The Desolation of Smaug, like An Unexpected Journey, is distinctly novelistic in its design, which allows for the inclusion of a handful of narrative asides, tangents and/or character-driven moments that will tie in together over the long haul (ie. during the Hobbit trilogy finale). Two Towers, like Fellowship of the Ring, is more of a streamlined cinematic rendition of its source material, yet also far-reaching and perfectly willing to take its time chugging along. Is one storytelling approach fundamentally superior to the other?
There's a worthwhile debate to have about that (see also: those who prefer the Rings movie theatrical cuts vs. extended editions), but for our purposes we shall instead focus on what these two films manage to accomplish, using their respective methods.
We'll run through these accomplishments by bullet-point:
- Neither The Desolation of Smaug nor The Two Towers have proper beginnings nor endings, yet each film still manages to have a proper three-act structure (complete with a framework that includes a prologue, to get the story rolling).
- The former is akin to a serial adventure episode, while the latter manages to have achieved a somewhat greater sense of completion by the time the climax is finished.
- Two Towers trisects into three separate narrative threads in the beginning, but is (mostly) able to keep the juggling act steady throughout. The Desolation of Smaug has a clear story through-line, yet weaves in subplots in a (again, mostly) balanced manner.
- A lot happens in both films, yet Two Towers offers a little more immediate payoff, while The Desolation of Smaug saves more for later.
Interestingly, while the storytelling pace quickens and the stakes ramp up exponentially in The Desolation of Smaug (compared to its predecessor), Two Towers slows down after the burst out of the gate on Fellowship of the Ring and is bigger in terms of battles, scale and emotion - all while keeping the stakes high.
However, Two Towers has a tendency to feel somewhat repetitive at times during its final act (i.e. the Battle of Helm's Deep) and is a bit sluggish in the middle, during the build-up to the big showdown. By comparison, The Desolation of Smaug uses a predictable, yet smooth, road map for direction throughout (i.e. an obstacle course of events linked together) - which could be better or worse, depending on how you look at it.
All factors weighed, the edge will go to Two Towers in this area of consideration, based on the logic that it feels more like a full story (and less a middle-chapter).
The Desolation of Smaug, like An Unexpected Journey, has an internal structure, but feels more like a part of a whole - which, if the final Hobbit installment is up to scratch, could result in the trilogy providing an overall more fulfilling experience than any individual Middle-earth film (or even the Rings trilogy), in terms of how the over-reaching plot is executed.
But, until further notice, we cannot say for certain that will be true. Thus:
Winner: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
An Unexpected Journey invests more time than any Rings movie in making Middle-earth feel like a living, breathing realm, allowing moviegoers ample time to enjoy playing in this sandbox - but does The Desolation of Smaug manage as much, seeing how it's more action-packed and set piece-heavy? Or is it Two Towers that paints a more detailed and richly-colored world populated by hobbits, dwarves, humans, and so forth?
Well, Two Towers slows down after Fellowship of the Ring and pauses to examine Tolkien's imaginative kingdom from a more intimate perspective, offering a closer look at the personalities of orcs and Uruk-hai (apparently, those loathsome beasts can be kind of whiny), while also envisioning landmarks that will haunts your dreams (see: the Dead Marshes) and delving into the history of the world's forests, through the subplots involving the Ents and Treebeard.
Indeed, because Two Towers doesn't cover the entirely of its source material (saving certain events for the Return of the King adaptation), it allows the film an opportunity to better flesh out the characteristics of creatures and cultures around Middle-earth - particularly those of the humans who populate the open plains of Rohan (and Gondor's foot soldiers who keep Mordor at bay) - compared to Fellowship.
Having said that, Middle-earth once again feels more properly-realized in the second chapter of the Hobbit trilogy than its counterpart from the Rings movies.
The Desolation of Smaug envelopes viewers in the history of this land and its fantastical inhabitants - shape-shifters, orcs, giant spiders - in addition to offering scenes you might've never expected to see. (Seriously, who thought drunken Mirkwood elves would make an appearance?) Similarly, the presence and influence of evil returning to Middle-earth is reflected in the landscape in ways that the second Rings movie sometimes doesn't accomplish.
Two Towers rectifies a problem in Fellowship of the Ring - where beautiful Middle-earth settings occasionally feel like shiny backdrops that are too removed from the proceedings - but The Desolation of Smaug pulls you into the scenery; quite literally, thanks to the 3D cinematography and camera work (more on that later). Casual moviegoers might not enjoy how stuffed the Hobbit films are so much when compared to die-hard Tolkien fans, but it's hard to deny that the new playground is an improvement.
The Winner: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
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