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‘The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug,’ An Unexpected Improvement

By Alyssa Rosenberg

"‘The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug,’ An Unexpected Improvement"

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CREDIT: New Line Cinema

This post discusses plot points from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

“What have we done?” Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) asks at the end of The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug. He’s reacting to a moment when the jaunty adrenaline of an adventure falls away, and he–and we–realize that not everyone involved is willing to play the parts they’ve been assigned in someone else’s epic quest. It’s good way to describe the virtues of The Desolation of Smaug, which catches up with the exiled dwarf king Thorin (Richard Armitage) as he continues his quest to drive a dragon from his ancestral home, wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellan) as his suspicions grow that darker forces are at work than the simple geopolitics of Middle Earth, and Bilbo as he learns to enjoy his new role as a burglar. The Desolation of Smaug is not a perfect movie, but unlike its interminable predecessor, An Unexpected Journey, the film earns its long running time by injecting a sense of unease into what director Peter Jackson and his screenwriting collaborators Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro initially presented as a rather bloated children’s amusement.

Before discussing its virtues, there’s one aspect of The Desolation of Smaug that struck me as at best miscalibrated and at worst, really distasteful. The movie wisely decides to dispense with the interminable crockery-juggling that in An Unexpected Journey established Thorin’s compatriots as a group who come across as goofy and haphazard in part because they knew each other so well they could work together without paying particular attention. But in The Desolation Of Smaug, Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens, use a similarly improbable blur of hyper-competent motion to illuminate the youthful character of Legolas (Orlando Bloom), whose older, wiser self we’ve already come to know well, and to introduce Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), created for this film to provide it with a shot of estrogen.

They aren’t cleaning up a kitchen, though. Instead, Legolas and Tauriel cut a bloody swath through a crew of orcs who are pursuing the dwarves as they float down a rushing river. It’s true that the orcs are vicious killers, and battles involving both arrows and hand-to-hand combat are nothing new to either The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit franchises. But the violence in The Desolation Of Smaug feels different. There’s none of the horror and humanity of watching Boromir (Sean Bean) be shot, and rise, and be shot and rise again in the finale of The Fellowship Of The Ring. There’s none of the wild hope when the elves arrive at Helm’s Deep in one of the climactic moments of The Two Towers, and the great meaning of so many of their deaths. Instead, there’s just a creative slaughter, and one that’s frequently used to elicit laughs, rather than any sense of pathos or grandeur. Arrows pin orcs’ heads together. Legolas dances a murderous minuet down the barrels bobbing down the river. In a later scene in the movie, there’s even a jaunty decapitation.

It’s an approach that at times lowers The Desolation Of Smaug from an epic quest to a slaughter where kill count is the only measure of success. The movie was one of the more unpleasantly violent things I’ve seen this year. And the massacres stand in striking contrast to a sequence when Gandalf and Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) visit a remote prison and find out that its nine occupants have prized open the bars of their cells. Their absence is more menacing than any riverbank littered with dead orcs.

When the characters are talking, bargaining, scheming, sneaking, and facing up to difficult decisions, however, The Desolation Of Smaug can be an effective exploration of what it means to be a leader.

As Thorin draws closer to the halls of his fathers, the risk grows that he’ll fall prey to the myopia and treasure-worship that have undermined the rule of dwarf leaders before him. “I don’t like dwarves. They’re greedy and blind. Blind to the lives of others they think worth less than their own,” Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), a skin-changer who gives Thorin and his band refuge when they’re pursued by orcs. And Thorin’s behavior time and time again suggests that Beorn’s assessment is correct.

When the dwarves are captured by Thranduil (Lee Pace), king of the Wood Elves’ realm, Thranduil offers to let Thorin and his men go if Thorin promises to take not just the Arkenstone from Smaug’s horde, but a number of gems that Thranduil wants as well. “I will let you go if you but return what is mine,” Thranduil offers. “A king to a king.” Thorin rejects the deal so he can hold onto a grudge, telling Thranduil: “You turned way from the suffering of my people.” But he’s all too quick to do the same thing, or to set the interests of others aside, when it suits his interests.

When Kili (Aidan Turner) sickens under the influence of a magical arrow, Thorin insists that he be left behind when the dwarves go to the mountain. “We grew up on tales of the mountain,” his brother Fili (Dean O’Gorman) demands of Thorin. “Tales you told us. How can you deny Kili that?” But Thorin has only speed in mind, rather than the emotional significance of returning home for everyone who’s enlisted and invested in his venture.

Later, he’s quick to abandon Bilbo while Bilbo risks his life in a tense conversation with Smaug. “A sickness lies upon this treasure horde,” warns Balin (Ken Stott). “A sickness that claimed your father.” “I will not risk this quest for the life of one burglar,” Thorin tells him. “Bilbo. His name is Bilbo,” Balin reminds his king, hoping to focus him not just on the humanity of each member of their party, but that the obligations of leadership aren’t just to grand narratives and vendettas. When Smaug tells Bilbo “You are being used, thief in the shadows. You were only ever a means to an end. The coward Okinshield has weighted the value of your life and found it wanting,” he’s not wrong, even if Thorin’s lapse proves temporary.

But Thorin isn’t the only leader who makes mistakes. Thranduil orders his warriors to patrol the boarders of his kingdom, eradicating giant spiders and orcs who invade it, but forbidding them from making excursions to cut off these threats at their source. Ultimately, he suggests that they withdraw even from those missions outside, ordering the elves to seal themselves underground. “If your father has his way, we will do nothing,” Tauriel asks Legolas. “Are we not part of the world?” Ultimately, she’s correct: Thandruil’s isolation may protect his people for a time, but it doesn’t stop the threats from spreading.

And Thorin’s questionable actions aren’t limited to myopia. The last step on his journey to the mountain is Laketown, a once-prosperous village that’s been impoverished by a decline in trade, and immiserated by the rule of the Master (Stephen Fry, attempting new frontiers in wig ugliness). When Thorin and his men are captured by the Master’s forces, Thorin promises to restore the town’s status as a trade center. “I would like to light the forges once again, sending wealth and riches from the halls of Erebor,” Thorin suggests, pledging a partnership. “All will share in the wealth of the mountain.” The Master, whose cringing adviser Alfrid (Ryan Gage) has warned that “There was even talk of an election” among Laketown’s citizenry, is desperate for a diversion, and eagerly embraces Thorin’s offer. Readers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel will know that this exchange is just as foreboding as The Desolation Of Smaug‘s cliff-hanger ending.

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