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Non-Review Review: Your Highness

Your Highness is crass, stupid, vulgar and fun. However, it’s endearingly aware of the fact. I found myself warming to the film quite a bit as I sat down to watch it, somewhat comfortable in the knowledge that Danny McBride’s latest will undoubtedly end up playing on the DVD players of countless college students into the wee hours of the morning for some years to come. It isn’t going to be a film for everyone, but I do think it will find an audience. It’s not perfect or classic, but then none of the films that it is attempting to emulate are. It does succeed in offering a constant and endearing stream of low-brow jokes for its runtime.

The best of the quest?

Let’s be honest. This isn’t The Princess Bride, despite some rather obvious comparisons being made. This is a more direct spoof of films like Legend or Krull or even Willow, which are all remembered with a certain sense of nostalgia, but none of which are examples of classic cinema. those with a frat boy sense of humour and a nostalgia for those films will find much to like here. The question is whether or not the sheer level of crude vulgarity will scare its audience off.

And Your Highness is vulgar. It opens on a cheap joke about carnal relations with a dwarf princess (and a hilariously cruel joke about dwarf gallows) and veers downhill from there. Early on the movie seems to think that people saying swear words in Middle Earth accents is inherently funny. And, to be frank, they are to a point. A litmus test of whether you’ll find the film entertainingly or insultingly juvenile may be found as the evil warlock Lazar attempts to kidnap Prince Fabius’ bride at their wedding. Brandishing his sword (you see how this setting lends itself to crude jokes?), Fabius demands how the wizard plans to do that. Lazar retorts, “Magic, mother $%^&er!”

The Princess McBride?

If you smiled, even a little bit at that, or imagining Justin Theroux delivering the line, the film is for you. If you are silently shaking your head at the computer screen, wondering what society has become, well… I guess that there are other movies playing. There’s a huge amount of mileage out of vulgar swear words, funny accents and dick jokes. Occasionally, the film pushes it just a little bit too far, but – most of the time – you can laugh along with it.

The movie follows a similar sort of style to last year’s The Other Guys, in that it takes a conventional genre (in this case a fantasy film instead of a buddy cop film) and turns the focus on what would generally be a supporting character. In this case, it’s Thaddeus, the sulking man-child younger brother of the handsome Prince Fabius. One of the nice early moments in the film has Fabius returning home from his latest quest in a scene that could have been the closing moments of any other fantasy film – he even has a cute mechanic bird as a sidekick.

However, when Fabius’ fiancé is kidnapped by the evil warlock Lazar for a very sinister purpose, Thaddeus is drafted into the rescue party – the first quest he’s ever been sent on. What follows is a misadventure as we follow what would normally, at most, be a quirky supporting character in a straight fantasy film – and thus see things a little differently that normal.

... and the horse he rode in on...

From the outset, you get a sense of genuine affection for the original eighties high fantasy movies. Practical effects exist alongside CGI wizardry. There’s a puppet wizard who looks like he escaped the Jim Henson workshop, a full-body suited minotaur and some other nice elements as well. Being honest, it’s hard to see this sort of thing being done in any other way than none-too-gentle parody, so it is nice to see all those elements brought back again. There is a sense that both McBride, who served as writer, and director David Gordon Greene both relished the opportunity to make a movie which looks just like those they grew up on.

It’s that genuine affection which held the film together for me, and perhaps made it stronger than it would have been. As much as Green and McBride seem to hold a deep affection for those cult films, they are also smart enough to recognise them for what they are. I loved the way that the movie played up the “male fantasy” elements of this sort of fairytale, which traditionally has a virginal maiden in a tall phallic tower waiting to be rescued by a handsome, sword-wielding prince. These sorts of tales are traditionally very “boys own” style fantasies – and it’s something that the movie gleefully concedes. After all, it’s surreal that these sorts of fairy tales which often began as creepily sexual fables would be so heavily bowdlerised over time – and it’s a sort of a curious hyper-sexualised yet adolescent attitude to sex that McBride and Greene just amp up to eleven. I actually appreciated the deconstruction of that sort of masculine-centric narrative more than any other element.

Let loose the dogs of War(lock)...

