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Feeling Smaug: The characters at the heart of "The Hobbit"

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A year after Peter Jackson lured movie audiences back to enjoy his version of the Shire, the director returns with his next installation, "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug." In this sequel, the timidly adventurous Bilbo relegates center stage to a host of new, vividly crafted characters who do a more than satisfactory job of standing in his stead.

Smaug

This legendary villain was introduced with a small pre-credit teaser at the end of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," but now moviegoers get to see him in all his computer-generated glory. Benedict Cumberbatch provides the voice and mechanics for the creature created by motion-capture technology, perfected in concert with the movie's effects gurus. This team effort brings the title character to full life. Brilliant technical prowess gives Smaug his rippled, craggy exterior, eyes that glow with an intriguing blend of humor and hatred, and rows of teeth that could doubtless crunch a hobbit with nary a second thought, but it is his slither-like movements and deeply inflected voice that will keep audiences spellbound. Much like Andy Serkis did with Gollum, Cumberbatch's inhabitation of the character of Smaug is whole. This is no voice-over job but a majestic embodiment of evil so skillfully executed that audiences will find they admire the dragon as much as dread him. Without giving too much of the plot away, fans will want to keep their eyes and ears open when Bilbo and Smaug engage in an epic battle of wits—this type of quick repartee is the stuff that makes these epics work on so many memorable levels.

Tauriel

With both Cate Blanchett and Liv Tyler absent, the film gets a much-needed injection of elfin estrogen from Evangeline Lilly's Tauriel. Sure, there has been some controversy because Tauriel is a Jackson creation and not a character in Tolkien's original version; but this is a case of necessity (what movie is complete without a lovely leading lady?) being the mother of an ethereally beautiful invention. Beauty aside, though, there is a depth to Tauriel largely due to her evident yearning for a world beyond the Elven-Wood, and she rivals Legolas in bowsmanship and cunning. It is easy to identify with her desire to see more, learn more, and be more than what she already is. One can only hope that Tauriel will return in the next installment so fans can see her character (and her interesting friendship with Kili) evolve as her strength and influence grows.

Legolas

This ethereal blonde elf stands out not just for his flaxen good looks and archery abilities, but also, as most stalwart Tolkien fans will not hesitate to scream from the Ent tops, because strictly speaking he shouldn't even be in the story. Tokien's version of "The Hobbit" didn't include the character of Legolas; however, whether because of Orlando Bloom's superior acting talent or the creative team's skilled crafting of the character, the movie just wouldn't have been the same without the heroic elf's presence. Legolas's presence in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" gives fans a chance to see a less polished version of the character, lending him a bit of naiveté and youth that will doubtless make his growth through the series (and rewatching Jackson's original "Lord of the Rings" trilogy) much more interesting.

Bilbo

As mentioned, Bilbo Baggins is hardly the central character in this installment, but that makes his crucial moments all the more memorable. Martin Freeman is brilliant as Baggins, a pure embodiment of the slightly awkward, ever-cautious, bumbling-his-way-into-bravery hobbit. He draws the sort of emotions from viewers that most actors can only hope to achieve. His fear, his embarrassment, and his trepidation as it turns into bravery are effortlessly conveyed. The audience's experiences Bilbo's development in keeping with the character himself. His scene with Smaug is the kind of thing that breaks DVD players due to excessive rewinding and replaying and will be enjoyed for its ability to stoke viewers' playful and cerebral sides with equal adroitness.

Thorin Oakenshield

This harp-playing, ballad-singing, bossy, officious, beard-wearing dwarf is the leader of the company aiming to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from Smaug's formidable clutches. Played with gravitas and swagger by Richard Armitage, the Thorin in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is a dwarf increasingly conflicted as the meaning behind the epic mission starts to weigh on him, bringing up long suppressed feelings of hatred, sorrow, and rage. Thorin is a tragic character, a man who has lost his ancestors, his home, and most of his people; as his gruff exterior begins to crack, showing glimpses of a growing obsession, even hints of greed, the viewers' sympathies give way to the realization that these bits of frailty, these shards of humanity, these churning emotions of loss and grief could lead to mortal danger for Thorin and everyone following him.

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