Ever since Peter Jackson began principal photography on his two-part adaptation of The Hobbit, there’s been a trickling of interesting casting tidbits and word about the films’ subtitles to satiate the appetite of fans eagerly anticipating the new cinematic venture to Middle-Earth.

Today brings a much more succulent morsel for J.R.R. Tolkien and fantasy fans in general: the first image of Martin Freeman in costume (and character) as a young Bilbo Baggins.

Freeman was long considered to be the top candidate to play young Bilbo throughout the arduous course of pre-production on The Hobbit – and with good reason. The English thespian has long been renowned for his ability to play charmingly chummy and likable characters onscreen (see: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Love Actually, the original British Office TV series), which alone makes him an excellent match for the brave but easily-flustered Bilbo.

On top of that, Freeman just looks the part of a hobbit – in a good way, that is. As can be seen in the first official image of the actor as young Bilbo, when you add the familiar curly hair, pointed ears, and suspenders, it makes Freeman look all the more like Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, and all the extras who played young “halflings” in Jackson’s original Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Check out that pic of Freeman in a scene from The Hobbit (via EW) below:

The other new image released from The Hobbit reveals Ian McKellen back in form as the shaggy wizard Gandalf the Grey, with his customary pipe in hand and mouth. Even though more than a decade has passed since McKellen originally portrayed the character in The Fellowship of the Ring, it looks as though not a day has passed since then.

Check out that picture of McKellen below:

Visually, both these images from The Hobbit harken back to Jackson’s Rings trilogy – which is not really unexpected, but nonetheless encouraging news for fans hoping that the director and his filmmaking crew can recapture the enchanting atmosphere of those three films with this new project. Seeing how Jackson and his crew are also employing state-of-the-art 3D technology and shooting both Hobbit films at a higher frame rate to improve the clarity of their fantastical visuals and effects, there’s good reason to be hopeful that the next trip to Middle-Earth will be just as pleasant to watch as the last one.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will arrive in theaters next year on December 14th, 2012.

The Hobbit: There and Back Again is set to follow a year later on December 13th, 2013.

Source: EW