Consider Lazar’s tower, which isn’t content to simply be as phallic as every other fantasy tower that has ever held a fair maiden captive. At the… ahem… climax of the story, the tip even bulges and opens up. There’s always been something sexually immature about these sorts of stories, where princes ride off to save maidens, but only go on these grand bonding adventures with other strapping men. The knights of the film are presented as something of a bunch of frat boys, even hazing poor Thaddeus by forcing him to eat the heart of a rotting boar. The film gleefully mocks the rather blatant homoerotic overtones of such a relationship, and how deeply uncomfortable most traditional fantasy films are with it.

“I love you,” Fabius’s companion and fellow night Boremont confesses as he lies dying. “I know,” Fabius tenderly assures him. “I love you as only a knight can love another knight.” Boremont hangs on in there to clarify it. “No,” he states. “I love you as a man… loves another man.” And then Fabius becomes slightly awkward, managing only an awkward, “Oh…” And then there’s silence. Because that sort of thing is something most fantasy movies are only comfortable with in subtext.

Straight to the point?

Indeed, the film revolves around a typically evil warlock’s plan to take advantage of a young virgin. Of course, in a gleeful subversion of the classical formula, Lazar is also a virgin – to the point that he’s basically a forty-year-old guy living in his mothers’ basement, eating cold fish fingers. Indeed, more than that, he’s pretty much impotent – awkward and uncertain and uncomfortable with sex (“why is she making those noises?”), despite the loud bragging he might make about it.

In such a setting, McBride cleverly points out, female sexuality is feared. These sorts of typical fantasy adventure quests movies are so juvenile that they might as well be subtitled “no girlz allowed.” Even Tolkien was guilty of this, to the point where Peter Jackson had to extensively rewrite the female roles in The Lord of the Rings to create even one solid supporting female character and is reportedly doing the same to The Hobbit.

Swords, man!

Here, for example, all the female characters (save Zooey Dreschanel as the princess to be saved and Natalie Portman’s supporting quest-er) are revealed to be hostile to the leads – at one stage there’s a whole community of women who exist to lure the men off the quest. Even Portman’s character is eventually revealed to be wearing a chastity belt, because you have to keep female sexuality locked up. McBride and his cast are having great fun playing the none-too-subtle “girls are icky” subtext which underscores a lot of these films.

More than that, it’s hard to resist the fact that the cast look to be having a really fun time. One of my favourite moments has Damien Lewis’ Boremont reveal he has a knife blade on his mechanic hand, and he declares “Ha!” in a wonderfully giddy way – almost like those stories you hear that Ewan McGregor made his own “lightsaber noises” when filming Star Wars. The cast all handle their roles well, but James Franco deserve particular credit, if only because he actually plays the role of Fabius like an eighties rock-star fantasy lead, spending all his time flexing taunting. Portman is also quite good, playing up the casual sociopathy of her character – one of those fantasy characters who exists purely to go places and kill things. In any other genre, this would render her (at best) an anti-hero, but the film seems to take demented glee in the fact that fantasy allows her rather terrifying bloodlust to be played as an outright virtue.

So, yep, I’ll admit that I really enjoyed Your Highness. Probably more than, on mature reflection, I should have. It wasn’t brilliant, but it was entertaining. it was crass and vulgar, but also the product of genuine enthusiasm and affection. I have a soft spot for the films it lampooned, so perhaps I am predisposed to enjoy it.

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6 Responses

  1. Jesus, what a breath of fresh air this review is. I can’t imagine Your Highness is half as bad as so many other reviews out there are making it out to be; it’s like some kind of bizarre David Gordon Green/stoner comedy backlash out of nowhere. Glad you’ve got some positive things to say about it, hopefully I’ll get to see it soon and write about it myself.

    • I get the sense that this might be karmic balance for my dislike of Morning Glory. I was in the minority of (really) disliking that film, when everyone else seemed to think ti was a reasonably entertaining piece of fluff. Here, everyone seems to hate this film, while i think it’s a pretty entertaining piece of fluff.

      It’s not reinventing the wheel, but if you like crass comedy and have a fond memory of those eighties fantasies, it’s good fun.

  2. Good to know I’m not alone in getting some laughs out of “Your Highness.” Maybe more critics should have adopted the proper state of mind before hitting the theater.

  3. same here, im a chick and i was laughing continuously, i got the irony…and ive always been a sucker for immature, yet lovable dudes….

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