Think TWO TOWERS, only so much more. Almost 45 minutes of additional footage distributed over 19 extended scenes and 14 brand new ones transform a great epic into a fantastic one, bringing it closer than ever to Tolkien's initial vision of Middle-earth. What that means is that a few of the characters who got a bit short-changed the first time around, such as Faramir (David Wenham), get a second chance and a few of the storylines that may have been a bit more hurried, such as the banishment of Éomer, get a bit more development.
It's important when working on an extended edition or a director's cut to remember that often, directors get carried away and add a bunch of boring additional footage. Jackson does well here to add pertinent scenes that add either to the story or to the entertainment level provided by the film. Even the Ents, who got the brunt of the bad reviews for being boring in the theatrical edition, get a few more minutes of screen time here and rather than making it boring, explain what they're about and give anyone with little insight on them, greater details. Even their involvement in the battle of Helm's Deep can now be seen, an important part of the novel which never appeared in the theatrical release.
The additional scenes go a long way in bringing the film closer than the original was to Tolkien's book. It develops the character a Faramir a bit more and even provides us with some footage of his brother Boromir (Sean Bean). We also get to see Flotsam and Jetsam, one of the lighter passages of the book. Overall, the additional footage is quite welcome and even though there's no one huge scene that magically appears, there's enough there to really add a lot to the movie, especially for those who've gone through the book and remembered every detail. You can even look for a small tribute to old Tom Bombadil.
These two discs contain the film as well as Four Audio Commentaries:
Full length audio commentary by the Director and Writers
Full length audio commentary by the Design Team
Full length audio commentary by the Production & Post-Production Teams
Full length audio commentary by the Cast
That means you have almost 25 hours of commentary to go through. It also makes it highly unlikely that anyone will ever sit through all of them but regardless, one can pick and choose between the tracks depending on what interests them most in terms of participants or scenes. It's also worth noting that there's no lack of participants in any of these. The Cast Commentary, for example, features 16 members of a big name crew. I found myself switching back and forth between all four depending on the scene that I was watching.
J.R.R. Tolkien: Origins of Middle-earth (30:00): A documentary that tells us much about Tolkien and the writing process that led to his creation of a classic epic and the birth of a new mythology. It features a gathering of literary scholars and cast members from the film (including Christopher Lee who knew Tolkien personally) discussing both biographical facts about Tolkien as well as the nature of The Lords of the Rings itself. Most interesting are explanations of Tolkien's unorthodox writing methods and imaginings of how the publishing world would have received his novel today. It's full of very pertinent information about the story itself as well.
From Book to Script: Finding the Story (20:00): A huge apprehension many had toward this film was the way it would adapt the singular book to the big screen. If only due to its unusual structure, THE TWO TOWERS could have been a monumental fiasco, especially on the heels of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, which most agreed was adapted quite well to film. It's nice to, at least, see the filmmakers felt the same way, which is probably what led to a good effort here as well. Although there were some understandable changes from Tolkien's novel, Peter Jackson and the writers stayed on course as much as possible. This documentary features several crew members, including the writers discussing the difficulties they encountered in the process. Actor David Wenham, whose character Faramir underwent some of the most significant changes, also discusses them, as well as his realization that his character would not be a carbon copy of the one he had read about. It's interesting on the whole, especially for those who've read the novels and related to the deviations.
Designing and Building Middle Earth:
Designing Middle-earth (45:00): This is a romp through the world of production design which leads us through the lands of the different peoples of Middle-earth: The ruined city of Osgiliath, Fanghorn Forest and Helm's Deep. It's only when you see things like these that you can gauge the size of a production like this one. It's actually quite amazing the painstaking work that goes into each and every detail and those who do it never really get a chance to walk down the red carpet, but if features like this allow us to glimpse into their work, then all the better for all of us.
Weta Workshop (45:00): Weta is the studio that creates all the props, prosthetics and all the rest of the stuff for all these films. This documentary walks us through their workshop and show the making of a lot of things, some of which are quite stunning. For example, they brought in a sword-smith to hand-make all the swords in the film which means every time you see these guys hammer at each other, they're doing it with real swords made by this guy. There's also a slew of prosthetic Orc suits that had to be made in quantities big enough to equip an army, armor for Orcs, men, dwarves, elves and more, Hobbit feet and so on.
The Taming of Sméagol (40:00): This is an exploratory documentary into the techniques used to produce Gollum, an entirely CGI generated character occupying one of the main places in the film, not to mention a lot of screen time. To the acknowledgment of all involved, and something you hear quite a bit throughout this feature, Gollum would either make or break this movie and by extent, this franchise. Andy Serkis' role into bringing Gollum to life has been well-documented and there was even a loud call to nominate him for a Best Supporting Actor award at last year's Oscars. That might've been taking things a tad too far, but there's no denying Serkis' involvement in Gollum's successful transition from monitor to big screen. As his voice and motion capture limbs, Serkis gave the character life. It was then up to a team of animators to give him a face and this complete featurette walks you successfully through that process.
Andy Serkis Animation Reference (2:00): This is a neat split-screen comparison of a scene with Serkis and a finished scene with Gollum drawn over him. The scene is the one in which Gollum apparently fights with his alter-ego for control of himself.
Gollum's "Stand-In" (3:00): During a shooting day in which Serkis was elsewhere and Gollum was required, co-producer Rick Porras donned the white pajama suit and took one for the team. It's a pretty physical role and Serkis himself took a beating during the whole shoot. It's more of a little joke than anything as far as featurettes go.
