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'Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers'

'Rings' sequel a grand effort, but lacks charm

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

The answer to evil-doers' bad habits is good hobbits -- none better than Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin.

"Lord of the Rings:
The Two Towers"

RATING: PG-13 for violence

PLAYERS: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin,Christopher Lee, Liv Tyler, Miranda Otto, Cate Blanchett, Brad Dourif, Orlando Bloom

DIRECTOR: Peter Jackson

WEB SITE: www.lordoftherings.net



When last we left them, around Yuletide a year ago at the end of "Fellowship of the Ring," Gandalf had taken his plunge and they were split up in their heroic quest.

"Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" (1955) is Part Two of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien's epic trilogy of the struggle between good and evil kingdoms for possession of a powerful magic ring. Its complex critter-filled cosmology, drawn from Tolkien's deep knowledge of philology and folklore, had become a sociocultural phenomenon by the mid-'60s -- a modern "Beowulf"-style epic for hippiedom.

Frodo Baggins, a Christlike figure who receives the awesome ring from Uncle Bilbo Baggins, learns it has the power not only to control the world but also to corrupt its owner. An axis of good-doers is thus formed -- consisting of hobbits, elves, dwarfs and humans -- to destroy the ring by casting it back into the fires of the Crack of Doom, where it was forged. But they have to get past Sauron -- wicked wizard of north, south, east and west -- and the Black Riders along the way.

I hope you're paying attention. I'm explaining all this not out of idle pedantry but on the suspicion that some of you don't know or remember it, contrary to director Peter Jackson's a priori assumption that you do. Everybody keeps talking about "the quest," but if you haven't seen and/or read Part One, you'd be pretty clueless.

Which is a mistake. What's trilological is not necessarily logical. For $100 million or so, a good sequel should be able to stand on its narrative own. And a good "quest" should be clarified at the outset for uninitiated dullards, lest it attract only a private club of cognoscenti for its audience.

In any case, even if you don't quite understand it, the opening sequence of Gandalf (Ian McKellen) plummeting toward hell in a free-fall dream battle, is absolutely breathtaking. Gandalf, it appears, has been resurrected from the almost-surely-dead.

Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are making their s-l-o-o-w trek through rough terrain when attacked by the mysterious Gollum-Smeagol (Andy Serkis), a scrawny, plug-ugly naked thing -- kind of a cross between E.T. and "Harry Potter's" Dobby. I'm getting my mytho-cosmological creatures mixed up, but never mind. His is the best and most interesting role in film. You gotta love his neurotic little heart -- he's terrific, even though you can make out only whispery fragments of what he says.

Meanwhile, the nasty Orcs are rushin', roamin' and rapin' at will. Things are going from bad to worse for the hobbits. The trees are talking and walking: Like King Kong with Fay Wray, they grab and carry around Merry and Pippin for the whole film.

Similarly, Frodo and Sam are caught early on (by humans) and spend most of the picture in captivity. We check in with and up on them periodically, but Elijah Wood's beautiful mesmerizing eyes are largely wasted.

Wood should file suit for equal screen time against dark-haired hero Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), whose two Elvish girlfriends (Liv Tyler and Miranda Otto) are the only featured females in the story. What's he need with BOTH of them? It seems an unfair allocation of precious sexual resources. Otherwise, the women (and their scruffy kids) are cowering burdens in constant, tedious need of rescue. The many blondes of both sexes all have long, bad hair; a barber and nail salon could clean up in Middle-earth.

Ah, but those nifty F/X! Elephant-mammoths with eight tusks. Buckin' leopard-rat broncos ridden by the enemy troops. Lovely digital-animatronic stuff throughout. The buildup to the climactic final battle is endless but pays off when it comes. Shot after shot is spectacular, especially once Nature is called upon for help. There's a flood and a parting of its waves to rival that of the Red Sea in "Ten Commandments." You half expect to see Charlton Heston leading one of the evil animal armies on behalf of the National Crossbow Association and its right to arm bears.

Director Jackson's touch is not what you'd call light-handed.

His "Two Towers," while full of the grandeur, lacks the charming whimsy of the book. But it is a gigantic and serious effort.

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