Jackson's decision to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien's fairly straight-forward Hobbit novel into a sprawling fantasy/adventure movie trilogy - featuring additional plot material that serves as a prelude to the Lord of the Rings trilogy - continues to divide film buffs, as evidenced by the range of critical reactions and general feelings towards the first chapter, An Unexpected Journey (read our review), and to a lesser extent with The Desolation of Smaug.
Sidestepping that debate - how does The Desolation of Smaug compare to the middle-chapter in the Rings trilogy, The Two Towers? One is a rousing fantasy adventure, while the other is a grandiose fantasy war epic - but does one achieve what it sets out to do better than the other?
Well, in keeping with our comparison between An Unexpected Journey and Fellowship of the Ring, we'll examine The Desolation of Smaug and The Two Towers with regard to five different aspects: the characters, story, world, action/effects and direction. (Of course, if you're already decided which one you feel is better, feel free to jump ahead and cast your vote in the comments section of this article.)
Thematically, the first installments in Jackson's Hobbit and Rings trilogies examine flip sides of fate - choosing your destiny vs. accepting the destiny you are given - which are elaborated upon in the second chapters of each respective series, through the collective experiences of the many, many Middle-eartheans that populate both films.
In The Desolation of Smaug, we get the pleasure of watching Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continue his evolution as a character, gaining more courage and sharpening his wits - but remaining a polite and pleasant (if bumbling) Hobbit at his core. Meanwhile, the film better establishes why Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is perceived by his dwarfish peers as a king-in-waiting and great leader, yet it doesn't skip addressing the dangerous consequences that his actions bring (nor how Thorin's stubbornness can be as much a strength as a weakness).
As a result, Bilbo and Thorin continue to make for compelling leads in The Desolation of Smaug, since we are shown heretofore unseen shades of their moral fiber and personality; including, a darkness glimpsed in Bilbo - brought out by The Ring of Power (which becomes a great metaphor for how Bilbo's newfound bravery/cunning is a double-edged sword) - and Thorin's questionable motives, as his (Noble? Selfish?) desire to reclaim the Lonely Mountain brings out the cracks in his armor (which is overtly, but still effectively, symbolized with the Arkenstone).
Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) has moments of strength, but he's mostly the same plucky, yet passive, Hobbit in The Two Towers as we saw in Fellowship of the Ring; albeit, worn down by the burden of being Ring-Bearer; it's Samwise Gamgee (Sean Astin) who starts to emerge as more resourceful than he originally seemed. Similarly, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) largely treads water rather than making progress forward with his character arc, yet is also portrayed with greater depth (thanks to a series of flashbacks to his time in Rivendell).
Certain supporting characters - like Kili and Balin in The Desolation of Smaug; Merry and Pippin in The Two Towers - are given room to grow in the respective Middle-earth films, while others remain flat and unchanged; save for Gimli in Two Towers, who gets reduced to mostly comic relief and played for laughs a bit too much. Bombur in The Desolation of Smaug, by contrast, is still primarily a source of humor, but he gets adequate time to prove his valor (see: the water barrel sequence).
Surprisingly, it's Legolas and the newly-created Tauriel who make for especially intriguing (and unexpectedly multi-dimensional) players that intrude on the proceedings in The Desolation of Smaug, more so than comparable additions in The Two Towers like Eowyn and King Théoden.
Depending on how the Mirkwood elves fit into the story of the final Hobbit movie, they could wind up feeling like dead weight (unlike Eowyn and Théoden in Return of the King); the same goes for other additions, whose storylines are but partially finished in these second installments (see: Bard the Bowman from The Hobbit, Faramir from Rings).
Meanwhile, Gandalf gets sent away to manage other tasks (read: functions more as a plot device than character) for large chunks of both films, which are likewise evenly matched in having a wonderful scenery-chewing motion-capture addition: the malicious, yet pitiable, split-personalities of Gollum/Sméagol (Andy Serkis) and the baleful, yet egotistical, dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch).
In the end, the Hobbit film emerges triumphant, since it takes more time to form nuanced protagonists and supporting characters alike. However, there is a drawback to that approach, which shall be addressed next...
The Winner: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Next Page: Story and World