Wellington goes Hobbit mad ahead of film premiere
New Zealand is dotted with images and statues of characters days before epic film's premiere
Up to 100,000 people are expected to line the streets of Wellington on Wednesday for the world premiere of director Peter Jackson's long-awaited Middle Earth epic The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Stars including Cate Blanchett, Elijah Wood, Barry Humphries and Hugo Weaving will tread the red carpet for the opening, the first instalment in a three-part prequel to Jackson's blockbuster The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Hobbit fever has seized New Zealand and the capital is dotted with giant sculptures of key characters such as Gandalf the wizard atop the Embassy cinema and a bug-eyed Gollum greeting visitors at the airport.
Images of British actor Martin Freeman playing the central role of Bilbo Baggins cover the entire facades of office blocks and have been plastered on everything from coins and stamps to the side of an Air New Zealand plane.
"This is proper, epic film making … I don't know any actors, apart from those who worked on The Lord of the Rings, who've made a film that's this big or taken this long," he told the Dominion Post.
"I certainly don't think I'll ever do another film that's like, or as long as, this again."
The films, which were shot back-to-back with an estimated budget of US$500 million, depict Bilbo's quest to reclaim the lost dwarf kingdom of Erebor from the fearsome dragon Smaug.
Critics have questioned whether a three-part saga is truly necessary given the original book stretches to just over 300 pages and suggested that box-office returns could have trumped artistic considerations.
At one point last year Freeman joked about a "Hobbit curse", but with Jackson's original Rings trilogy grossing more than US$2.9 billion worldwide there was ample incentive to press on.
The Rings movies also garnered critical success, snaring a total of 17 Oscars, including a record-equalling 11 at the 2004 Academy Awards, when Return of the King took out best picture and best director. The movies were also credited with spurring a tourist boom in New Zealand and turning its film sector into a powerhouse worth US$2.6 billion a year to the economy.