Double Bills III: The Princess Bride and Your Highness

It is difficult to find anything original to say about The Princess Bride (1987). It already, deservedly, has cult status, and fond fantasy fans wax lyrical about it on a regular basis. Obviously I’m a fan – I named my blog after it.

I went through a bit of a personal panic about the film when I was old enough to realise suddenly that it was a comedy. This sounds like a silly comment; I always found the characters funny, but it wasn’t until later that I really understood the concept of a parody. This worried me; if The Princess Bride was essentially a p*ss take, laughing at the heroic fantasy genre, then surely the characters, their love and losses, hopes and dreams, were all also being laughed at, too?

I realised eventually that this wasn’t true. The Princess Bride isn’t mocking anything; it is full of affection for the genre. You are supposed to feel for the characters, to feel that same affection for them as for the genre as a whole. Comedy films only work when they take themselves seriously. The minute the characters know they’re in a funny film; it’s all over. There’s nothing more inane than that blank look on an actor’s face when they’re clearly not even trying to emote with their character, they’re just thinking about how amusing they must sound saying the character’s lines.

Not everyone will agree with me, but I feel that Your Highness (2011) also takes itself seriously. True, the humour is a tad bawdier. For example; the paedophilic wise wizard and his “playful secrets”, the colossal slain minotaur penis that McBride’s character, Thadeous insists on wearing around his neck and a prophecy based around an event known as “the f*ckening”. I still maintain, however, that these characters do not know they’re in a comedy. They’re perhaps a few baby steps closer to knowing; but as in The Princess Bride, they are driven by a quest of colossal importance and forge genuine relationships with one another. Like The Princess Bride, it’s a script written for the love of the genre, with a disproportionate chunk of gross-out stoner movie thrown in for good measure. The crude jokes and the rather ripe language could be said to break the reality of the film, but in real life, people are especially funny when they’re scared and they do make jokes to make themselves feel better. Frankly, I feel that The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is missing a few well-placed swears. I would swear if a Balrog of Morgoth had me by the ankle.

Yes, Your Highness has a dark sense of humour and is fairly warped, but let’s not forget that The Princess Bride is often cut when it’s shown on television before the Watershed. Wesley is, after all, tortured to death and Inigo’s parting line to Count Rugen, “I want my father back, you son of a b*tch” is often, to my frustration, edited out of tea-time viewing slots. To me, the target audience of both films is the same set of people; Your Highness just catches that same group when they grow up. In the UK; The Princess Bride is a PG and Your Highness is a 15.

The Princess Bride features the glorious Mandy Patinkin playing a role which is almost even more beloved than the film itself. Inigo Montoya’s quest is also one of love; he says he wants to avenge his father but really he just wants him back. Patinkin drew on the loss of his father for this role, bringing almost Hamlet-like depths to his performance. The child-avenging trope also appears in Your Highness; as Isabel (Natalie Portman) states, “I know how you’re feeling inside. As if you can’t rest until you destroy those who harmed your family. You want to skin them alive, and then wear their flesh as a cape as you dance around their convulsing corpses.” The other leads, Robin Wood [Penn] who plays Princess Buttercup, would go on to do great work in Forrest Gump as Jenny, and as the wife Audrey in Unbreakable. Carey Elwes would later saw off his own foot in… you guessed it… Saw.

The Princess Bride also features characters who are arguably wackier and more caricaturised than in Your Highness. There’s the kooky Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) and Valerie (Carol Kane), Mel Smith as The Albino, a role he always said he never watched back and Peter Cook as the Impressive Clergyman. I know for a fact that the phrase, “Mawidge is what bwings us togeva…” have featured in more than a few alternative wedding ceremonies and after parties. As well as this is a frame story encapsulating the strong relationship between a sick little boy and his grandfather, played enchantingly by Peter Falk.

Your Highness was written by Danny McBride and Ben Best, two men who clearly grew up loving the more family-friendly fantasy films of the seventies and eighties. Although apparently much of the dialogue in the film was improvised (which would account for lines such as “It is my legacy to stop anyone who wants to f*ck to make dragons”) the film is still full of engaging little character details. The way the characters tend to say exactly what’s on their minds can often lead to remarks which are endearing in their childishness, “No! Never triangle face! I hate triangle face, it scares me”.  I also enjoy the ‘complicated’ relationship dynamic between Franco’s Fabious and Damien Lewis as Boromont. There’s also Justin Theroux’s truly irksome Leezar and two strong females (Natalie Portman as Isabel and Zooey Deschanel as Belladonna) show that they are capable of being just as foul and grotesque as their male counterparts. There are other notable cast appearances, such as Simon Farnaby, for all those Mighty Boosh and Horrible History fans and Charles Dance, as the King.

There are also small but entertaining musical touches. Zooey Deschanel’s duet with the startlingly tone deaf James Franco; he may be exaggerating it for comedic effect but excerpts from the 2011 Oscars proved he was no song bird. As a special mention; Steve Jablonsky’s score for this film is very, very good and frequently gets played in my house (by my sister!) in the same session as tracks from Dances with Wolves and Brave.

Fun little creative fantasy touches include Marteetee; a nappy-wearing villain who plunges his hand into a cauldron as simultaneously his monster rises into the arena – a hand-shaped, five-headed reptilian creature. The heroes also have animal familiars to assist them on their quests; Fabious has the mechanical bird Simon and Thadeous’ has a less impressive lizard, called Steven.

The Princess Bride has a clear legacy. William Goldman’s book is hugely popular in its own right and you only have to spend a few minutes on ebay to know that there’s also a string of merchandise available. Rob Reiner (This is Spinal Tap, When Harry met Sally, Misery) is also a great director. The Princess Bride is well loved, often quoted and frequently televised and wins out in the end over Your Highness because, although less laugh out loud funny, it says something about ‘true love’ and friendship that a gross-out orientated stoner comedy could never hope to achieve. That said, Your Highness is also made with love and it really does get funnier and more quotable with every viewing. It might just be more of a slow burner…

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