[box cover]

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: Extended Edition

New Line Home Entertainment

Starring Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen,
Sean Astin, Liv Tyler, Orlando Bloom,
John Rhys-Davies, Bernard Hill, Christopher Lee,
Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Hugo Weaving,
and Andy Serkis

Written by Frances Walsh, Phillipa Boyens, and Peter Jackson
Based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien

Directed by Peter Jackson

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Review by Damon Houx                    

Like watching Michael Jordan dunk on a group of senior citizens; like watching Mike Tyson pummel a malnourished child; like watching the Harlem Globetrotters play, period; we're at the point with J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings series that all doubt has been removed about their success.

After 2001's amazing Fellowship of the Ring there may have been some lingering hesitations, and perhaps a little bit of fear still coursed through veins after the improved Extended Edition — after all, there was still room left for Jackson to blow it. But none should be left after 2002's middle chapter The Two Towers proved better than Fellowship… perhaps — as Peter Jackson keeps saying — 2003's Return of the King will be the best of the lot, and we will have witnessed the forging of one of the great movie trilogies, and one of the greatest cinematic gambles.

That's to say, it's not often that a Kiwi director best known for splatter epics takes a long-considered-unfilmable series of books and spends $300 million of New Line's money (a company that, were the series to fail, would surely have gone belly up) to create a series of films now loved the world over. It's nice to cling on to Jackson, especially in an era when so many other film series' have gotten progressively worse with each sequel (OPTIONAL: insert your own obligatory Lucas/Wachowski bash here).

And what may be most amazing about this series — aside from its command of CGI effects; aside from its compelling characters and story; aside from the fabulous star-making performances of Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom; aside from the great casting; aside from the beautiful New Zealand vistas shot by Andrew Lesnie; aside from the sheer spectacle of it all — is how Peter Jackson has made these films his own. Even more than Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson is the ultimate director-as-12-year-old-boy. And the Jackson sensibility is notable throughout, with his silly humor and blood and guts swordsmanship, but this is kept in balance by the weight of the quest to destroy the one ring. These are visionary works by a master director, a painstaking decade-long cinematic journey that may never be equaled.

*          *          *

At this point it seems a no-brainer that the Extended Edition of Two Towers is a better DVD than the theatrical version (which the talented and beautiful — but unfortunately married — Dawn Taylor reviewed here). It is. But accepting this is both exciting and unfair. Praise should be sung once more for Mr. Jackson & company's improvements on The Two Towers — the Extended Edition does what the extensions did for Fellowship by enriching both the story and the characters with details and grace notes — though not as directly.

As for this extended cut, without providing a frame-by-frame analysis of the addendums, the additional footage consists mostly of things trimmed to get the film near a three-hour running time. The original cut ran 179 min., while the Extended Edition runs 222 min. — or 236 min. if we want to include the additional credit sequence (which consists of the names of the Lord of the Rings fan-club members who ponied up the dough to get their names in the credits). The only major sequence added is the thing the fans of the book clamored for most: a flashback in which Faramir (David Wenham) and Boromir (Sean Bean) confront their father Denethor (John Noble) — who treats Faramir as the lesser son — over who gets to go to Rivendell for the meeting held in Fellowship. The scene explains why Faramir would want to give the Ring to his father to prove himself, a plot-point created by Jackson to increase the drama to which fans of the book lamented, feeling it was done at the expense of Faramir's character.

The characters who get the most additional screen-time in this cut would probably be Merry (Dominic Monaghan), Pippin (Billy Boyd), and Treebeard (voiced by John Rhys-Davies). One scene has them drinking an Ent Draught that makes both hobbits grow taller — and at the end the two hobbits pillage Isengard's food supplies and find two kegs filled with the shire's finest pipe weed (ahem). But most of the additions are little bits that give more detail: The opening is changed so ring-bearer Frodo (Elijah Wood) can catch a box of seasonings that Samwise (Sean Astin) dropped, further essaying Samwise's role as the film's heart. Frodo, Sam and Gollum's (Andy Serkis) triangular relationship is strengthened by adding more to Frodo's conflicted feelings about Gollum. Aragon (Mortensen) and Eowyn's (Miranda Otto) relationship gets a little more attention, and Aragon drops a bomb: He's 87 years old. Gimli (Davies) and Legolas (Bloom) get more time for comic relief, and to compare body-counts. King Théoden (Bernard Hill) gets longer to mourn his dead son. Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Grima Wormtongue (Brad Dourif) get to plot the fall of man a little more extensively. But for all the add-ons, the pacing is kept up — one never feels the additional 43 minutes.

