After the unexpected box office success of 1999’s The Mummy, it became inevitable that a sequel would appear. That this occurred didn’t seem surprising, but few foresaw how popular the new flick would be. Very few sequels outgross the original films. One of the most notable exceptions was 1999’s Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me; its $205 million totally blew away the $53 million take of 1997’s Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day also took in much more money than did 1984’s The Terminator; the sequel grabbed $204 million compared to the original’s $36 million. Returns didn’t obliterate Mummy to that degree, but its $201 million still marked a nice increase over the first film’s $155 million.
Why did the sequel capture such a strong audience? That’s a good question. I suppose brand identification may have been part of it; folks had two years to live with the original and rewatch it on video, so foreknowledge of the sequel was strong. While Mummy got a decent advertising push, it didn’t compare to the blitz that accompanied the sequel; the success of Mummy caught the studio a little by surprise, but that wouldn’t occur for the new flick.
While most of the Mummy cast returned for Returns, one addition also padded the box office. Dwayne Johnson - better known as pro wrestler the Rock - proved to be a strong draw for audiences, and the studio had so much faith in him that they green-lighted a prequel called The Scorpion King, one that would focus mainly on his character.
All of those factors likely contributed to the success of Returns, but perhaps the strongest one related to the film itself. Returns attempted to reinvent no wheels, as it uniformly gave the audience what they wanted. I wouldn’t call it a remake of the first movie, but it bore many similarities to the original.
That didn’t mean that it was an unenjoyable experience, as I actually thought it was a fairly fun piece. Returns takes place in 1933, 10 years after the events of Mummy. Protagonists Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) got married and now have an eight-year-old son named Alex (Freddie Boath). They live in England where they continue to deal with antiquities, and Evie’s brother Jonathan (John Hannah) still plays the part of the ne’er-do-well aspiring playboy.
Before we rejoin them, however, we spend a few minutes in ancient Egypt where we learn the legend of the Scorpion King (the Rock). After the film sets up his tale, we jump to “current” events and the action starts. Basically, it’s the “year of the scorpion”, which means that he and his armies can be resurrected. Fans of the first film’s baddie Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) - including his reincarnated lover Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velasquez) - want to bring him back so he can quickly off Scorpy and take over his warriors so they can rule the world.
Not surprisingly, Rick, Evie and crew get involved in the enterprise when they discover an important doodad. While he examines it, the bracelet attaches itself to Alex’s arm. It also reveals the path to Scorpy’s hideout, so he becomes crucial to the action. Essentially Imhotep comes back to life and his flunkies kidnap Alex so they can get to the Scorpion King. The O’Connells chase after him so they can save their son and the world itself!
Although the quest for Alex lends some twists to the plot, for the most part the story of Returns came across as little more than an alternate version of the original. That’s not unusual for sequels; many of them essentially just repeat the first with some small differences. While this does mean a lack of creativity, I don’t necessarily regard it as a horrible thing. After all, the original Mummy wasn’t exactly a bastion of inventiveness either; it mixed aspects of prior Mummy films with an Indiana Jones feel.
Returns continues along those lines; it really is a “more of the same” movie, but it succeeds pretty well nonetheless. Both flicks epitomize the “popcorn flick” genre. They seem fairly brainless but they offer enough thrills and excitement to be worthwhile.
On the positive side, Returns indeed packs in a lot of good action. If anything, it pours on more of these sequences than seen in the original film. From almost literally start to finish, Returns pounds the viewer with these pieces, and many of them are quite good. The double-decker bus chase through London was a lot of fun, and though it boldly stole stylistic ideas from the raptor attack in The Lost World, the pygmy mummies were also a delightful touch that offered something unusual.
The introduction of young Alex also created a new dynamic, even though he spent much of the movie away from his parents. Often I dislike kids placed in this sort of situation. Actually, most film children are fairly annoying as a whole, and I can’t say that Boath did a lot for me. That said, he could - and probably should - have been much more grating than he was. As a whole, I thought he seemed acceptable in the part, and Alex was a tolerable character. Under the circumstances, that was about the best I could ask.
