Dir: Dominic Brigstocke
We had the Horrible Histories books when my brother and I were kids. I have particular memories of having them in the book box we used to put together to occupy us on long car journeys. They were great, combining gross and funny facts with a solid overview of the history of the period they were covering. I had grown past them by the time the TV show came about, but having always heard positive things about the show, I decided to check out its first feature film venture.
The basic story has several prongs. Orla (Emilia Jones) wants to be a Celtic warrior with the army Bouddica (Kate Nash) is raising, but her protective Dad (Nick Frost) doesn’t want her to have a sword yet. Atti (Sebastian Croft) is sent to Britain with the legion as punishment when one of his clever ideas backfires, offending the young emperor Nero (Craig Roberts). Almost as soon as Atti arrives, he’s captured by Orla.
It is always a challenge to review a film that simply isn’t interested in me as an audience member. Rotten Romans is unapologetically for kids, often quite little kids. In that respect, it’s fine; the fart, poo and vomit jokes will provide them some undemanding laughs. Everything is done with a big, broad, energy that talks at the audience rather than down to them and it keeps the brand intact in that amongst the gags, kids will learn a few things about the Roman empire and its war with the Celtic tribes.
As a piece of filmmaking and for an older audience, amiable though it is, Horrible Histories: The Movie doesn’t really work. It’s one thing making a film for kids but, costume design aside, this one does often wear its cheapness rather too visibly. Sets feel a bit rickety and there is a definite sense that certain scenes had to be rushed through, notably the poorly choreographed and noticeably small scale battle of Watling Street. More problematic is the fact that, despite a fairly starry cast with plenty of funny people in it, the jokes just don’t connect frequently enough. As the Roman military leader Paulinus, Rupert Graves definitely sells his running gag of always talking in the third person and the payoff is fairly amusing, but Craig Roberts’ petulant Nero could easily have been pushed to a more comically extreme place and Lee Mack’s running joke as a centurion who misses Rome never manages to find a laugh. This is also an issue with most of the film’s songs, which are sporadic enough that you’re never expecting one and which generally miss the mark.
In the lead, Emilia Jones (who I couldn’t place initially, but discovered I’d recently seen in Pascal Laugier’s Incident in a Ghostland) is an appealing presence. The screenplay never pays her desire to be a warrior off that satisfyingly, but that’s not for lack of effort on her part. She and Sebastian Croft have fun with the growing (platonic) relationship between their characters, they just don’t have the material to work with. Perhaps the most entertaining part of the film is Kate Nash’s Boudicca. The recasting of the queen who united the Celtic tribes in rebellion as a rock star is the film’s best comic idea and one that serves to provide kids with a way to relate her to their own time. For her part, Nash seems to be having a ball, she delivers Boudicca’s songs with energy and has a couple of the better jokes.
This isn’t a deep film. The final song rushes to find something like a happy ending and has a message about sharing that is a good thing to have kids walk out remembering and feels especially positive given the times we find ourselves in. On the other hand, it’s not particularly in keeping with the rest of the film which, though it always frames it out, is surprisingly heavy on killing for something so clearly aimed at a very young audience. Overall, Rotten Romans has a few things that work and a handful of fun moments, but for an audience over eight, while it’s good natured and never a chore to watch, it’s just not consistently funny enough.