In comparison between the two Extended Editions, the additions to Fellowship seem stronger, because the longer, Hobbit-centric opening and the explanation of the Elven gifts were so obviously missing. But while the main addition (the Boromir/Godfather II sequence) is nice to see, it isn't as necessary. Though this critic hasn't read the books, he watched the Extended Edition with friends who had, and they felt the exact opposite: Fellowship was only slightly improved, while Towers became that much stronger.

What these Extended Editions do more than anything else is confuse what the "definitive cuts" of these films are. Arguably — though most fans prefer the Extended Editions — there is no true "director's cut" (neither is labeled as such), and both have benefits. The theatrical cuts do move a little bit faster, while the additional scenes in the Extended Editions do add to the story. And strangely, it feels as though it's important to have seen the theatrical cut first — some of the additions spoil the later drama (at one point, in TTT: EE, Gandalf prophesizes that Merry and Pippin will cause the Ents to join the battle). Thankfully, neither version is being taken off the market, so it's up to the audience to choose. It should also be noted that it's a breath of fresh air to see a filmmaker add scenes to films people love without upsetting the fans — or the films — in the process.

And hopefully in 20 years the Uruk-Hai won't shoot first.

Discs One & Two: The Film

Though it seems a shame to complain about, The Two Towers: Extended Edition mirrors so exactly the supplements and aesthetic of the Fellowship Extended Edition (even down to the location of an Easter egg) there's less of a sense of discovery. Considering that the first set was perfect, one can't really expect to improve on it even if this does feel a little like more of the same. The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) and is spread over two discs to get a better transfer, and it shows. The audio is similarly spectacular and available in Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, Dolby Surround 2.0, and DTS 6.1 ES. These discs were custom made for demo usage, and surely showroom attendants will be using the battle for Helm's Deep as the latest advert for DTS.

Though the body of supplements are reserved for the third and fourth discs, the film has four audio commentaries. The first features Peter Jackson and screenwriters Frances Walsh and Phillipa Boyens, and it's a wonderfully chatty track. Next up is audio commentary with design team, including costume designer and Weta workshop supervisor Richard Taylor, Weta workshop supervisor Tania Rodger, production designer Grant Major, art directors and set designers Alan Lee and Dan Hennah, art department coordinator Chris Hennah, and conceptual designer John Howe. This is followed by a commentary by producer Barrie Osborne, executive producer Mark Ordesky, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, editors Michael Horton, and Jabez Olssen, co producer Rick Porras, composer Howard Shore, visual effects supervisors Jim Rygiel and Joe Letteri, sound editors Ethan Van der Ryn and Mike Hopkins, creature effects supervisor Randy Cook, art director Christian Rivers, visual effects cinematographer Brian Van't Hull and visual effects director of photography for the miniature unit Alex Funke. And finally the track that will probably get the most play, the audio commentary with the cast, including Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler, John Rhys-Davies, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Orlando Bloom, Christopher Lee, Sean Bean, Bernard Hill, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Brad Dourif, Karl Urban, John Noble, Craig Parker and Andy Serkis. Sadly there is no Ian McKellen involvement, but his role in this film is also muted.

There's an Easter egg on Disc One in the scene-selection menu, hidden under the last set of chapter selections. It's Gollum's acceptance speech for winning MTV's best virtual performance award, which is introduced by Peter Jackson.

Disc Three: The Appendices, Part III — The Journey Continues

As with the Fellowship Extended Edition, there is both an introduction on the first disc by Peter Jackson (1:49) and the wonderful "play all" feature so you can watch all three hours of featurette footage in sequence. There's also the index, where one can get access to everything without slogging through the different sections.

The first featurette is J.R.R. Tolkien: Origins of Middle-Earth (29:29). Though not attempting to be a biography, it does speak of Tolkien's friendship with C.S. Lewis, while it also suggests how his time in World War I as a soldier influenced the book (especially the dead marshes sequence). It's also interesting to note that the commentators are at times a bit critical of his writing style, and are surprised that the thing was published at all.

