Ian Holm, Lord of the Rings

New Line Cinema

The Hobbit's got itself a handler.

Guillermo del Toro has signed on to direct the long-gestating adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's pre-Lord of the Rings masterpiece, as well as a sequel chronicling the Middle-Earth action that takes place during the 60 years before Bilbo Baggins passes that pesky piece of jewelry on to his cousin Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring.

The Mexican-born filmmaker will be relocating to New Zealand for four years to shoot the two films back to back, the way Peter Jackson—who is producing the venture for cofinanciers New Line Cinema and MGM—did with his LOTR trilogy.

New Line, which is overseeing development and production, said Thursday there is no script to speak of yet, but it's likely the Oscar-winning team of Jackson, wife Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens will collaborate with del Toro—himself an Original Screenplay nominee for Pan's Labyrinth last year—on the project.

"I am indeed blessed to become a part of the filmmaking community that Peter, Fran and their extraordinary team of collaborators have created in New Zealand," del Toro said in a statement. "Contributing to the Lord of the Rings legacy is an absolute dream come true."

Jackson and Walsh returned the compliment in their own statement, labeling del Toro "a cinematic magician who has never lost his childlike sense of wonder."

"We have long admired Guillermo's work and cannot think of a more inspired filmmaker to take the journey back to Middle-Earth," they said.

Jackson was originally going to do the behind-the-camera honors himself, but a squabble with New Line over his LOTR proceeds put an end to that fanciful idea. Although they settled their differences late last year, by then Jackson was already committed to bringing Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones to the big screen, and del Toro arose as the likely choice to succeed Jackson as the cinematic master of Middle-earth.

But del Toro can't delve into this brave new world just yet. He's currently still ensconced in postproduction on Hellboy 2, a sequel to the surprise 2004 hit about a big red demon who fights the forces of darkness.

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