ABC's animated film special, "The Return of the King," airs on Sunday night (7 p.m. on Channel 7) rather than Saturday morning. But in style and quality, this two-hour travesty of the work of J.R.R. Tolkien is not much better than the dimwitted, barely animated ducks, mice, pigs and assorted fauna that are inflicted on kids Saturday mornings while their parents try to grab an extra hour of sleep.

In a way, it is worse. Mighty Mouse and Daffy Duck are at least free of pretensions; but this story of Frodo's destruction of the fatal ring exploits and debases one of the classics of our time. It may enlarge the number of those who recognize the names of Frodo and Gandalf, but it is hard to imagine that it will interest any new readers in Tolkien's Ring cycle.

A Tolkien treatment on the technical level of the late '30s (one done with the care lavished on "Pinocchio," for example) could easily become a classic. But "The Return of the King" shows how far the art of animation has slid since Disney's prime.

The background scenery is as simplified as the plot lines and dialogue; and the animation reeks of low budget -- again and again, figures stand totally frozen while only the hands or the lips move, for all the world like Huckleberry Hound. Orcs look like malevolent teddy bears crossed with bulldogs; and the black riders, Gollum and assorted meanies are not real enough to be scary.

Tolkien's epic statements on the dangers inherent in power are reduced to idiotic sloganizing in the lyrics sung by Glenn Yarborough (whose voice is one of the few not totally distasteful elements in the film) "Less be more, and small can be beautiful," he sings warning of the ring's soul-destroying power. The lyrics are equally eloquent on the danger of inaction when great deeds need doing: "It's so easy not to try,/Let the world go drifting by./If you never say hello,/You never have to say goodbye."

There is one speech in the show that echoes some of the eloquence of the original. Near the end, when the adventure is over, Samwise notes that times are changing: "The orcs and trolls have gone to dust, the elves are slowly departing. Dwarves are disappearing into their misty mountains and there have been no dragons for ages . . . Will there be no room for hobbits in this new age of men?"

The answer, Sam, is that there may be room, but there probably isn't enough budget.