Cast Includes: Ian Richardson, Michelle Dockery, Marc Warren, David Jason, Tony Robinson, Terry Pratchett.
I’ve not attempted to write a Terry Pratchett based review before, although being one of a legion of fans (some newspapers claimed his books were amongst the most stolen from bookshops in the UK afterall), I could have. I’ve always been off put. Why? Apart from the author Craig Shaw Gardner who seems to be Pratchett if you mistakenly pick up one of his books (understandable given the iconic coverart by the same illustrator Josh Kirby), there’s no other I’ve come across who can make the metaphysical so mundane and lifelike/relatable whilst maintaining the magic and yet… Hilarious. Even when it also includes masses of social commentary and examples of the ironies of humanity’s ways of living or ‘quirks’. I basically find that unless you read the books and enjoy them it’s hard to read a review and appreciate his style, many reviews focus on the plot and hence have a hard time conveying the spidery web subtly/balance of character arcs or they discuss the social discourse so losing the dew drops of humour that stick delicately and sometimes explode on the strong web, and then of course there’s the spinning/mastery of storytelling.
So anyway I thought perhaps a film would be more accessible to people who haven’t been blessed or converted by his work yet 😉 and for hardcore fans (how can you not be o_o) something else to devour since we love devouring anything Discworld related unless of course you’ve already seen the film and so you are honour bound to agree with me or at least pretend to. *Cough*
WHAT THE HECK IS A HOGFATHER?
I won’t go into the cultural heritage but imagine Sinteerklass I mean Santa Claws, oops I mean Santa Claus(!) and then superimpose the jolly Father Christmas I mean Father Time, oops I mean Mother Time and the ‘Blackness [of] Time’ and ‘life/death’ combined with the earliest forms of worship using representative adjectives such a bears, boars, big cats, the colour red, the feeling of joy, the expansiveness of size etc… Ok gone too far back in the timeline; keeping it male and generally associated with the supposed primitiveness of early ‘Man’ picture a wild boar running, generally aggressive but protective (and kinda cute in a creepy way). Then for want of a better word the development of the ‘caveman’ standing finally on two legs, and with such a creature comes humanity’s cult of blood (lineage), death and reincarnation/the cycle of life and you have the Hogfather. A metamorphoses of spirit and animal and all the awe inspiring associations we have about ourselves simply because we exist with the privilege of being self-obsessed ignoring our surroundings creating such a strange thing as boredom. Fast forward in time, stick him in a symbolic red suit with faux fur trim and bigger in girth, and because we’re greedy, mean little bastards really, make him shower us with presents or lumps of coal.
AND SO IT BEGINS
The film that is. Creation existed way before Sky satellites!
Film producers have had just as hard a time trying to adapt his books as I’ve had waiting to write a review, there were a handful including animations but to be honest they weren’t that great (*shh don’t tell rabid sub-sections of fans I said that*). ‘Terry Pratchett’s Hogather’ (2006) was the first big budget and really cool version, at last, a mere 23 years after the first book and long after loads of people decided to put down their pitchforks, hammers, guns and so forth long enough to decide that they could agree on something and be followers of. Sky rubbed their hands gleefully at being the Ones to air the 3hour film in two 1.5hour parts and at Christmas!
As the film starts viewers are treated to a cosmic montage showing our tiny yet very interesting place in space, replete with deep voiced male narrator and soul stirring music; we knew it was going to be something epic.
We’re introduced to the Great A’Tuin, a goddess culture representative, predominantly Asian (Indian and later Japanese), of physical manifestation and indeed its vehicle. Yes, the idea of a giant turtle swimming through space with another/other form[s] of creation on its back has been around for ages (except as usual for those ancient scientific religions – yes I just put science and religion next to each other without nuclear war – it’s combined with math[mat/mother]ematics.
Whilst she (let’s not start the “it’s all matter of perspective” but wink wink it’s feminine debate) is traversing space on an interesting cycle of her own, she’s currently carrying 4 giant elephants in classical person-holding-water-vase pose, because they are holding a flat-ish plate (Discworld) of um a ton of water, bits of land and weird, wacky critters such as animals; some of which form guilds for commerce, trades, politics and you know, the well being of society through community control and specialized tyranny. Unfortunately this melting pot includes a liberal surplus of bodies, a high demand for goods and services but a narrow supply and distribution of said wants and needs.
That brings us to Ankh-Morpork the quasi Egyptian-pig sounding strangely similar to London, twin city of proud Ankh and pestilent Morpork separated by a gloopy, polluted river in between. A city containing it’s very own tower of Babel I mean ‘Tower of Art’ in the Unseen University [of magic], guilds galore, rich and poor, a ‘benevolent tyrant’ as its political head (trained at the Assassin’s Guild of course) and all the ‘pig [supposedly] sausages-inna-bun’ you can eat courtesy of its very own ‘Only Fools and Horses’ beloved con-artist bootlegger.