Middle-earth Atlas: On a reproduction of Tolkien's map of Middle Earth, you can isolate the small groups of either Frodo & Sam, Merry & Pippin, Aragorn, Legolas & Gimli and Gandalf and track their movement on the map. You can basically follow the little dots on the map. there's not much else to do with it.
New Zealand as Middle-earth (15:00): This is as close as my meager budget will ever allow me to get to New Zealand (mostly because JoBlo is one cheap bastard!) but hey, I'll take it. With this feature, you can select a location from the film and get transported to the local New Zealand place where the sequence was shot. Once there, Jackson and friends will explain a bit about the decision that led them to film there, as well as some of the difficulties they encountered on the spot. You can got to the Emin Muil, The Dead Marshes, Rohan, Edoras, Ithilien, Fangorn and Helm's Deep.
Design Galleries: Throughout Discs 3 and 4, you can access thousands of stills representing conceptual drawings for characters, locations and buildings, as well as set footage and film stills. Some of them come with optional commentary by appropriate crew members. You can spend hours simply going through these pictures.
Filming "The Two Towers":
Warriors of the Third Age (20:00): All the different fighting styles and choreographies of the different peoples of Middle-earth can be seen developed and practiced by the countless stuntmen who were employed on the production. There's also some set footage of the battle of Helm's Deep being shot. This documentary goes onto enough details to prove quite interesting in explaining the nuances the filmmakers had to keep in mind while orchestrating the stunning battle-action sequences in the film. A lot of ass-kicking can be seen in these twenty minutes.
Cameras in Middle-earth (70:00): On a huge scale production such as this, it's no surprise that several different filming units had to be sent out to shoot simultaneously all over New Zealand. Along this documentary, you'll get taken around to a bunch of these locations to see what's going on. It's almost as effective as Peter Jackson's live satellite system which allowed him to keep real-time control over what was going on in each of the filming spots (does this dude ever sleep?) On the way, you'll get to enjoy some of the funnier moments of the shoot (such as assistant director Geoff Murphy's chair and the bearded female Riders of Rohan) as well as a few of the more tense ones (Andy Serkis accidentally ripping the wig off Sean Astin's hair and the latter walking off the set).
Production Photos: As with the Design galleries, you'll have access here to a bunch of production stills.
Big-atures (22:00): One of the groups of unsung heroes who participated in the making of The Lord of The Rings trilogy is quite obviously the design team that put their heads to work designing superb sets, costumes and characters. Once they were done though, another group had to go out and actually make these designs happen and one of the methods was the use of "big-atures", or rather, huge miniatures. How does a 22-foot high scale reproduction of Helm's Deep hit you? Or a 27-foot high "miniature" of the Dark Tower of Sauron Barad-dûr? It's pretty cool stuff to look at. I can only imagine how fun it must be to play around inside these things. The Big-atures on display in this documentary in addition to Helm's Deep and Barad-dûr are The Black Gates of Mordor, Fangorn Forest, Osgiliath and a special look into the flooding of Isengard.
The Flooding of Isengard Animatics (5:00): In order to plan the scene which incidentally, was begun only a few months before the release of the movie, a set of animatics was made to pitch to Peter Jackson. This allows you to look at it through this little clip or to compare it via split-screen to the finished product.
Weta Digital (27:00): Peter Jackson and the crew from Weta discuss the tremendous amount of digital effects used to make the film come to life. The Balrog of Morgoth, Warg fight, Treebeard and the Ents among others are sequences that are slightly broken down and explained. Pretty interesting if you're into that stuff.
Abandoned Concepts: A few pictures of concepts that were eventually given up on. They're the Slime Balrog and the Endless Stair. There's about twenty conceptual drawings in all.
Editorial: Refining the Story (22:00): This is a brief walkthrough of the editorial process and decisions taken for THE TWO TOWERS. An interesting fact is that three different editors were used in each of the three films. According to Peter Jackson, that's simply because the workload would have made it humanly impossible for one person to do it all. Either way, you get to see a lot of footage of the editing room and some other pertinent stuff.
Music and Sound:
Music for Middle-earth (25:00): Composer Howard Shore came up, once again, with an awesome score for this film. If you don't find yourself humming the Rohan theme for days after hearing it, there's a good chance you may need some serious psychiatric help. The music of this film is simply gripping. Now as far as humming goes, Jackson established that as one of the criteria for the soundtrack, something you'll get to hear about in this feature, along with a lot more about the different themes, each explained individually as to what mood Shore was trying to convey.
The Soundscapes of Middle-earth (22:00): If you're one of those geeks (i.e. me) who gets a huge kick out of watching someone mix sounds for movies, then you'll get you fill here. Foley artists will use just about anything and any sound to modify and play with in order to get what they want. Now obviously, the Nazgul are somewhat less terrifying when you find out that the blood curdling scream of their Fell Beasts is nothing more than a Donkey braying in a pasture, but it's still lots of fun to see.
Sound Demonstration: Helm's Deep (1:00): This is a little interactive featurette in which you get to play with the sound layers during a short Helm's Deep sequence. You can isolate different parts of the soundtrack such as the music, the Arrow, the voices, etc.
"The Battle of Helm's Deep is Over..." (10:00): You get to tag along for the ride during the big round of premieres around the world. The cast and crew give some of their impressions of the whole thing and crowds go mad all around.