Release Date: December 16, 2008
Rating: 2 ½ ½
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, John Hannah, Russell Wong, Liam Cunningham, Luke Ford, Isabella Leong and Michelle Yeoh
Written by: Alfred Gough and Miles Millar
Directed by: Rob Cohen
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is the third instalment in the continuing series of Mummy movies with Brendan Fraser playing the intrepid American tasked with returning the undead would-be monarchs to their tombs. While the first two films revisited the ground of the original Karloff film in Egypt, this edition shifts the action to China, making use of the rich landscape and history available there. Director Rob Cohen (known for the first Fast and the Furious movie along with XxX) paints with a pretty large canvass, creating some scenes with impressive spectacle, while casting key roles with noted Chinese film stars Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh. There’s some great CGI on display here, as Cohen stages massive battle sequences with a huge mummified terracotta army, among other major effects. But the exercise still feels hollow – the sensation of watching this film is akin to biting into a chocolate Easter bunny. It’s fun for the moment, but ultimately unfulfilling. There’s certainly been an effort made to find a little more depth to the characters, by projecting the time of the story forward to 1946 and giving the McConnells an adventurous son (Luke Ford), but the characters are still quite shallow, and the plot is wafer thin. And things are dragged out a bit – the film’s expository prologue alone goes on for ten minutes before the story proper can begin. At the same time, it’s hard to argue with the popularity of these films. While this one didn’t do Dark Knight level business here in the US, it performed quite well overseas – to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. A postscript on the end of the film makes clear that this story will likely continue with a new film in another couple of years.
The edition under review here is the 2-Disc Deluxe Edition, which for a limited time, will contain a digital copy of the film on the 2nd disc. The film itself is contained on the first disc, in a 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer and an energetic 5.1 mix. There is a director’s commentary and some deleted scenes on the 1st disc, and a brace of featurettes on the 2nd disc. The commentary is amiable enough and there’s a fair amount of production diary material from the prep through the end of principal photography, but like the film, none of the material really scratches below the surface. There is an acknowledgement in the commentary that Rachel Weisz chose not to participate in the film and needed to be replaced by Maria Bello, but there is no discussion as to why this occurred. The featurettes notably avoid this subject, even in the material covering the casting of the film. On the other hand, the featurettes do make clear that Jet Li, in spite of his top-billed status, was actually only in a small part of the film, and was replaced by a CGI terracotta version for most of the scenes. (It’s clear when watching the film that his participation was limited, but, to their credit, the filmmakers openly acknowledge the extent of the issue.)
VIDEO QUALITY: 3 ½/5 ½
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is presented in a colorful anamorphic 2.40:1 widescreen transfer that shows a great range from the orange desert scenery to the solid green river where we see Brendan Fraser fishing at the beginning of the film. The significant number of CGI shots mesh well with the live action photography, and the many CGI set extensions blend in an unnoticeable fashion. Considering this is a brand new, big budget production, it’s not surprising that the transfer on display here is a solid one.
AUDIO QUALITY: 4/5
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix in English, French and Spanish that surrounds the viewer with music and atmospheric effects. Like the other recent Mummy movies, this one is loaded with big sounds – explosions, chases, combat sequences – that make full use of the home theatre and make the subwoofer a constant presence. As I have noted with other action films with this active of a soundtrack, it’s a better idea to listen to this film early in the evening. A DVS track is included in English.
SPECIAL FEATURES: 2 ½/5 ½
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor has a fair amount of special features, including nearly 90 minutes of featurettes and a director’s commentary on the feature. However, like some other recent releases, there’s not a lot of substance. Almost all the material is either cursory glances at deeper material, or just the usual intercuts of director and cast complimenting each other. There is also some overlap between the various featurettes, with some Rob Cohen quotes showing up in no less than three of them.
The first disc holds the following material:
Feature Commentary Commentary with Director Rob Cohen – Rob Cohen provides a friendly scene-specific commentary, referring to the locations and the methods he used to get his shots. He briefly mentions the replacement of Rachel Weisz, but does not elaborate on this area. As also shown in the featurettes, Cohen is very interested in Chinese history, and this plays out in the commentary.
Deleted and Extended Scenes (10:44, Anamorphic) – Here we have around ten minutes, primarily of brief scene extensions, including a longer ending and a trio of romantic interludes in the Himalayas. (John Hannah’s is probably the most memorable of the three...) They are presented in anamorphic widescreen, and show good editorial decisions, as their inclusion in the film would have spread it up to or past the 2 hour mark. (This isn’t exactly ten minutes of material – there’s usually lead-in and lead-out footage from the theatrical release to give the scenes some context.)
