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The Two Towers Inferno

01/01/2004. Contributed by Mark R. Leeper

Buy The Two Towers in the USA - or Buy The Two Towers in the UK

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The latest big screen installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy could be your last movie of 2002, or your first of 2003; but you're going to see it. Right?

CAPSULE: The middle third of the adaptation of the great epic fantasy comes surprisingly close to being a satisfying adaptation. What may be just about the best fantasy film ever made continues the story of J. R. R. Tolkien's THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Intelligent and visually beautiful, Peter Jackson's THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy is an instant classic.

In a year with several sequels and series films being released, the one for which the public has the greatest expectation is Peter Jackson's adaptation of the middle book of the LORD OF THE RINGS, and with good reason. One reservation on the recommendation of the film: it is not recommended that anyone see the second section of this film who has not first seen the first section and is not familiar with the story.

Peter Jackson has no time to bring newcomers up to speed even in a three-hour chapter. Instead, opportunities abound to see the first section via cable, home video, and convention showings. All this is perhaps a recognition that seeing the second section without knowledge of the content of the first section is not a good idea.

In the second section of the film as the story continues, the Fellowship has split into three groups. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin) are continuing to Mount Doom in their effort to destroy the ring. Frodo is troubled by dreams of the death of Gandalf (Ian McKellen).

The man Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and the dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) search for their captured friends, Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan). Pippin and Merry in the meantime are attempting to free themselves and return to the Shire.

These quests will involve the group in a coming war between the kingdom of Rohan, ruled by Theoden (Bernard Hill) and the Fellowship's archenemy, the wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee). Saruman wants to destroy all the kingdoms of men in Middle Earth. The centerpiece of this film is the intricately detailed dramatization of the Battle of Helm's Deep, the climax of this section.

The story line, like the Fellowship itself, has split into three pieces and in sort of the ultimate road picture, follows the travels and experiences of the three groups. A major new character has been added, though we did see him from a distance in the previous film.

This is the dangerous figure Gollum (almost fully digital but with a voice by Andy Serkis). Gollum is rumored to have been a hobbit once, but had acquired and then lost the Ring. Gollum's temporary possession of the Ring has left him shriveled, emaciated, and schizophrenic. His face now looks like something out of a Japanese ghost story, which may well be an intentional resemblance. But above all the possession of the Ring has left Gollum with an unquenchable desire to once again possess the Ring.

The script has some variations from the book that do not completely make sense. Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif) seems to have been planted in Helm's Deep to be a false adviser to Theoden, but in the film version that seems totally redundant since Theoden is already possessed by Saruman.

If time is moving uniformly in the multiple story lines, Pippin and Merry spend what must be a very long time, most of the film, in a tree. Some of the writing is just bad ideas. "The battle for Helm's Deep is over. The battle for Middle Earth is about to begin!" is a near-direct borrowing from Winston Churchill. Legolas sledding down stone stairs on a shield is a bit of unnecessary silliness. But the nice touches seem to outnumber the bad ones.

The visualizations have some problems, but generally are quite good. There are moments when it is obvious the viewer is seeing CGI animation. Somehow it looks 95% natural, but there is some nuance of natural movement that the animators are not getting.

Some scenes the animation looks a little jerky. While the animation in scenes of battle is as breathtaking as the New Zealand scenery, there are moments when it tips its hand. The animation of Gollum is wonderful and one almost accepts him as a real character. But somehow I was bothered by the voice. It did not quite fit the lips.

It felt more like foreign film dubbing than like a live actor speaking. But there is a real character in Gollum and I doubt people will find him as grating as Jar-Jar Binks. Speaking of the scenery, it becomes a real character of the film. Howard Shore's music, while it does not strike me as creative as in the first film, still creates the mood with little reuse of music from the first film.

The cast remains excellent, though I cannot say that Elijah Wood does a lot for me as Frodo. Perhaps he does not convey enough emotion. Bernard Hill is a good solid addition to the story. He may be best remembered as the Captain in TITANIC.

There is something of a distraction having John Rhys-Davis's voice come from two different characters, Gimli and the new Treebeard. Liv Tyler and Cate Blanchett appear almost exclusively as wispy and exaggerated visions the ideal of elegance and beauty.

They are made to seem too mythic while Brad Dourif (of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST and RAGTIME) does not seem mythic enough. Ian McKellen, always welcome, is back in a slightly different role.

Rarely has film been used so effectively to make a fantasy live on the screen. I will not rate the middle third of THE LORD OF THE RINGS but I rate the first two parts of THE LORD OF THE RINGS a full score of 10 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +4 on the -4 to +4 scale.

Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 2002 Mark R. Leeper

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