The two female leads got expanded screen time in Returns. Weisz left behind the mousy librarian of the original; in a leap of growth that seemed to be patterned on the development of Sarah Connor between The Terminator and Terminator 2, she became a tough archaeolo-chick here. Weisz made the change seem natural and believable, and it was nice to see someone who could usually take care of herself, though the movie inevitably forced her to be saved at some point. Nonetheless, she did some rescuing of her own, so a nice balance was struck.
Velasquez’s Anck-Su-Namun really got a boost in screen time. She was barely a factor in the original, as she was evoked in spirit much more than she was seen in the flesh, rotting or otherwise. However, she plays a major role in Returns, and I enjoyed this added breadth. Not only did it allow Anck-Su-Namun to become a real personality, but it also meant that we saw not one but two sexy catfights between Velasquez and Weisz! Can’t beat that!
As for the other returning actors, they showed a minor diminution in their parts. Actually, I can’t honestly state that Fraser and Vosloo spend less time on-screen during Returns; technically they may get more face time here. However, I felt as though they were less substantial here. Perhaps because of the presence of Anck-Su-Namun, Imhotep seemed less like he was in charge, whereas he clearly was the prime baddie in Mummy. The same went for Fraser; since his wife could hold up her end of the bargain - and played a stronger role in the plot - he appeared as though he didn’t have quite as much to do.
In addition, Fraser seemed somewhat tired in the role. I’ve always liked him as an actor, and he wasn’t bad as Rick, but he lacked the same spark and flair I expected from him. Rick appeared less powerful and slick, and he offered a mildly lackluster personality. On the other hand, Weisz answered the new challenge well, as she presented a lively and active character. Perhaps this was because she got to do something new while Fraser had to repeat the same old thing from the first movie.
While the Rock’s participation in the film received a great deal of publicity, he barely registered. The Rock only appeared in person during the first few minutes of the movie. While the Scorpion King made a return at the end of the flick, he did so in a computer animated manner, with no human involvement.
Speaking of which, I thought the CGI in The Mummy looked excessively artificial, and the sequel offered no improvements. Smaller elements tended to work acceptably well, but large CG characters appeared very cartoony. Whether Imhotep, the Anubis warriors, or the Scorpion King, all of these pieces felt like they came from computer game cutscenes. The Scorpion King suffered the most because his head had to resemble a real person; at least the others used totally unreal elements. The weak CGI wasn’t a terrible distraction, but it did take away from the experience at times.
Still, in the end, The Mummy Returns offered a generally enjoyable action/fantasy experience, though not one without flaws. The movie seemed fun but not anything special. It’s the kind of flick that entertains you for a couple of hours and that’s it; you don’t remember much about it when it finishes. To be sure, Returns provided an above-average adventure, as it was a good summer flick. It simply wasn’t anything particularly memorable or exceptional.
Odd footnote: different sources seem confused about the chronology between Mummy and Returns. This shouldn’t be tough. Clearly the first one noted that it was 1923, while the sequel firmly stated it was 1933. Correct me if my math’s bad, but that looks like 10 years to me. However, various sources found on this DVD state that Returns took place eight or nine years after the events of Mummy. Weird!
Second footnote: am I the only one who thinks Patricia Velasquez looks and sounds a lot like Sandra Bullock? At one point, she even comments to Alex about something that would happen “when you were sleeping”. Sly nod to her Bullock resemblance, or pathetic stretch made by yours truly? You be the judge!
The Mummy Returns appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Anyone who wants to find problems with this picture will walk away sadly disappointed; as one might expect of a brand-new, big-budget flick, Returns looked absolutely terrific.
Sharpness appeared to be crisp and detailed through the entire movie. I detected no signs of softness or fuzziness at any time, as the flick always looked well defined and accurate. I witnessed no examples of moiré effects or jagged edges, and I also saw no edge enhancement. In regard to print flaws, I discerned exactly one. When Ardeth Bay bid adieu at the end of the movie, a very small hair briefly popped up on screen. Otherwise, the movie appeared to be totally free of grain, grit, speckles, nicks, blotches or other defects; it was a wonderfully clean and fresh presentation.
