For a slightly disappointing film, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has a lot of great moments. The film got rather mixed reviews but the action scenes, the special effects, and the conjuring of a magical atmosphere are as good as anything in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It falls down however on the casting and the characters (and occasionally the dialogue). A lot of people complained about the first 40 minutes of The Hobbit, in which we’re introduced to all the dwarves as they arrive at Bilbo Baggins’ house, much to his chagrin since they’re an unruly lot, uninvited by him. It’s true this sequence could have been cut by 10 minutes or so. But to me it wasn’t the main problem of the film.
That honour unfortunately goes to Richard Armitage, who plays Thorin, leader of the Dwarves. Surely I’m not the only one who kept on comparing him to Viggo Mortensen in the earlier films, and found him singularly lacking? With their long dark hair and beards, they’re physically very similar, and if Thorin was supposed to be a dwarf, he was a very tall-looking one. Plus they play the same role - leader of a pack on a mission. I doubt if Tolkien’s original book suggested that Thorin should be the exact same physical type as Aragorn (Mortensen’s character in the earlier films) so this was presumably a deliberate, clumsy attempt to remind audiences of The Lord of the Rings films. This seems even more likely because there’s also a character here who’s an archer and looks awfully reminiscent of Orlando Bloom’s earlier Legolas. These two choices are very misguided, and they would have been much better off picking actors who looked completely different, who could make a fresh impression on us without any unfortunate echoes.
With the archer, it’s not so important because this time he’s a very minor character. But with Thorin it is a major weakness because it’s his story in a way, his quest. He sometimes seems more central than even Bilbo (Martin Freeman). And his charisma level and the dialogue given to him are just not up to it. Apparently Armitage is a well-respected actor with a lot of stage and TV experience, but here he seems dull, and the testy relationship his character has with Bilbo never comes alive. That’s particularly annoying since it’s probably the main relationship in a film which is not exactly brim-full of great character inter-action. (James Nesbitt is one of the many dwarves whose characters are thinly drawn). And as for Martin Freeman himself, I thought he was quite good but could have been better; he still seems more of a TV actor than a cinema presence to me, and certainly Elijah Wood was more engaging as Frodo.
Of course we should also blame the writers (Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) for many of these faults, and for some clumsy dialogue. At one point a dwarf, unimpressed with the food offered to him by the elves, says ‘Have they got any chips?’. Thinking he must mean French Fries I said to myself: so these dwarves are British, are they? Or maybe he meant potato chips (what we Brits call ‘crisps’) and they’re American? In either case it takes you completely out of the magical world of the film to use such language. At another point, having finished one battle and about to start another, a character actually says ‘Out of the frying pan…’ and another completes it ‘into the fire’. That threw me for fully five minutes. I kept thinking: no, the screenwriters didn’t really just do that, did they?
On the plus side the scenes at Rivendale with Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee and Hugo Weaving are good, especially when Blanchett's character communicates telepathically with Gandalf (Ian McKellan). There’s a great early scene with some trolls, another interesting one mid-way through with some mountains that move, and the last hour of the film is action-packed and exciting. Occasionally they push believability too far: characters seem to fall for about half a mile and then get up with barely a scratch. But on the other hand Gollum appears in this final section too, and Andy Serkis’ wonderfully creepy voice-acting and body movements really bring the film alive. Probably he’s the actor we’ve all been waiting to ‘see’ most, and he doesn’t disappoint.