Judge Clark Douglas is prepared to sacrifice his plastic dolls for his country!
Our fate is in their tiny little hands.
I have a confession to make: I've always had a rather difficult time enjoying old-fashioned, star-studded war epics like The Battle of Britain and Battle of the Bulge. I certainly don't have any particular dislike for war films and I don't have any problems with the customary flag-waving bravado of such flicks. No, the problem is much simpler: they're too messy. I re-watched The Battle of Britain recently, and was astonished at how such an impressive cast is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of recycled stock footage, explosions and cluttered storytelling. Not all war films of the 1960s suffer from this problem (Where Eagles Dare is a tight, well-organized, gripping piece of cinema), but far too many of the expensive war flicks of the era are ruined by poorly-directed chaos.
I mention all of this because the ultra-peculiar marionette war fantasy Jackboots on Whitehall wants nothing more than to recapture the distinctively chaotic tone of The Battle of Britain (and then to exaggerate that tone to its furthest possible limits). It does this rather successfully, which is a virtue for a few minutes and an annoyance for a remainder of the running time. The film is fun at first, as you smile at the manner in which the film is piling on the war-movie cliches, blasting a cheerful Ron Goodwin-style score (a throwback to the era when war movies were typically underscored by alarmingly happy tunes), dispensing with historical facts, and allowing its all-star cast to turn in nutty vocal performances. Unfortunately, one quickly realizes that this is pretty much all the film is going to offer for the duration of its 90-minute running time.
The plot is a dramatic variation on the second World War. In 1940, the Nazis win the Battle of Britain, overtake London, and kill almost all of the English soldiers. Thinks look pretty bleak for the allies, but a few desperate survivors band together to fight for freedom: a Scottish farm boy (Ewan McGregor, The Island), a racist American (Dominic West, The Wire), a group of Indian soldiers, a handful of townsfolk, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall, Sweeney Todd). Meanwhile, Goebbels (Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton), Goering (Richard Griffiths, Pie in the Sky), Himmler (Richard O'Brien, The Rocky Horror Picture Show), and Hitler (Alan Cumming, X2: X-Men United) party and engage in some very peculiar behavior.
The basic joke of Jackboots on Whitehall is that it takes a lot of familiar war movie scenes, emphasizes the conventional elements of those scenes, and cranks them up to full volume. It's amusing on occasion, but without much wit in the screenplay the format becomes tiresome. The revisionism is certainly strange (aside from the fact that Churchill and some Scottish farmers didn't win the war all by themselves, the film turns Hitler into a cross-dresser and transforms the Hindenburg into a Nazi warship), but it's rarely quite nutty enough to transcend the feeling that this whole thing is an overlong, ill-considered Robot Chicken sketch (a feeling particularly amplified when Braveheart turns up to make a bunch of Mel Gibson jokes).
The vocal work is…intriguing. The film boasts an all-star cast, but you'll recognize very few of the voices. Tom Wilkinson does a very strange German accent, Timothy Spall reprises his hilariously odd Winston Churchill impression from The King's Speech, Stephen Merchant plays a gruff old man, Dominic West talks like Bender from Futurama, and Alan Cumming's campy Hitler is…well, a campy Hitler. The effect is hit-and-miss, as many lines of dialogue are lost in the midst of the loopy accents and shrieking line deliveries.
The DVD transfer is rather impressive, offering excellent detail (though it's rather apparent that the models being used are about as detailed and flexible as Barbie dolls) and deep, inky blacks. Audio is also quite strong, with the booming score (which not only riffs on Goodwin but also on Hans Zimmer and James Horner) frequently serving as the funniest, most involving element. Extras include some behind-the-scenes footage, interviews with creators Edward and Rory McHenry and a handful of very brief featurettes: "The Swastikas," "Bad Day to Be a Nazi," "Hitler's Rat Pack," "The Nazi Hotties," "Explosions," and "Voiceovers." All of the features are presented in rather awful video quality.
Jackboots on Whitehall is a unique experience, but that's about the only thing it has going for it. It pays loving homage to and mockingly parodies a lot of '60s war flicks in a manner that is impressive on paper but a little tiresome to actually sit through. Then again, if you're the sort of person who finds The Battle of Britain riveting viewing, you may find this a comic delight. For this reviewer, it ranks right next to Valiant as a peculiar, unsuccessful piece of WWII-themed animation.
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