Fantasy is at its best when it ennobles our reality, and in this year's cinema no fantasy towers above The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The second installment of J.R.R. Tolkien's dark and delightful yarn is here adapted just as handily as last year's The Fellowship of the Ring, but in a shift from that film's generous pacing and visual novelty -- do recall, only a year ago its magnitude was quite revolutionary -- director Peter Jackson has forged the middle of his cinematic trilogy with the immediacy of broadsword steel. It's a wise move. As the grand introductory act has become the year's must-own DVD set, putting the bucolic Shire, dank Moria, and New Agey Rivendell behind us in the collective cinematic consciousness, it's time to venture together bravely, with dubious guides and against terrible odds, into foreboding new realms.
Unless you inhabit your own alternate universe where license-holder Saul Zaentz's peculiarly non-Tolkien-owned company Tolkien Enterprises does not push avalanches of LotR product (some of which is, admittedly, cool), you probably know the basic outline. A little hobbit named Frodo (gushy Elijah Wood, just grin and bear him) and his extremely dedicated gardener Sam (Sean Astin, the trilogy's true star) have taken on the rather unenviable task of trudging hundreds of miles across Middle Earth on their hairy bare feet to return a diabolical piece of jewelry to hellish Mordor, where it can be destroyed, thereby saving the world. Their unique anti-quest continues here, but their fellowship with assorted magical and homely accomplices has been broken, necessitating an episodic structure -- a tad clunkier than in the lyrical novel -- to keep everybody straight (or, in the case of a certain sweet-tempered spell-caster, obviously not straight).
Neophytes -- if any remain -- will be puzzled but enthralled by Two Towers' no-nonsense approach. Dispensing with the first film's Elvish opening exposition -- it's put on hold here until an awkward midnarrative breather -- we're sent swooping over snowy mountain ranges and then under them to revisit a swift flashback involving wizened wizard Gandalf the Gay ... er, Grey (Sir Ian McKellen) crashing deep into the earth to do battle with the enormous, demonic Balrog. It's a perfect overture, echoing Tolkien's favorite theme (benevolence is good; evil is bad), linking the movies sans scrolling prologue, and reminding us that New Zealand's WETA effects team is -- ahem -- in the hai-ouse!
The story proper commences with Sam and Frodo being abruptly intercepted by the ghoulish Gollum, a sensational animated character (voiced and pantomimed most astoundingly by Andy Serkis of the brilliant Pandaemonium) whose volatile emotions are so poignant that he deserves to stand beside Jack Nicholson in 2002's Best Actor lineup. Meanwhile, the big nasty Uruk-hai orcs of corrupt wizard Saruman the White (Christopher Lee) scamper about giving everybody hell, especially the unhappily abducted hobbits Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Scottish Billy Boyd, workin' that cute brogue). Hot on their trail are hunky human Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), elegant elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and droll dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), who together comprise two-thirds of every schoolgirl's dream. Within the first 15 of the film's brisk 179 minutes we've met most of the significant characters, and within 30 virtually all of them.
What remains can be taken as pure spectacle, as the screenwriters (Jackson, his wife Fran Walsh, their friend Philippa Boyens, and Jackson's frequent collaborator Stephen Sinclair) gleefully cut and paste Tolkien's epic set pieces, peppering them with what are presumably Kiwi colloquialisms ("Let's put a maggot hole in your belly," offers an orc). Frodo, Sam, and Gollum trudge through the harrowing Dead Marshes, Merry and Pippin hug a tree (sort of) in Fangorn Forest, and the others drop in on the Viking-like settlement of Edoras, then spend the movie's final third battling Saruman's 10,000 yechy, highly belligerent orcs from the fortress of Helm's Deep ... Helm's Deep ... Helm's Deep! -- "It's only a CGI." "Shh!" -- where Jackson and company cut loose with brazen warmongering on an epic scale.
Cynics could eviscerate these ostensibly childish proceedings -- indeed, the movie's plot shuffles along like a stack of trading cards -- were it not for the estimable heft of Tolkien's tale. One must take with several grains of salt the good professor's passionate declaration that he studiously eschewed allegory, for it takes nary a whit of imagination to view Helm's Deep as Poland, Sauron as the Russian Man of Steel, and Saruman as Der Führer. Though absorbed from the screen largely unconsciously, the author's views of hyper-industrialization, abuse of the good earth, and attempted genocide form a deep, dark, useful mirror reflecting Europe's recent past.
Since most audiences now grok Frodo's mission -- seemingly more than the blundering little masochist himself -- we're served up a plethora of supporting characters and subplots. In rustic Rohan we encounter King Théoden (Bernard Hill), whose bold and braless niece Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and sturdy nephew Eomer (Karl Urban) struggle against the greasy and absurdly ill-appointed royal adviser, Gríma Wormtongue (Brad Dourif, sans eyebrows). Meanwhile, Merry and Pippin are shepherded by tall, ancient, arboreal Treebeard (voiced by John Rhys-Davies, compensating for his dwarf role), and Frodo, Sam, and Gollum get all screwed up by Faramir (David Wenham, boring), brother of the first movie's weak-willed Boromir. Rounding things out, we get frightened children, malevolent troops of Easterlings in thick eyeliner, plus a couple of zany, Monty Python-esque orc leaders.
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