Judge Dennis Prince says you're better off leaving this mummy unmolested lest you be stricken by the curse of buyer's remorse. Take heed, my friends.
Our review of The Mummy Returns, published October 8th, 2001, is also available.
Adventure is reborn.
Actually, it's been retread.
Universal Pictures has long stood as the revered studio that was known, respectably, for its monsters. The stable of creatures it ushered forth in the 1930s and 40s have become the stuff of movie majesty, and it proudly continued down this path in subsequent decades to bring us killer sharks and genetically regenerated dinosaurs.
But when it seemed the creative well was running a bit dry, and while it seemed to be suffering a sort of "Well of Souls" envy of successful competitor Paramount Pictures, the studio sporting the globe in its opening banner decided to crib notes from its neighbor in an attempt to feign an "original new monster." Uhh…no.
In 1999, Universal resurrected its Mummy franchise, formerly embodied by the likes of Karloff, Chaney, Jr., and Tyler (well, he was sporting the bandages, after all). But this time, the studio opted to harness more of that delightful CGI magic and infuse it with some of the Indiana Jones-inspired sensibility that made Paramount so gleefully boastful. The result was the widely successful The Mummy. It was short on logic but heavy on action, and had the presence of Brendan Fraser as the next Saturday Matinee-like screen hero. Commercially, it worked, even though it required an extreme stretch of the human imagination. No matter, because box office receipts said it was right on its mark and was deserving of a sequel (how Hollywood loves the retread, yes?). So, in 2001, Universal answered the call by delivering this follow-up—really more of an "also ran" effort that stayed incredibly close to the elements of the previous film, added more horsepower to an already overachieving action quotient, and even managed to pause briefly to introduce a spin-off film and character before the movie proper began. How's that for franchise management? But do dollars in the cashbox really equate to a lasting deposit in the movie-going consciousness? Well, that depends on the sort of logic viewers bring to this sort of modern-day monster movie. For, in this curiously anticipated sequel, The Mummy Returns, logic is best left checked at the door before entering the puzzling pyramid.
You've been warned.
Facts of the Case
Egyptologist Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser, George of the Jungle) cannot help but descend to the depths of ancient burial rooms in search of important artifacts. This time, he's joined by the former librarian Evie (Rachel Weisz, Constantine), now his wedded wife. Oh, and since their last great adventure, they'd obviously taken a reprieve to bear a child, the now 8-year-old Alex (Freddie Boath). It's a family affair, then, as the three plunder another tomb and recover the mysterious Bracelet of Anubis. They're not alone in this quest, though, as nameless rogue explorers also seek the golden prize in service of their employers, an Egyptian cult intent upon resurrecting the mummy, Im-Ho-Tep, and harnessing the army of Anubis after raising and defeating the dreaded Scorpion King (The Rock, Doom).
It's an adventure through the endless deserts of an ancient time where mummies, demons, villains, and unlikely heroes lock in battle in a quest to possess the treasures of forgotten civilizations. Oh, and there's a giant rolling boulder that threatens to crush our hero as he scrambles to flee…wait, that was the other guys' franchise, wasn't it. Perhaps in Mummy 3, huh?
If you're thinking I'm not on board with this particular incarnation of the Mummy lore, you're correct. Universal monsters, horror, and action/adventure spectacle—I'm all about that. CGI dependence, unmotivated action set pieces, and extreme characterizations that won't profess their true intent is what I can't manage. The Mummy was fun—sort of—and Brendan Fraser was entertaining—kind of—but the CGI was flat, the narrative's purpose was non-existent, and the overall mix made for a loud and unbridled sojourn into the realm of spectacle without specificity. To that end, I accepted The Mummy as a sort of Saturday afternoon at the cinema where the film wasn't so much the attraction as was the war waged among the patrons where jelly beans and Jujubes could be hurled in the cloaking darkness of the auditorium. Why would we engage in such a sugared warfare? Well, that just didn't matter—we did it because we could. The Mummy seemed to embody the same spirit, not caring to explain its actions, just intent on seeing them through.
When The Mummy Returns came around, high on the 400-some-odd million box office dollars its predecessor collected, it seemed an opportunity to settle down a bit and make some sense of itself. No chance. It was more of the same, only this time the jellybeans were bigger and the Jujubes sported sharp edges. Why? No one knows, but the filmmakers threw them anyway, harder this time. And so it appeared this sequel did the same, offering even bigger set pieces than its predecessor but still not offering much in the way of explanation for its uncontrollable urge to expound on its threadbare theology and then blow up in our faces. Obviously, I still can't get behind this franchise reborn.
