Giant trolls and serpents swarm over buildings, fearsome warrior orcs prowl the streets, the childlike face of Frodo Baggins beams down from billboards.
New Zealand's capital was gripped yesterday by Lord of the Rings fever ahead of the world premiere here on Monday of The Return of the King, the final installment of Peter Jackson's blockbuster film trilogy of the J.R.R. Tolkein tales from Middle Earth.
Nobody takes more pleasure or pride in the success of the films than the inhabitants of this windy city on the southern tip of New Zealand's North Island. This is where Jackson and the special effects wizards who drive the films are based.
City officials expect up to 100,000 people -- one quarter of Wellington's population -- to watch a parade of stars and characters at Monday's premiere of The Return of the King.
Local pride is bolstered by the fact that virtually all of the trilogy was shot in New Zealand -- there is even a local guidebook available showing Rings fans where key scenes were shot.
On the streets of Wellington, locals are no longer surprised by wandering bands of fiendish Orcs, hairy-footed Hobbits, elves, dwarves and other creatures in full costume.
The faces of Middle Earth heroes Frodo the Hobbit, Aragorn the human, Gandalf the wizard, Arwen the Elf princess and others adorn lamp posts. An eight-story high banner covers one side of a building in a portrait of Gandalf, played by Ian McKellen. Special postage stamps have been issued for the occasion.
"Welcome to Wellington, home of Lord of the Rings," telephonists at City Hall say as they answer the phone.
Mayor Kerry Prendergast said yesterday the city had invested NZ$6.3 million (US$4 million) in staging the world premiere, in the knowledge that the film's high profile and use of spectacular New Zealand scenery will reap far more in tourist dollars this year and next.
"I know that it's money well spent," she said.
The movie opens on Dec. 17.
In recent weeks, and since the first movie appeared two years ago, thousands of tourists have sought out places where the movies were filmed -- among the glaciers, volcanoes, fjords, forests and jagged mountain peaks of New Zealand.
One newspaper recently pictured visitors huddled under the roots of a tree, wrapped in Hobbit cloaks as they re-enacted a famous scene from the first film.
Others wander the green and bucolic fields of "Hobbiton," the place where the first movie opens, peering into Hobbit houses -- the only sets remaining at any location of the hundreds that were used by Jackson along the length and breadth of the nation.
The biggest private fan party in the capital tomorrow night will see 700 people, half of them foreigners, party in Lord of the Rings costumes.
The "overwhelming response" of fans forced organizers to double the size of the event, said organizer Erica Challis.
"People just saw this as a chance of a lifetime to celebrate as Lord of the Rings fans," she said.
Tourism New Zealand research shows one in 10 foreigners traveling to New Zealand are partly motivated to visit by the chance to tour Ring sites.
Tourism chief George Hickton said the movies had provided the country with "an unparalleled opportunity to raise its profile," reaching an estimated 90 million viewers and readers worldwide.
What has become known as the "Frodo economy," named after the movie's main Hobbit character, is pouring tens of millions of dollars a year into New Zealand.