Happy holidays, hobbitheads

“You were right, Aragorn, we can see the screen just as well from here, and we saved $23 on drive-in tickets.”

“You were right, Aragorn, we can see the screen just as well from here, and we saved $23 on drive-in tickets.”

Rated 4.0

Fifteen minutes from the end of The Two Towers, the second episode of Peter Jackson’s monumental movie version of The Lord of the Rings, a despairing Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) moans, “I can’t do this, Sam!”

The young hobbit is referring to his ongoing peregrinations, whose aim is to return uncle Bilbo’s pesky ring to the fires of Mordor where it was forged. But the fatigued halfling might equally well be articulating the guilty thought of legions of moviegoers (not including Tolkien geeks, of course): Can we really stomach another wodge of Middle-earthian gobbledygook?

Fact is, whether you loved or hated The Fellowship, your reaction will be identical, since this is merely the second act to a massive “Rings” cycle that Jackson and his New Zealand crew filmed in one, fell, 14-month swoop from 1999-2000.

The good news is there’s lots to like. From the first few notes of Howard Shore’s lush score to the creepy “Gollum’s Song” during the closing credits three hours later, it’s hard not to be impressed by the technical stuff—the superb costumes, makeup and production design, scenic Kiwi locations beautifully shot by Andrew Lesnie and the (almost) seamlessly integrated digital effects.

But above all there’s Jackson’s fidelity to his source material and the subtle ways he and cowriters Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Stephen Sinclair alter it to suit their cinematic ends.

The first example of this is the opening scene, reprising the climactic sequence from part one where Gandalf (Ian McKellen) engaged in fierce battle with the fearsome Balrog. How this segues straight into the Two Towers action is just one of many agreeable surprises in a film that flits effortlessly between its various plot strands. First, there’s Frodo and Sam, who find an unlikely ally in the emaciated, dentally challenged, creepy-crawly form of Gollum, aka Sméagol (Andy Serkis) before meeting Faramir (David Wenham), who’s upset to hear about the death of his brother Boromir (Sean Bean).

Meanwhile, Merry and Pippin (Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd), have been captured by orcs following the orders of wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee) to bring them to his towering Isengard lair, Orthanc (the second of the titular towers, with Sauron’s Barad-D&251;r). But the hobbits slip away and encounter Treebeard the Ent (voiced by John Rhys-Davies), the tree-herding shepherd of the forest.

Following from a distance are Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli (Viggo Mortensen, Otto Bloom and Rhys-Davies). After a reunion with a familiar friend, they visit King Théoden of Rohan (Bernard Hill) whose power has been sapped by Saruman’s slimy agent Wormtongue (Brad Dourf). Freed from the evil wizard’s influence, but fearing the onset of war, Théoden orders his people to evacuate. During the trek, Théoden’s nubile niece Éowyn (Miranda Otto) makes meaningful eye contact with Aragorn—cue flashbacks to Aragorn’s love interest Arwen (Liv Tyler) and, later, Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett).

Pausing only to ward off a vicious attack by murderous wolf-riders, the refugees reach the castle of Helm’s Deep. The ensuing battle sequence includes such unlikely events as a huge explosion (which is faithful to Tolkien) and a politically incorrect dwarf-throwing incident (which isn’t). While Treebeard’s Ent eco-troopers make short shrift of Saruman’s command center, an eleventh-hour cavalry charge saves the day at the besieged fortress.

Yet when a character then explains, “All our hopes now lie with two little hobbits somewhere in the wilderness,” it’s hard to stifle a churlish thought: “Hey, isn’t this where we came in, three frickin’ hours ago?”

Well, yeah, but let’s not quibble. Instead, get ready to do it all over again, same time next year. Because like Internet shopping or ditching unwanted gifts on eBay, Tolkien is now an unavoidable Yuletide chore. Happy holidays, hobbitheads.