As was the case with the first movie, Returns mainly featured a golden palette, and the DVD replicated these warm tones nicely. Colors seemed to be vivid and accurate, and other hues also came across well. The reds of various costumes looked vibrant and solid, and the entire flick showed clean and distinct colors. Black levels were deep and rich, and shadow detail looked appropriately heavy but not excessively thick. Fire lit many scenes, and these struck a fine balance between light and dark. Overall, The Mummy Returns provided a simply fantastic visual experience.
Also terrific was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of The Mummy Returns. Unfortunately, Universal didn’t see fit to include a DTS mix on this DVD - more about that omission later - but I felt very pleased with the high caliber of the Dolby audio. The soundfield presented a broad and consistently engaging affair. All five channels received a strong workout, as they offered a variety of elements throughout the movie. Music showed good stereo separation and breadth, and effects seemed to be well placed and accurately localized. These aspects came from logical places and they moved neatly between speakers.
The surrounds played an active role in the film, but the many action pieces provided the best examples of the engulfing audio. Probably my favorite scene occurred when Imhotep unleashed the giant wave. All of the speakers came vividly to life and the sound melded together tremendously well to create a clear and vibrant impression. While that sequence worked best, much of the movie included very engrossing sound.
Audio quality also appeared to be top-notch. Despite the fact that much of the speech must have been looped, I thought dialogue always sounded warm and natural. The lines blended well with the action, and I heard no concerns related to intelligibility or edginess. Music sounded bright and showed good fidelity with fine dynamic range. Effects were the most prominent aspect of the mix, as they presented accurate and bold elements that really created a fine mix. Bass response was loud and tight, and the low-end really shook the house at times - literally. Ultimately, The Mummy Returns offered a fine audio track that really added to the movie.
Hmm… perhaps I shouldn’t use the word “ultimately” in regard to The Mummy Returns; it might cause some consternation. That issue relates to the supplements - or lack thereof - found on the current DVD, and fears that Universal will replace this single-disc release with a more elaborate package. I’ll discuss that topic in more detail later; for the time being, I’ll stick with the extras we do find on The Mummy Returns. The disc lists a slew of supplements, but although there are some good pieces, unfortunately the whole seems like less than the sum of its parts.
First up is an audio commentary from writer/director Stephen Sommers and executive producer/editor Bob Ducsay. Both men were recorded together for this running, screen-specific affair. They reprised their performance for a track on the DVD for The Mummy. That piece offered an entertaining experience, and their material for Returns repeated the successful attempt from 1999.
As with their track for Mummy, Sommers and Ducsay kept the tone light and lively as they went over a variety of production elements. They covered technical concepts, alterations made to the script, various anecdotes plus a lot of smaller bits, especially in regard to goofs and gaffes. They were totally willing to poke affectionate fun at the flick as they told us of their errors and also acknowledged some of the movie’s stretches. One wonderfully catty aspect came from their periodic razzing of Roger Ebert; apparently they felt he took the movie too seriously, so they got back at him for his appraisal of the flick. It was a fun and informative commentary that I definitely enjoyed.
Among the long list of additional features, I was hard-pressed to find much of depth. Some of the material simply promoted the upcoming Scorpion King movie. An Exclusive Conversation With the Rock offered a three minute and 40 second interview clip with the actor. This piece provided little more than a fluffy exercise in which the Rock told us about Scorpion King and his new experiences as an actor. It seemed mildly watchable but inconsequential.
Next we saw a preview for The Scorpion King and a blurb that enticed us to “Unlock the Secrets of The Scorpion King”. This referred to the DVD-ROM features; more about them later.