When the first disc is put into the machine, a series of non-anamorphic trailers are presented for the DVD release of The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior, the theatrical release of Coraline (this one is more of a mini-featurette than a trailer), the now-cancelled NBC TV series My Own Worst Enemy, the video game of Wanted: Weapons of Fate, Beethoven’s Big Break, and the Universal Blu-ray trailer.
The second disc is home to the majority of the special features assembled here:
The Making of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (22:46, Anamorphic) – This is a fluffy general featurette, cutting between film footage, on-set video and mutually complimentary interviews with all the principal actors, Rob Cohen and the producers saying nice things about each other. Stephen Sommers happily praises Cohen’s work, and Cohen discusses using the family of characters Sommers established in the first two films. (Some of these snippets are also used in the other featurettes on the disc.) There’s a bit of a production diary feel to this featurette, as it tracks the shoot from beginning to end, from the Montreal stages to the Chinese backlot and locations. And there’s the occasional mishap – after Cohen makes the comment about how lucky they’ve been with the weather, the next day sees them filming in the rain.
From City to Desert – (15:42, Anamorphic) - This anamorphic featurette focuses on the location shooting for the film, including some video of location scouts in China. The material includes discussions of the stages used in Montreal, the massive Shanghai backlot and the various Chinese locations in between. There’s some interesting footage of the equipment and vehicles used for the production, particularly in the Chinese exteriors, but for the most part, this is another collection of mutually complimentary interviews intercut with upbeat set videos. (Some of the set footage overlaps with the earlier featurette.)
Legacy of the Terra Cotta (13:33, Anamorphic) – This featurette covers the film’s use of Chinese history and art design as part of its tapestry. There’s another gathering of film footage, set video and complimentary interviews. Of course, by the end of the featurette, Cohen admits that the film isn’t an in-depth examination of Chinese culture.
A Call to Action: The Casting Process (4:43, Anamorphic) – This featurette focuses on the casting of the various new characters seen in the film, including Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, Isabella Leong and Luke Ford. The replacement of Rachel Weisz with Maria Bello is only mentioned insofar as Bello says she is a fan of the first two films. Some footage is included of the cast table reading of the script, which might have made for an interesting special feature on its own.
Preparing for Battle with Brendan Fraser and Jet Li (10:39, Anamorphic) – This featurette covers the stunt fight work in the film, including interviews with Mike Lambert, the fight choreographer. Lambert explains both in his interviews and in on-set video the different fight styles he intended for the various characters.
Jet Li: Crafting the Emperor Mummy (7:58, Anamorphic) – This featurette covers the CGI work done to generate a terracotta version of Jet Li and his army, including interviews with the CGI artists and on-set footage, as well as footage of the motion capture session held with Li. Cohen describes the look of the terracotta people as a “liquid solid” in that the clay must crack when the people move, but then it does a molten re-seal a moment later. As stated earlier, this really covers the situation that Li was only available to the production for a limited time, and the CGI terracotta “Li” is the one that is seen for most of the film.
Creating New & Supernatural Worlds (8:33, Anamorphic) – This featurette covers a little more on location filming and on the CGI extensions done to provide a bigger canvass. The focus here is on Production Designer Nigel Phelps and the various sets created for the film. While some design sketches and paintings are included here, most of the material and clips are repeated from the earlier featurettes.
Digital Copy – This digital copy can be downloaded to your PC, Mac or portable device. Instructions on how to do this are included in the packaging. One warning – you cannot access this via the regular menus. In order to get it, you need to put the disc in your computer and follow the autorun menu that should come up. (If all else fails, use the instructions on the insert in the DVD case. But for my computer, an autorun popup appeared that asked if I wanted to access the digital copy or just play the DVD.)
Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish for the film itself, as well as for the special features. A standard chapter menu is included for quick reference.
IN THE END...
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is a fun two hours of escapist entertainment, but it probably won’t stay with you longer than it takes to take the DVD out of the machine. There’s some great scenic photography in China, and a lot of CGI on display, but even with the location shift, this still feels like the third instalment in the story, and while the specifics are somewhat fresh, the overall story feels quite familiar. This 2-disc set actually feels a little less than the sum of its parts, given the lack of depth in the featurettes (mirroring that of the film), but fans of the series will likely enjoy the scenery. I recommend a rental before purchasing.
December 16, 2008.