcs is … so strange.

But there are some pretty decent parts in this strange little movie. I always loved Eowyn versus the Nazgul, though you’ll see how true they were to the book and how, well, clunky that can be.

It’s always fun looking back on these and other rather forgotten animated features. As a kid, I remember seeing this movie, along with The Hobbitt, on television and being so very confused because it felt like I always missed hug parts of the story, which in fact I had. The movies were all released on video together at one point, but when they aired on cable, they were still piecemeal.

It took twenty more years after these attempted to bring The Lord of the Rings to the screen, but fans will never forget these early attempts. Who knows how weird or kinky singing “Where There’s a Whip There’s a Way” as kids made us, but I’m glad these curiosities happened because, well, if nothing else, they’re fun.

(image: Rankin/Bass Productions)

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Author
Jessica Mason
Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.