NEW YORK - Peter Jackson, the New Zealand director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, almost begs to be described as a hobbit. His hair flies out like untrimmed shrubbery. His endomorphic profile suggests a yen for enormous Shire-style feasts. And he goes barefoot despite the frigidity of his Manhattan hotel room when the heating system breaks down.
More important, as his hobbit actors say, he catalyzes fun with every passing second. His avidity for sparking spontaneous humor and emotion in mammoth, outlandish settings gives The Two Towers, which opens Wednesday, an escalating, inexhaustible vitality.
The first two movies in this J.R.R. Tolkien-based trilogy boast emotional power and surprise unequaled in the epic-fantasy genre. That's partly because of Jackson's own hobbitry. He works close to the ground with his actors to conjure an unruly life that's rare in historical films and period spectacles as well as three-hour fables.
But Jackson's hobbit side alone can't account for these movies' exhilarating sweep and momentum. To sustain the illusion of the lost world of Middle-earth and make it both breathtaking and poignant requires generalship, vision and magical skill - the qualities of a master sorcerer. Jackson may look more like Frodo or Bilbo or Sam, but he also has what it takes to be a conjurer like Gandalf. Inside the appetites and whimsy of a hobbit are the soul and craft of a wizard.
Americans divide leaders between "big picture" guys who delegate authority and micro-managers who dig in like terriers to any minute task. But great directors like Jackson blend these contrasting types. Jackson has the ability to see what lies beyond the far horizon while planting his toes firmly in the dirt.
Critics and audiences couldn't have predicted the range and quality of Jackson's achievement from early gore-fests like Bad Taste (1987) and Braindead (1992). But his 1994 artistic breakthrough, Heavenly Creatures, offered an acute analysis of a real-life matricide while transporting viewers into the intricate shared fantasy life of two teen girlfriends increasingly bent on murder. (Kate Winslet made a striking debut as one of the girls.) And Jackson's 1996 The Frighteners, though marred by a misleading "grabber' opening, is a near-perfect genre film, displaying his uncanny knack for mixing pathos, comedy and horror, and for gaining novel performances from established stars such as Michael J. Fox.
Still, in 1997, no one could have anticipated that a filmmaker with Jackson's meager resume would soon be commanding a $310 million budget to mount a three-part series of immense scope and ambition. What stokes Jackson's ebullience, aside from his astonishing youth (he's 41), is his ardent appreciation for his own fantastic luck.
Fleshing out the concept
During a series of press conferences at Manhattan's Regency Hotel, Jackson's fellow artists stressed the director's conceptual brilliance and his willingness to roll in the creative muck with his collaborators.
Take the eerily gifted Howard Shore, who won an Oscar for scoring The Fellowship of the Ring. He was never in danger of over-scoring and drowning the action in music because when Jackson hired him, Shore became, in effect, another writer. Jackson and Shore linked the musical ebb and flow to the operatic storytelling, and Shore's contribution was more than musical: It was literary. After he saw an early cut of the first movie, he decided there wasn't enough of Tolkien's language in the picture. With Jackson's enthusiastic agreement, Shore worked the verbal rhythms and sometimes the actual words of Elves, Dwarves and hobbits into the score.
But audiences won't go out of The Two Towers humming Shore's melodies as much as mimicking Gollum. A deliciously weird and ominous creature, as endearingly ugly as a baby condor yet as quick and clammy as a poison lizard, Gollum - once a hobbit named Smeagol and now a schizoid figure corrupted by the Ring - turns passive-aggressive wheedling into a lethal weapon. He is prone to muttering in a hoarse, fey voice, about his "Precious": the Ring of Power.
Actor Andy Serkis and Richard Taylor, director of the special-effects company WETA, credited Jackson with kick-starting the movie's Gollum: Jackson decided to use computer-graphic imagery (CGI) to forge Gollum's emaciated anatomy and popped eyes, and make sure that Serkis "owned" the part in every other way.