They trooped to Wellington in their tens of thousands from all over the globe, dressed as dwarves, goblins, hobbits, elves and other less easily identifiable Middle-earth creatures.
Almost a decade after Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings triptych of films set the global box office on fire to the tune of $2.9-billion, the director was back in New Zealand to premiere the first part of his wildly (in some quarters) anticipated adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
There was scant wriggle room on either side of the 500m-long red carpet snaking towards the Embassy Theatre where the first part of a planned trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, was screened for the first time to the public last week. An Air New Zealand aeroplane decked out in Middle-earth livery flew low overhead to roars of approval.
Cast members Martin Freeman (who plays hobbit Bilbo Baggins), Andy Serkis, Cate Blanchett, Sylvester McCoy, Barry Humphries and Elijah Wood were among those who had been jetted in for the event and fans were divided over which star they were keenest to glimpse.
“I came here to see the stars but also Peter [Jackson],” said Samantha Cooper, a student. “I loved The Lord of the Rings and that made me want to be here. Without him none of it would be here.”
Fellow New Zealander Sam Rashidmardani (12) said he had come to see Britain’s Serkis, who returns as Gollum. “It was amazing,” he said of the event, adding his own impression of his hero’s character: “My precious.”
Serkis, who also acted as second unit director on the project, told reporters he had enjoyed getting back under Gollum’s slimy skin after nearly a decade. “I was reminded on a daily basis that he’s truly never left me,” he said.
Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit, sub-titled There and Back Again, is set 60 years before the events of The Lord of the Rings films and was originally intended as two movies. Tolkien published the novel in 1937, 18 years before his later, much longer work. Yet Jackson said the new trilogy had benefited from arriving in prequel form.
“I’m glad that we established the style and the look of Middle-earth by adapting The Lord of the Rings before we did The Hobbit,” he said on the red carpet.
An Unexpected Journey, which is in 3D, is also being screened at selected cinemas at 48 frames a second, compared with the 24 frames a second that has been the industry standard since the 1920s.
Jackson admitted that only about 1 000 of the 25 000 theatres that will show the film worldwide were equipped to show the higher-rate format, but said he hoped people would make the effort where possible.
“I really think 48 frames is pretty terrific and I’m looking forward to seeing the reaction,” he said. “It’s been talked about for so long, but finally the film is being released and people can decide for themselves.”
The only dissenting voices at the premiere came from animal rights activists, who held up posters saying “Middle-earth unexpected cruelty” and “three horses died for this film”.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has accused the studios, Warner Bros and MGM of being responsible for the deaths of more than 20 animals, including horses, pigs and chickens, during the making of the film.
Jackson has admitted that some animals used in the film died on the farm where they were being housed but says none were hurt during filming. “No mistreatment, no abuse,” he said at the press conference. “Absolutely none.”
The Hobbit has faced multiple setbacks in the six years since the trilogy was first given the green light, including losing original director Guillermo del Toro, a fire that destroyed a number of vital miniatures and an enormous feud with a local New Zealand union that at one point looked likely to become a general actors’ boycott of the project.
The cast at the red carpet event was more interested in talking up the trilogy’s prospects of surpassing its critically acclaimed predecessor, which won a total of 17 Oscars, than putting to rest fears of a “hobbit curse”.
“He’s done it again,” said Freeman, the British star of BBC TV shows The Office and Sherlock. “If it’s possible, it’s probably even better than The Lord of the Rings. I think he’s surpassed it.”
Early reaction from people inside the theatre was just as positive. “Just saw The Hobbit. Having some serious frame rate envy,” wrote the director of The Usual Suspects, Bryan Singer, on Twitter.
“Amazing and involving. Loved it! And Ian McKellen my friend, you are brilliant!” blogger Kylie Klein tweeted. “The Hobbit is everything I could have hoped for. Perfection.” She added that Jackson and his team had received a standing ovation.
Before the screening, Jackson told reporters: “This is a humbling experience. It will be the first time I will be seeing the movie with an audience. I only just finished it, so I am very nervous. The whole of Wellington seems to be here. It’s extraordinary.”
If the bookmakers are anything to go by, Jackson need not worry too much about whether his new venture will be a success. Ladbrokes had the new trilogy odds-on at 1-2 to surpass The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey at 1-4 to beat final Rings instalment The Return of the King’s worldwide takings of $1.11-billion. — © Guardian News & Media 2012