Now let’s move to a very unique young lady named Susan Sto Helit, not unique in that she’s an offspring of a demi-being, or that she has two-toned hair (hey we’ve all been there right?) but odd in that she’s pretty, pretty clever, tough, amazes others and yet has somehow found herself as a teacher/governess, and funnily enough it suits her o_o who’d have thunk it?
“And then Jack chopped down what was the world’s last beanstalk, adding murder and ecological terrorism to the theft, enticement and trespass charges already mentioned, and all the giant’s children didn’t have a daddy any more. But he got away with it and lived happily ever after without so much as a guilty twinge about what he had done. Which proves that you can be excused just about anything if you’re a hero, because no-one asks inconvenient questions.”
That’s our Susan alright.
Susan, like some people I know, has done her best to separate and decline her ‘otherworldy’ familial connections because they’re just so annoying and turn up whenever they feel like it whilst watching her all the time. That’s not to say they’re all bad and it just so happens her grandfather, one of the smaller Death’s of the cosmos is someone you can’t resist, now and then. He’s tall, skeletal, has enchanting glowing eyes, wears a dark robe, carries a scythe and has a blindingly white horse. *Sigh, he’s such a heartthrob!* (I’m serious.) It’s turns out this Hogswatch/Xmas (or perhaps Winter Solstice) he’s going to have to amalgamate with his human roots and take on the hogfather’s (who has gone missing) duties delivering gifts thus unknowingly leaving himself vulnerable. He thinks he’s covered his bases in getting his granddaughter to temporarily fulfill his post but neither of them account for they greys…
I mean The Auditors. An impending, looming, glooming, dooming title if ever there was one, besides breeders and butchers of all life on earth. These shadowy, floaty beings apparently run the universe and have no sense of humour. But why would such self-confessed omnipotent, omnipresent beings need humans, specifically assassins, to get rid of a so-called underling such as Death? The Auditors know all about casual cruelty in the name or order, it was probably them who taught humans in the first place, and admittedly they still ‘guide’ events on Earth um Discworld. Who cares, the Assassin’s Guild are not ones to turn down money and a challenge (most of their members are nobility) and at 3 million Ankh-Morporkian dollars they’re not going to be shown lacking in ingenuity. Bah, I’d be insulted if the bounty on my head was a measly 3 million pounds or dollars!
Enter Mr Jonathan Teatime pronounced tee-a-time-eh for us plebs (his sentiment not mine) and I’m only telling you because he gets mightily peeved when someone gets it wrong and according to him everybody gets its wrong – much like Hyacinth Bucket (bouquet) from ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ and we know what she’s like so don’t say I didn’t warn ye. Despite his boyish looks he is cold, logical, unfeeling, uncaring, shit stirring, taking perverse pleasure in other people’s suffering, egotistical and lacking in social ability. In short he’s a psychopath and expects other to respect him with his backhanded complimentary veneer of charm and cheer even though when it comes to those all important questions “have I made the world even in the teensiest way a better place, how have I helped, how could and have I improved, can others trust me etc etc” he adds nothing of worth to the human race and the world wouldn’t miss him. Unsurprisingly he begrudges everything, including his status at the guild, and has already worked on plans to kill the Hogfather, the Tooth Fairy, The Soul Cake Tuesday Duck (Discworld’s Easter Bunny) and even Death.
Jonathan puts together a crew of dastardly characters and misfits to enact out his plan, an ambitious practical illusion to invert the already topsy turvy precarious beliefs of people so that demi-beings and divinities cease to exist, at least in people’s field of sensory perception. He thinks he can kill them and that is the premise of the story, but I think at most he could hide or change them, which would be awkward in a world where multi-species of slowly socially accepted sentience co-exist including humans, vampires, trolls, goblins, dwarves, little blue people, werewolves ad seemingly infinitum and many of those are demi-beings in themselves being cross-breeds with different abilities, some more diluted than others.
So it comes to Death and Susan (her capabilities skipped her human parents altogether and went direct from Death to her) to deal with the terrorist Jonathan, of the nasty ‘looks up dolls skirts whilst sneering’ persuasion.