The longest program found here was a Spotlight On Location featurette about The Mummy Returns. This 20-minute show offered the standard mix of movie clips - lots of them, actually - plus shots from the set and interview snippets with principals. Mainly we heard from the actors as well as director Sommers, producer James Jacks, visual effects supervisor John Berton and others. Some of the effects material was moderately interesting, and I also liked some of the “behind the scenes” shots, but as a whole, this was nothing more than a standard promotional piece. For the most part, it provided footage that told us about the story and the characters and how great the movie would be, but otherwise, it was a thin show.
In the Outtakes section, we discovered six minutes and five seconds of the usual goof-ups and clowning. These were mildly entertaining, though the only one that actually made me laugh briefly featured an impression of Scotty from Star Trek by John Hannah. Blink and you’ll miss it, though.
Visual and Special Effects Formation broke down into some subsections. There were four movie scenes examined: “Imhotep Returns”, “Pygmy Mummies Attack”, “Anubis Warriors Rising”, and “Scorpion King Revealed”. Each looked at five different stages, from concept to final, and all except the actual film footage included comments from visual effects supervisor John Berton. The snippets ran between 15 seconds and 129 seconds for a total of 17 minutes and 34 seconds of material.
Overall, I thought this was good stuff. The pieces showed the elements as they evolved, and they offered some solid insights into the process. My main complaint stemmed from the lack of a “play all” option. As was the case with a similar feature on the DVDs for The Mummy, it required a lot of clicking to get through all of the fairly short segments, and the lack of user friendliness seemed silly. I liked the material, but the execution was a bit weak.
A music video for Live’s Forever May Not Be Long Enough appeared next. This used the standard video-from-a-movie format. The band lip-synched in front of an Egyptian-themed setting; those shots were intercut with many movie segments. It was okay for the genre but it did little for me. The four and a half minute piece also provided an ad for the soundtrack album as a whole.
Not surprisingly, Egyptology 201 expands on “Egyptology 101” from the DVD for The Mummy. Here we find text discussions of “An In-Depth Look at Mummification”, “The Most Famous Mummy: King Tut”, “Animals of Ancient Egypt”, “Myths and Magic of Ancient Egypt”, and “The Scorpion King: Myth or Reality?” These details are fairly brief and superficial, but they provide some acceptably interesting information about the topics. The depth didn’t remotely approach that of “Egyptology 101”, but it was still fairly compelling.
In regard to some standard extras found on many Universal DVDs, we got the theatrical trailer for Returns and some rather brief biographies in the Cast and Filmmakers area. This offered perfunctory listings for writer/director Sommers plus actors Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, Arnold Vosloo, Oded Fehr, Patricia Velasquez, and the Rock. The Production Notes added some very solid text as well. The information was surprisingly deep and useful; they definitely merit a look. The DVD’s booklet also included additional material of this sort, though those comments were much briefer.
After this, we found more unusual - and generally useless - extras. “A Special Message From Oded Fehr” provided a 50-second appeal from the actor to get support for Kids Cancer Connection. Obviously this wasn’t an entertaining piece, but it may help a good cause.
Thus ended the altruistic segment of the disc. After that, we went strictly for promotional opportunities. We got a 65-second trailer for a Playstation 2 Mummy Returns game, and some other pieces that touted Universal’s theme parks. “The Mummy Returns: Chamber of Doom” provided a three-minute, five-second walk-through of a new - and very minor - attraction at the California location. Basically it looked like a really lame haunted house; I can’t imagine this ad will entice anyone to visit the park.
In addition, “The Mummy Returns Special Offer” offered a 90-second promo for all of the studio’s amusement locations. Despite the title, there was no “special offer” involved; the glossy ad ended with a number to call to book a vacation, but unless it’s a special line through which one can get a bargain, I saw nothing “special” about the piece.
The DVD-ROM area let you wander around various “locations”. “O’Connell Manor” allows you to check out some text about the movie. “Production Notes” gives us some more details about the movie and the story. All of the screens here and elsewhere also include a “News Ticker” that displays factoids at the bottom of the screen. “Cast Members” adds biographies of the same seven actors listed above as well as Freddie Boath, while “Crew Members” features Sommers plus 12 others. These entries seemed to be more detailed than those on the regular DVD.