This segues well into the next section, From Book to Script: Finding the Story (20:57), which explains how the writers felt the middle chapter was the most problematic. Tolkien's structure told basically multiple stories linearly through, while Jackson felt to create a timeline they had to be intercut, which forced some reshufflings of events, specifically "She" being pushed into Return of the King. This is also where the writers explain why they changed Faramir's character (as they also note on the commentary).

In Designing Middle Earth (45:42) we get a look at how the locations were found (sometimes by just flying a helicopter around New Zealand), and how much detail and work went into the smallest details of the costuming, even when outfits were being mass produced. In this section is also a large stills gallery (with some of the stills featuring audio commentaries) for both the peoples and realms of Middle Earth. To get a closer look at the costume and make-up work done, watch the section called Weta Workshop (43:48), which again shows how much work went into the whole process.

But the standout section on this disc is The Taming of Smagol (39:34), since the Gollum/Smagol character is the best addition to the series. The documentary shows how much of the character was modeled on Serkis, who shot his scenes with the actors, and then was later replaced with his digital incarnation. Watching Serkis's commitment as he flops around in a freezing-cold river explains why Gollum has become an indelible cinematic figure. But to see how much of Gollum is in Andy Serkis's performance, the Andy Serkis Animation Reference (1:47) shows the live action Serkis delivering Gollum's monologue to himself, which is also available in split-screen so one can compare to the final product. The final chapter in this section, Gollum Stand-in (3:18), exists to embarrass co-producer Rick Porras as he was stuck in the Gollum suit one day. There's also a design gallery here so you can see the different attempts at getting Gollum's look.

The last supplement on Disc Three is New Zealand as Middle-Earth (14:26), which offers a location-by-location series of scouting trips of the places filmed in New Zealand as substitutes for middle Earth. Those looking for hobbitized vacation ideas may benefit the most from this.

Disc Four: The Appendices, Part IV — The Battle for Middle-Earth Begins

This disc beings with an introduction from Elijah Wood (1:07), who expresses a fan's enthusiasm for the extras-packed set, and repeats Jackson's info about playing all. Next up is the section Filming Middle Earth, which has two sections: Warriors of the Third Age (20:57), and Cameras in Middle-Earth (68:09). The first talks to and about the stunt people involved and the work they went through, and Viggo Mortensen's penchant for head-butting. The second is the more standard "making-of," where they cover the difficulties involved in making the picture (especially the money sequences), though producer Barrie Osborne does mention that since all three were shot at the same time, it's sometimes hard to differentiate between what was for what. This section also has a production-photos gallery.

For the area entitled Visual Effects, there's a section for the miniature work, with the featurette titled Big-atures (21:49), as they were often built on sets to much larger scale than most miniatures (hence the name). Also in this section is The Flooding of Isengard Animatic (1:30), which offers the animatic (when filmmakers do a rough approximation using models) and a split-screen comparison. While in WETA Digital (27:31) the extensive digital work is given its due, from the work done on Treebeard to the extensive programming done to create digital characters that have their own A.I. when they fight. Also in this section is a still gallery for Abandoned Concepts, featuring the talked about Slime Balrog.

In Editorial: Refining the Story (21:57) the editorial process is highlighted as Jackson had different editors work on each movie. Here they were Michael Horton and Jabez Olssen, and Jackson talks about the process where in which he gets to see a rough cut put together first, with often crude animation filling in for the uncompleted sequences. From there the fine-tuning begins.

Next is a section called Music and Sound. First up is Music for Middle-Earth (25:19), which concentrates on Howard Shore and includes footage from the scoring stage. The Soundscapes of Middle-Earth (21:26) goes behind the sound-effects work, showing how much of the audio for the film was added on later, something that becomes even more noticeable after thumbing through Sound Demonstration for Helm's Deep (1:07), which allows one to sample the seven layers that went into creating the soundtrack for the battle, along with an eighth final version option.

If that weren't enough, the disc wraps up with the epilogue The Battle for Helm's Deep is Over… (9:27) where everyone talks about the relief of having finished, the premieres, and (briefly) what's to come. Like its predecessor, Disc Four also contains an index. And like the films themselves, these DVDs were made by fans for fans, with an eye for detail and a lot of tender loving care.

— Damon Houx

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