Pre-production on The Hobbit films is now fully underway (hard to believe, isn’t it?) as Peter Jackson and his Lord of the Rings trilogy production team are gearing up for their return to Middle-Earth.

Two more actors have joined the ever-growing cast of The Hobbit adaptation, which is being produced by New Line Cinema and the  (still) financially troubled MGM, which will also distribute the two movies internationally while Warner Bros. handles the U.S. release.

Martin Freeman has been confirmed to play a younger Bilbo Baggins in Jackson’s new fantasy films and will presumably be joined by Ian McKellen, who is all but set to reprise his role as the wizard Gandalf the Grey. The pair will set off on a new adventure in The Hobbit with a horde of dwarves, who will be brought to life by the likes of Richard Armitage, John Callen, Mark Hadlow, Peter Hambleton, Stephen Hunter, Rob Kazinsky, and Graham McTavish (and no, those seven fellows don’t work in a mine and live with a pale-skinned princess in the woods).

Newcomer Adam Brown and Irish thespian James Nesbitt are the latest additions to the Hobbit cast and will play the dwarves Ori and Bofur, respectively. Brown is (naturally) an unknown, though Nesbitt is a well-established character actor who has appeared in films directed by the likes of Danny Boyle (Millions) and Woody Allen (Match Point), and was the star of the BBC series Jekyll (see below), which was penned by the current Doctor Who showrunner, Steven Moffat.

Ever since Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy grossed some $3 billion at the worldwide box office and was showered with accolades from, well, nearly everyone, we’ve all known that The Hobbit would eventually be given a similarly epic, big-budget treatment. The notion that production on the project could have ever been delayed as long as it has would’ve seemed preposterous just a year or so ago, but time has made fools of us all, it seems.

Now that The Hobbit is FINALLY being made, we must ask the question: Can it match the quality and box office success of Jackson’s previous Middle-Earth adventures? Anticipation for the latest J.R.R. Tolkien adaptation remains sky-high and the project has been in development for a couple of years now, so there’s no reason to be concerned about the script/production design/FX/etc. being rushed – we’re just going to have to wait and see if the final product proves to be worth all the drama.

Both parts of The Hobbit are being shot in New Zealand, back-to-back, beginning early next year. Part 1 is currently scheduled to reach theaters by December 19th, 2012, while Part 2 will follow a year later in December of 2013.

Source: New Line Cinema, Warner Bros.