As 2012 winds to a close, we have just a few more blockbuster films to look forward to – but one of the most eagerly anticipated is Peter Jackson’s prequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which kicks off this December with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Telling the story of a younger Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as he embarks on the quest that will become his defining tale, Jackson has decided to take J.R.R. Tolkien’s single novel and stretch it out into an entire new trilogy of filmsUnexpected Journey will only be the first leg of that epic… er, journey, but today’s updated gallery of Hobbit images suggests that we’ll see more than a couple familiar faces along the way.

Spotted in the gallery are such familiar characters as Gandalf (Ian McKellen), a less-evil Saruman (Christopher Lee), and high elves like Lord Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett); in fact, we see all four of these Middle-earth power-players holding council in Rivendell in one shot (oh to be a fly an THAT wall…). On the new side of things, we get more looks at the dwarves that Bilbo joins up with – including the party’s leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). If you haven’t yet heard the “handsome dwarves(?)” chatter yet, you soon will.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is expected to be a financial success, but there is nonetheless a lot riding on it in terms of reception. For those who are not avid Tolkien readers and don’t know the nature of the books: The Hobbit‘s lighter, more kid-friendly tone could be surprising for many expecting a slightly darker experience like LotR. Adding to the gamble: Peter Jackson is not only bringing 3D to the franchise – he’s also experimenting (key word, “experimenting”) with high frame rate 3D visuals, a format that may or may not connect with viewers. Jackson is also incorporating a lot of supplementary material that Tolkien left behind (in appendices and such), in order to better connect The Hobbit film trilogy with Lord of the Rings film trilogy (not to mention pad three films spun out of one book); that’s a move which could at once connect with casual viewers, but still manage to upset hardcore Tolkienites.

Indeed, one of our biggest movie geek questions for 2012 was “Can You Go Home to Middle-earth Again?” And The Hobbit will start to reveal that answer (good or bad) for many fans of LOTR. However, for now it looks like Jackson and his team have done some pretty good work – from the trolls and goblins to the many familiar actors who are all but unrecognizable in dwarf form.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey opens in theaters on December 14th, 2012.

Its sequel, The Desolation of Smaug, follows on December 13th, 2013.

And the final installment, There and Back Again, releases on July 18th, 2014.

Source: Warner Bros.