"The Hobbit", the long-awaited prequel to the "Lord of the Rings" films, finally has its main lead. Peter Jackson, who was officially announced last week as the director of the two-film epic, revealed yesterday that U.K. actor Martin Freeman will take on the role of Bilbo Baggins. 

The 39-year-old actor, famous for his turn on the U.K. version of "The Office", was "born to play the role" according to Jackson. "He is intelligent, funny, surprising and brave — exactly like Bilbo and I feel incredibly proud to be able to announce that he is our Hobbit,” the director said in a statement. 

Of course the largest remaining question now surrounding this whole production is whether or not it will stay in New Zealand. The original "Lord of the Rings" films did wonders for tourism to the country, which boasts some of the most dramatic scenery in the world. ("National Geographic Traveler" has consistently ranked the South Island of New Zealand as one of the best preserved and unspoiled places on Earth.) 

A strike by the local actor's union over wages has forced Warner Bros to consider moving production somewhere else. It's estimated that such a loss could cost the Kiwi economy close to $1.5 billion — not to mention losses from tourism. 

Reps from Warner Bros are due to arrive in the country next week to make a final decision on where to make the films, which are scheduled to start production in February for release in December 2012 and December 2013.

What do you think? Is there anywhere else in the world but New Zealand that could provide a proper setting for "The Hobbit"? Computer imagery is powerful stuff, but even digital wizards would have a hard time conjuring up enough magic to replicate what Mother Nature has done for that part of the world. 

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