The “British Museum” lets you check out all the features from the main disc, and it also includes “Mummy Exhibit”, a surprisingly detailed look at “The Art of Mummification”. A slew of video clips provide remarks from expert Ronn Wade. The “Art Gallery” tosses in 20 promo stills from the movie.
In the “Pyramid”, we find a tremendously lame boxing “game”. Mash those buttons fast and you’ll do fine; it left me with nothing more than some sore fingers. The “Pygmy Oasis” contest was no better; it offered a shoot-em-up that bored me even more than did the “Pyramid”.
At “Karnac”, yet another crummy game appears. “Imhotep’s Maze” forces you - surprise! - to run around a maze. Yawn. “Hamunaptra” features three different screensavers as well as a “Translator”. It requires you to find hidden hieroglyphics throughout the site and have them translated to get “hidden treasures”. This area relates to the “Join the Army of Anubis!” button on the main menu screen. The “hidden treasures” weren’t worth the trouble.
Finally, the DVD-ROM area provides some Internet links. We get connections to: Universal DVD Newsletter; Universal DVD; Universal Home Video; Universal Pictures; and Universal Studios. Alas, the highly touted “Unlock the Secrets of the Scorpion King” just goes to universalstudios.com right now. I wrote this three weeks before the DVD hit shelves; this feature may not become active until street date.
One annoyance about the presentation: we must wade through far too many snippets before we can actually watch the movie. For years, Universal have provided a general DVD promo, but The Mummy Returns takes this to a new threshold. Press “Play Movie” and first you find the usual Universal DVD ad, and then we get a seven-second introduction from the Rock. Introduction to what? To the same Scorpion King preview found elsewhere on the disc. Once this ends, we find a listing of the PG-13 rating for the film, and then finally we go to the movie itself. Sorry, but even though we can easily skip past each of these, they become a real nuisance; one or two intrusions is bad enough, but four is ridiculous.
Earlier I stated that I probably shouldn’t have used the word “ultimately” in regard to this DVD. The reason for that relates to Universal’s current affection for reissued DVDs that are referred to as “Ultimate Editions”. They’ve put out a few of these for flicks like Notting Hill, Patch Adams, American Pie, Meet Joe Black as well as The Mummy itself. Many DVD fans are irked about these since they seem to punish them for buying the old versions. Most of these UEs replace DVDs that already offer a good number of extras; only Meet Joe Black significantly improved on the original.
At least none of those UEs hit shelves until the first versions had been out for at least 18 months. Based on that, one would normally think that they’re safe for a while and would feel like they could get good use out of the initial editions before they “need to” replace the discs. However, a recent Universal reissue increased the potential paranoia. A nice DVD of Nutty Professor II: The Klumps came out in December 2000, but a second “uncensored” version appeared five months later. The latter included some extended scenes incorporated into the film. It also added new extras and dropped some from the original. That meant serious Klumps fans needed to own both to complete their collections.
I suppose these behaviors have helped the bottom line for Universal, but they haven’t endeared the studio to many DVD fans, and a number of people state that they’ll skip this Collector’s Edition in case an Ultimate Edition hits at some point. Frankly, I can’t blame them. Universal have shown that they’ll update a product only a few months after the appearance of the first one, and with the spring 2002 theatrical release of The Scorpion King upcoming, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a UE of Returns around that time. I don’t have any “inside information” to establish this, but based on Universal’s current patterns, it seems like a good possibility.
Nonetheless, I was fairly pleased with the Collector’s Edition of The Mummy Returns. The movie was a capable extension of the first film. I thought the original seemed fresher and more winning, but the sequel did well in its own right. The DVD offered simply terrific picture and sound, and though the extras weren’t consistently strong, we got a fine audio commentary, some nice visual effects discussions, and some other watchable bits. This wasn’t the kind of packed, “slam dunk” package I might expect for a blockbuster movie, but The Mummy Returns was still a fairly solid set that merits your attention.