Horrid Henry: The Movie (2011)

Review first appeared in Sight & Sound, September 2011

Synopsis: Homework-hating brat Horrid Henry dreams of becoming a rockstar – but his escalating war of pranks with ‘number one enemy’ Moody Margaret leads to the dismissal of his teacher Miss Boudicca Battleax from Ashton Primary, and his own exclusion from the school’s talent contest. Meanwhile, Vic Van Wrinkle, avaricious headmaster to nearby private school Brick House, plots with a pair of corrupt inspectors to shut Ashton Primary down for good. Henry’s Great Aunt Greta enrols Henry in Lady Giddiantus School For Girls, believing him to be a girl. Margaret, also enrolled, helps Henry escape the hockeystick-wielding boarders. Meanwhile Miss Lovely, the teacher  of Henry’s younger brother Perfect Peter, learns of Vic’s plot and is kidnapped.

Suddenly determined to save the once hated Ashton Primary, Henry tells his friends that their band must win the talent contest. With Margaret’s help, they enter disguised in girls’ uniforms, and win – but headmistress Oddbod informs Henry that his celebrity cannot stop the school’s unfavourable inspection. Margaret reveals that Henry has been challenged by an anonymous Terrible Teacher to appear on his favourite TV show, and suggests that the cash prize, if won, could be used to bribe the inspectors. On the show, Henry undergoes various school-themed trials and, when his challenger is revealed to be none other than Battleax, proves that homework is something he can both do and spell. Meanwhile Peter, also captured by Vic, uses Miss Lovely’s mobile phone to enable Miss Oddbod to overhear Vic’s ‘terrible plan’. Vic and the inspectors are arrested, Ashton Primary is saved – and Henry gets to keep the prize money that he has won on the show. There is a celebratory party at Henry’s house.

Review: Horrid Henry: The Movie begins with a one-man raid into hostile territory, shown in part through the infiltrator’s high-tech night-vision glasses – but we can also see that the assault is being conducted in broad daylight by a young boy against his ‘enemy number one’ Moody Margaret (Scarlett Stitt), that his target is a mere chocolate box, and that even his state-of-the-art goggles are just cardboard. “Hi, I’m Henry”, says the boy (Theo Stevenson) to camera as he is called inside to do his homework, “and this is my world.”

This prologue might lead viewers to expect a film that will play on the double-perspective of a pre-adolescent’s fantasy and his more mundane reality – yet even when we are not being confined to the titular would-be-hero’s point-of-view, little here corresponds to reality. When Henry freezes in mid-air, headmistress Miss Oddbod (Rebecca Front) also witnesses this breach of physical law (“Get down from there right now”, she insists petulantly). When Great Aunt Agatha (Prunella Scales), believing Henry to be a girl, sends him to her unisex alma mater, Henry’s parents raise no objections. And while Henry’s hare-brained, obviously childish schemes to save his state school from closure all prove irrelevant to the problem at hand, that problem is caused not by socioeconomic realities, but by a rival headmaster (Richard E. Grant) given to bribery, abduction and other behaviours suggestive more of a Bond villain than a contemporary Middle England educator.

So Henry’s world is one where little makes sense, and where his own actions merely coexist with, rather than actually affect, the main plot (which also makes no sense). The result is, frankly, an incoherent mess. Where Francesca Simon’s original short stories are inherently episodic, here arbitrary episodes accumulate without adding up to a cogent feature. Lucinda Whiteley’s screenplay utterly reduces the characters to the alliterative descriptors inherited from Simon’s books, so that no-one ever gets beyond a gurning caricature. An eclectically starry adult cast that includes Noel Fielding, Matthew Horne, Jo Brand and Parminder Nagra has been hauled in for their marquee recognition, but given nothing to do. Even Anjelica Huston, braving a Scots accent as the myopic Miss Battleax, struggles to make more than a superficial impression, while Richard McCourt and Dominic Wood (aka children’s television presenters Dick and Dom) have evidently been instructed by director Nick Moore (Wild Child, 2008) to play more irritating versions of themselves.

There are lurid colours, desultory genre pastiches, CG diagrammes, random song-and-dance numbers, explosive incursions of animation into the live action, as well as the inevitable jokes involving farts, snot and vomit – and as though all this were not irksomely in-your-face enough, it is also the first British children’s film in 3D. It might be formally audacious, even innovative – but watching it is like being forced to experience a world hallucinated by a flatulent tweeny idiot in the grip of both ADHD and a sugar rush. That also describes the ideal demographic.

Anton Bitel