AND SO IT ENDS
This was a really sleek production, being British based in cast/accents, locations, writing and designing you can see the use of dark and somewhat monochromatic/pale colour which suits the season and many of the environments including the Tooth Fairies, the Hogfather’s and Death’s inter-dimensional abodes. Those are nicely contrasted with the rich red/browns that we cling on to from Autumn past inside our homes and decadent textures depending on one’s class. Many of the characters are very stylised and convincingly so from their attire to mannerisms, something I found slightly lacking in the following Discworld films ‘The Colour of Magic’ (2008, including ‘The Light Fantastic’, also in two parts). The CGI is also miles better in this film, provided by the Moving Picture Company (one of their international facilities being in London), the mix of virtual reality and reality works as effectively as the blend of ‘anthropomorphic’ demi-beings and their effect on ‘real reality’ in the storyline.
The excellent settings allow the characterization and script to shine, the sarcastic, sardonic and sometimes innocent or offhand quips about how weird things are and at the end of the day the shrugging of shoulders ‘that’s the way it is’ attitude. That dark humour doesn’t come through as well in the ‘The Colour of Magic’ in my opinion and the long running time couldn’t manage without feeling sluggish. Here though I felt the length was suitable because it needs to give enough explanation but does it whilst telling the story, and is very faithful to the book so you don’t need to have read the book to understand it nor do you need to read the book thereafter (again, don’t tell the rabid fans I said that… But for my own personal safety – Disclaimer – it’s always a pleasure to read or listen to the audiobooks and Pratchett is the only author whose work I can revisit and still find the jokes funny, I can even find new ones each time!) Whoever did the casting did an apt job of casting for vocals as well since many of the characters are unique in both looks and oratory. All except one though, and the most important one (and his bird)… Here’s a quote from Death and his assistant Albert:
Death: Let’s go sleigh them.
[looks at Albert]
Death: I don’t know if you noticed Albert, but that was a pune, or play on words.
Albert: Ho ho ho sir. [figuratively rolling eyes]
Now whilst the pacing of the delivery was perfect, I would have preferred to hear:
Death: LET’S GO SLAY THEM
[looks wryly down at Albert]
Death: I DON’T KNOW IF YOU NOTICED ALBERT… BUT THAT WAS A PUNE, A PLAY ON WORDS.
[I’M GETTING PRETTY GOOD AT THIS HUMAN LARK, I CAN BE AS AMUSING AS THEM.]
Albert: Ho ho ho sir. [figuratively rolls eyes, eats yet another pie and downs his almost 2000th brandy, sherry or whatever]
You see, Death of the Discworld is a smaller version or one of the many workers of the cosmic DEATH, and as such has a presence that is both absolute and ethereal, a voice so hollow that it’d burst your ear drums if you could really hear it. As it is, if you exist after meeting Death you might only think you heard the hint of a voice after the blood-draining all-too-clear moment you knew at the time when you met Death prior and thought to yourself “oh shit, too late now”. Now that is asking a lot to put into a voice even with modern tech wonders and I felt that Death’s frozen cgi face was difficult enough to portray his thoughts and emotions, and then the voice wasn’t ‘hollow’ enough. He is voiced by Ian Richardson – who was also the narrator, and did a very apt job indeed – and his vocals sound ‘enhanced’ technologically but there’s just something, some spark of life in the death that’s missing. The crow, another of Death’s assistants doesn’t sound right either. I also didn’t like that the Death of Rats (a smaller and specific form of Death that was accidentally created and he decided to leave separate of himself instead of re-absorbing) only gets one scene. On a sidenote – the Auditors sound like something out of Dr Who.
That said their antics and conversations whilst acting as the Hogfather are sufficiently entertaining and we get to see other funny characters like the less efficient members of the City Watch (police force) trying to arrest Death in a department store for taking over their grotto and giving kids what they really want instead of what their parent’s want, and most eyebrow-raisingly for not being the real fake Hogfather (an employee dressed as the Hogfather).
Back in the assassination plot we meet characters like Violet one of the workers of the Tooth Fairy, so a tooth fairy herself but not THE Tooth Fairy (like with Death there’s far too many creatures on this planet/Discworld for one archetype to deal with, delegation became necessary) and her soon to be love interest Bilious the ‘Oh-God [I feel sick] of Hangovers’. Whose pitiable health the wizards of the Unseen University attempt to fix with their ‘we try not to meddle and mess up everything anymore but we’re not very good at that [so give us unlimited budgets and status to placate us]’ method.
The musical score is impressive and when coupled with vast scenes and various climates is what I already called epic – so nowt more need be said on that other than it’s orchestral/electronic and there’s no singing (or dancing) theme tunes (something I don’t mind and saw a bit of in the final Discworld movie ‘Going Postal’ (2010) but wouldn’t have worked here). Add to that well timed sound effects and you’ve got top notch quality.
All round, top notch quality. And perfect for the ‘festive’ time (especially if you liked The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)).
Happy Hogswatch. Ho, Ho, ho. Or Humbug! *Shrug* 🙂