The problem isn't the actors, per se. That is, Brendan Fraser can certainly act, and he plays the part of the wiseacre Rick O'Connell steadily across the two pictures—I simply can't believe in him. Even as a comic-type hero painted with broad brushstrokes of über-heroics, Fraser is directed in a way that leaves us to wonder if he truly believes in what he says and what he does. We're cajoled into believing he can yuk it up during a nightmarish standoff with the risen undead, then coaxed into believing he can be a sensitive husband and father. The emotions don't jibe and the whole performance comes off as an unwanted encounter with a smart-ass of the highest order. Rachel Weisz is simply too capable in these settings, never having a hair out of place nor a smudge of dirt on her beautiful face, yet we're to believe she can spar viciously with the likes of the returning Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velazquez, Façade). And the littlest O'Connell…Well, Alex is intended to be the adorable mop-top brimming with the adventure-loving gusto of a naïve child while amazingly academic in his knowledge of ancient Egyptian lore and matching ability to effortlessly decipher hieroglyphics. The actors can act, but the characters don't work. The clichés continue with the return of comic relief buffoon Jonathan Carnahan (John Hannah, The Intruder) and relentless warrior Ardeth Bey (Oded Fehr, Sleeper Cell). Wasted here, again, is the formidable Arnold Vosloo as Im-Ho-Tep, an actor with the looks and lurking qualities that can be put to better use, say in a picture like 2006's Blood Diamond.
Where the two-film franchise delivers the absolute deal breaker is in its reliance upon sub-standard CGI work. The scope of what it hopes to achieve, in terms of desert-spanning armies and rivers of flesh-eating scarabs, is simply beyond its capabilities. It's clear the digital effects were meant to bring forth an awe-inspiring reality of dread and despair, yet it looks like the stuff of emerging computer graphics from two decades ago. Its rare, if ever, that the CGI elements ever appear to be sharing the same space with the actual actors—save for one scene where Anck-Su-Naman faces the decayed Im-Ho-Tep, a decent pairing of elements until they kiss and the soft-edged CGI mummy lips blow the whole scene. The film borrows from its predecessor by presenting Im-Ho-Tep's angered visage in the form of an enormous rampaging wall of water and later in a giant cloud of black smoke, both hoping to repeat the sand storm graphic from the first film. For my money, it looked cheap the first time around and doubly so here. Perhaps we've become spoiled by the amazing advances made in CGI artistry since 2001 and—God help us—maybe this can be corrected when a third film rolls around. For now, this is difficult to get very excited about.
But The Mummy Returns has been resurrected in DVD form several times already, and now we must ask if a high-definition transfer will improve its situation. Sadly, no—or at least not by much. With so many sun-drenched exteriors, gold-crusted interiors, and digitally precise CGI elements, expectations would naturally run high that this will be a hi-def dream come true. Perhaps the curse of Anubis has been made manifest here because the image quality is not the stellar revelation that it should be. There's a definite boost in crispness and smooth color saturation to the picture, yes; but it's hardly leaps and bounds beyond the fine quality of the standard definition transfer. There are some sequences where the detail does deliver that 3-D presence that so many HD enthusiasts crave (and deserve), but certainly not enough of them to rank this a higher-tier mastering. Many scenes are soft, muted, and lacking in the shadowy details the technology has proven it can deliver. Don't misunderstand me, because despite my misgivings about the feature itself, I'm always pleased to laud praise on a great HD transfer no matter the competence of the content itself. But, in this situation, The Mummy Returns disappoints me again. As it stands, I consider this a mid-level achievement.
The audio, thankfully, had enough going for it that I didn't become completely restless and rancorous over the entire sitting. In fact, the Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 mix here is very pleasing. First, you'll notice the quick engagement of all surround channels the moment the prologue begins (an audibly good bit with The Rock and his army imparting the origin of the Scorpion King). And as that battle wages, the low-end channel roars into life to give your chair a stout rumbling. This is the beauty of the home theater experience and the icing on the cake for HD lovers—the expanded audio capabilities of the format. To this end, The Mummy Returns performs well and can be enjoyed on this level at the least. The mix, it should be noted, is well balanced, so the dialog is never difficult to discern amid the swirling action.
If you're a fan of the film and enjoyed the extras from the previous special edition release, then you won't be too disappointed here. Most of the bonus features from that previous SD release have been included here, including the original audio commentary by Stephen Sommers and Bob Ducsay, the fluffy Spotlight On Location: The Making of The Mummy Returns, the Visual and Special Effects Formation exposés, the uncomfortable Live music video, the handful of outtakes, and the theatrical trailer. Missing here are the exclusive interview with The Rock, the Secrets of the Scorpion King featurette, and the text-based production notes, bios, and DVD-ROM content. As for cherished HD-exclusive content, there isn't any here, which is a shame since the In-Movie Experience would be highly appropriate for a film of this sort.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Hey, perhaps I could be wrong, and perhaps you loved the first film. If so, then The Mummy Returns is just your bowl of sand as it never attempts to stray from the first picture. As for the HD treatment, you'll certainly find some improvement in the video and a greater benefit in the audio department, but not enough to assure a triple-dip. If you love the franchise, you'll like the film—just set your high-def expectations lower before you unwrap this one.
For all its endless action, boundless excitement, and general loudness, The Mummy Returns just doesn't have the right stuff to resurrect me from the slumber of the unconvinced. I know the film has its audience and has done well to mine their wallets for two features but, for my dinars, I'm just not buying. It's disappointing that it doesn't fully manage to tickle my full senses in its HD incarnation. Oh well, maybe the next franchise entry will right the path.
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• Audio Commentary by Director/Writer Stephen Sommers and Executive Producer/Editor Bob Ducsay
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