LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A small-town hobbit faces larger-than-life challenges in "The Desolation of Smaug," as director Peter Jackson intensifies the action in the second installment of fantasy film "The Hobbit," expected to be one of the biggest blockbusters of the year.
"Desolation of Smaug," out in U.S. theaters on Friday, picks up the tale of "The Hobbit" as Bilbo Baggins and the band of 13 dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield make their way across treacherous terrain on their quest to the Lonely Mountain, currently guarded by a fire-breathing dragon, Smaug.
The Warner Bros. production is expected to be one of the year's highest-grossing worldwide with projections of $1 billion in ticket sales. Industry experts predict it will ring up $80 million in its opening weekend at the North American box office.
Bilbo, a reserved hobbit forced out of his comfort zone, has come into his own in the second film. But his possession of the mysterious ring he stole from Gollum's cave in the first installment - the same ring that leads to an epic saga in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy - is taking a hold on his soul.
"He can feel that he needs it and he can feel that he really does not want to relinquish it, and he doesn't know why. I think that confuses him and troubles him that he has this strong feeling of a trinket," British actor Martin Freeman, who plays the hobbit in the live-action 3D film, told Reuters. Hobbits are fictional human-like creatures in author J.R.R. Tolkein's fantasy novel "The Hobbit."
Made for $250 million, "Desolation of Smaug" sees the unlikely band of heroes chased by giant carnivorous spiders and brutish Orcs, challenged by arrow-wielding elves and the desperate humans of Lake Town, and finally, the great Dragon of Erebor, Smaug.
British actor Benedict Cumberbatch voiced the dragon and also helped create the movements of the giant mythical reptile through motion capture, a special-effects film technique, researching the characteristics of komodo dragons, serpents and bats to embody Smaug's slithering and flight.
"I wanted his pitch to be a lot lower ... really placing it in the body and trying to make it sound old, warm but incredibly powerful," the actor said.
Cumberbatch, who also plays dark spirit Necromancer in "The Hobbit" films, said Smaug's characteristics could convey a more contemporary social message.
"You could read him as some sort of emblem for all that's gone wrong in the past decade with free market capitalism if you wanted to. His level of venality is pretty devastating and destroys him as much as the things around him," he said.
In the male-dominated realm of Middle Earth, only a few female characters are given a chance to shine - notably Liv Tyler's elf maiden Arwen and Cate Blanchett's elf queen Galadriel in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
When adapting Tolkein's prequel "The Hobbit" into three films, Jackson worked with producers to create a new character not featured in the original book. Unlike Tyler and Blanchett's characters, the elf warrior Tauriel, played by Evangeline Lilly, is not high-born - she is a working class 'Silvan' elf, who guards the Elven kingdom.
"The most important thing I wanted to bring was a sense of femininity, because I think one of the dangers in modern day entertainment is we project this idea that female power is in embracing or copying violent men," Lilly said.
The leading characters are all tied together by the same thread of being outcasts, be it Bilbo's being a hobbit among dwarves, Tauriel's place among her people, Bard the Bowman's ancestral guilt, Smaug's self-inflicted isolation or Thorin's burden of being a leader.
"Thorin has his highest moment in this movie and his lowest moment ... understanding the loneliness of that burden was a way of sympathizing with him," actor Richard Armitage said.
Published in 1937, Tolkein's "The Hobbit" tale has become a literary classic, and for the film's cast, the story transcends time and resonates with universal themes of humanity.
"The setting is fantastical ... but I think the things the characters are dealing with are very relatable. Even if it's not really about wizards and elves, it's about you and me, it's about what we go through in our lives, as all fables are," Freeman said.
Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Mary Milliken and Mohammad Zargham