Wherein Bilbo is sassy to everyone, we get to meet a dragon, and Laketown pays for everyone's hubris.
I've said it before, and now Tolkien is saying it, the dwarfs are not heroes. This is not their hero story, it's Bilbo's.
"The most that can be said of dwarves is this: they intended to pay Bilbo really handsomely for his services; they had brought him to do a nasty job for them, and they did not mind the poor little fellow doing it if he would; but they had would have done their best to get him out of trouble, if he got into it, as they did in the case of the trolls at the beginning of their adventures before they had any particular reason for being grateful to him. There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect much."
Bilbo's been gradually finding the strength and depth of his courage all along, largely by discovering that doing the right thing often means doing something incredibly uncomfortable rather than simply fighting off monsters. Perhaps the real lesson here is how much of fear lies in our minds. The battles are not all visible, many are within.
"Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait."
Of course, along the way of finding his courage, Bilbo got his sass back. He definitely starts the book with a little bit of sass, with that oh so auspicious first meeting with Gandalf. Now he calls out the dwarfs on their timidity, their reliance on others to solve their challenges, and that maybe, just maybe, that they need to step up their game if they want to reclaim their home from a dragon. You go Bilbo.
"But they could think of no way of getting rid of Smaug - which had always been a weak point in their plans."
Just a minor weak point...
Bilbo is barely the same hobbit as when he left his home. He's grown in confidence, courage, and leadership. He's gone from just the surprising problem solver, to coming up with ideas that actively affect the shape of the party's activities. Tolkien calls him the "real leader in their adventure," a role that perhaps he assumed some time ago, in his repeated efforts to keep the dwarfs out of trouble. Luck may have been a large part of his earlier successes, but he's still consistently showing more thought and initiative than any of the dwarfs. And now he's off to beard a dragon in his den.
The interactions between Bilbo and Smaug has long been one of my favorite parts of the book. I love the exaggerated courtesy in which one talks to dragons, the game of riddles and compliments. A telling chapter overall, in the matching of wits, and in the twisted truths that Smaug tells, sewing discord without telling falsehoods.
The interaction with Smaug leads to probably the most pivotal statement in the book. Thorin promises Bilbo that he may select his 14th share of the treasure. Unlike the dwarfs, Bilbo doesn't really have any strong desire for wealth, though the dragon's hoard is enough to tempt even a hobbit. But Thorin's words effectively give Bilbo carte blanche for the plot-changing actions he takes later on.
Of course, in the end of all of this, we have an irate Smaug flying off to Laketown to exact vengeance for the insult and theft sponsored by the dwarfs.
In the film we're really seeing Balin stand out here. If any of the dwarfs mirror Gandalf, it's him. He's far more of a keystone and noble than Thorin is. Balin offers guidance, grounding, support, and reason. And, tying into the mirroring to Gandalf, Balin too says "It never ceases to amaze me... the courage of hobbits." Perhaps more importantly, Balin is the one who really touches on the deterioration of Thorin, saying to his face that "You're not yourself."
Thorin... Thorin is very dramatically unhinged and angsty. Man, I probably would have loved this when I was a teenager. Or maybe not, he really is far too much of an ass. I mean, the proper response to "The dragon is coming!!!!" is not "I don't care, do you have my rock?" and threatening the messenger with your sword. At this point, Thorin stands as leader by dint of pre-existing loyalty and some fear. I suppose it could be argued that Thorin is feeling the effects of the Ring, and in the book the dwarfs know about it by now, but I'm disinclined to accept this as an explanation because the object of his fixation is the Arkenstone. Any hostility and suspicion he lays on Bilbo is not due to the Ring, but indicative of his growing paranoia and Bilbo as the only one who could have encountered the Arkenstone at this point.
Now, I get that walking on a literal landscape of treasure makes it hard to sneak, but what about the quiet movement skill possessed by hobbits? Come now, Bilbo, we know you can do better. But man, what a hoard, it looks like the treasures of multiple empires.
But man, they nailed so much right here. The design of Smaug is amazing, and Cumberbatch's voice is now what I hear in my head when I read Smaug's lines. We have some excellent attention to detail, both in the CGI and small things like the beam of light from Smaug's open eye. I'm willing to forgive a lot of sins for this.
I really wish there was more of the interplay between two of them. One of the delights of this story to me is the almost playful nature of their verbal ripostes. The nature of the exchange has been completely and utterly changed. From a game of wits, to a game of cat and mouse. There is no slyness on the part of Smaug, no withholding of insight here. By the end of it all, Smaug just seems whiny, as he flies off to Laketown.
I'm not even getting into the bit about Smaug detecting "something made of gold, but more precious." A teenager could take tips on eye-rolling from my reaction. Something about creatures of darkness immediately sniffing out the ring, particularly when it's in such a subdued state, just rankles. The ring-wraiths themselves can only vaguely track the ring when Sauron's power is awakened, yet the dragon narrows in on it in a snap. And of course Smaug would know about the "madness" of the Arkenstone...
Clearly decisions were made to trim a bit from Bilbo's solo jaunts into the Mountain, which I can accept generally why this might be done. Of course, the trimming is offset by the whole addition of the dragon-dwarf chase scene.
I'm not sure if I completely can forgive the dwarf vs dragon fight. Yes, it is more heroic than hiding out in a cave, and I do love more time devoted to Smaug, but it's a bit ridiculous. Among other things, the architecture really isn't conducive to a dragon of his size, and he's able to literally shoulder down support pillars carved from the mountain itself but gates slow him down. I'm also not convinced of the thermodynamics involved with that golden statue (and they knew the mold would just happened to be there?), but it was visually stunning. For all my complaints, I cannot fault the artistry of this passage. Just, it all felt like the weirdest game of Mousetrap ever.
Now, for the added content. I could go on for a long time here, so I'm going to make a concerted effort to keep it short even if that means leaving stuff out.
I do like the dwarf backstory shared through to the remains of their ancestors. This adds to the central story neatly, without detracting.
Gandalf is in a bad place and Bard clearly has a glorious heroic destiny coming to him. Clearly, how could we not know with such dramatic hints hammering us over the head.
AND WHAT ARE ORCS DOING IN LAKETOWN?
So here's an idea; if a set of additionally fabricated characters/plots cancel each other out, how about we don't include them in the first place?
Also, this is the most YA romance scene ever. So glowy and fated. And what is Kili using as a pillow? A bowl of walnuts? This is a serious question, I'm really confused.