The first Lord of the Rings movie, while visually stunning, suffered from enough story-structure flaws to make it reasonably dull for those of us who aren't automatically aroused by the sight of dwarves frolicking with elves. Constructed as a series of disconnected episodes with deus ex machina endings, it lacked the kind of cohesive narrative arc that plot-oriented movies need to succeed.
Also, the music was tremendously grating, and the effects used to make the hobbits seem small were often clumsy enough that they destroyed the mood of the film.
Well, strangely, the second film in the series has none of these problems. OK, the music is still not great, but it's not atrociously overdone, and it at least matches up to the intensity of the battle sequences.
In fact, The Two Towers is really excellent. It has a cohesive story that builds to a smashing climax; the effects and visuals, though more subdued than the first episode's, are darkly pretty and seamlessly represent the alien feel of Middle Earth, and the editing is tighter and more focused.
What really makes this one work, though, is exactly what the last one was lacking, which is well-structured storytelling. With the forces of darkness building in the citadels surrounding the titular two towers, there is a clear-cut enemy with a clear-cut purpose. The heroes of the fellowship, now split into three groups, all have well-defined goals, and their stories have a definite sense of purpose.
Most of this film focuses on the human king Aragorn, his elf companion Legolas and their dwarf sidekick Gimli. While searching for their missing hobbit companions, they are swept up into an enormous battle between the armies of King Théoden of Rohan and the orc-warriors of the white wizard Saruman. (Note: that is the nerdiest paragraph I have ever had to write.)
While this story is neatly self-contained, the story of Frodo Baggins and his pal Samwise Gamgee and their quest to destroy the One Ring suffers a bit from "middle-episode syndrome." Nothing much happens in their tale, though we frequently cut back to them and their travels with the oddly lovable homicidal gremlin Gollum.
The hobbit story also suffers from some goofy acting by lead hobbit Elijah Wood, but this doesn't detract from the other stories, which really gain by the spot-on performances of Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn and Orlando Bloom as Legolas.
This movie also has a better handle on the romance between Aragorn and his elf-maiden lover Arwen than the last film. Now, before I scrub my hands with steel wool to try to get rid of the stink of having written the words "elf-maiden lover," I should note that both Mortensen, and Liv Tyler, who plays Arwen (the aforementioned elf-maiden lover) are perfect old-school romantic leads. I mean, if I was gay, I'd totally do Viggo Mortensen. And if I was straight, I'd totally do Liv Tyler. And if I was into computer-animated monsters, I'd totally do Gollum. So there's, like, something for everyone.
Director Peter Jackson, aware of Mortensen's screen presence and the compelling nature of Aragorn's story, seems to have switched the focus in Tolkein's work more towards this human character, such that, at least in this episode, Frodo is no longer the lead protagonist. I think this was a good move, and shows that Jackson now has a better handle on his incredibly expansive story.
In fact, in spite of its three-hour run-time, Two Towers is seldom dull, and its final hour is almost ceaselessly amusing. It features what is probably the best medieval-style battle sequence ever filmed, and it somehow manages to convey both the enormity of the armies in play, and the personal stories of the key soldiers. This is no mean feat, and Jackson should really be commended for the fine editing job needed to pull this off.
Sadly, having read a number of Christian criticisms of this film, I do need to point out one major flaw it has: No matter how entertaining this movie is, it is an abomination in the eyes of God because it depicts witchcraft and magic in a positive light. Also, the color gets kind of washed-out in some of the later battle scenes, and God hates that kind of thing.