David Walliams

Room on the Broom (2012)

How many award winning actors does it take to tell a children’s story? Seven in the case of Room on the Broom, an Academy Award nominated short based on the picture book by Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler. The film features the voice talents of great character actors, including Timothy Spall and Sally Hawkins with Simon Pegg narrating.

It’s tale about a witch, her broom, and her animal friends that take up all the room on her broom and is an endearing one for small children. Big people will be equally delighted. The witch (Gillian Anderson) sets off with her cat (Rob Brydon), and it, being very cat-like, is perfectly content to have the human all to himself. So when a few mishaps take the duo off course and lead them to meet new traveling companions, Cat is none too pleased. Dog (Martin Clunes), Bird (Hawkins), and Frog (David Walliams) are all eager to join the benevolent witch on her adventure, even if it means squeezing onto her compact broom.

The story is easy for even very small children to follow, and the stop-motion animation is simple without being plain. Still, it’s not visually arresting, and I wished it had a more distinct animation style. But the movie is so pure that I can appreciate it for what it does bring, and that is a measure of quietness and gentleness. Kids used to a constant fireworks of color and sound may be bored, but I loved the sparsity of storytelling. Besides stripped down visuals, there’s minimal dialogue – so much for the award-winning voice cast, but this only serves to emphasize the characters’ actions. Children will not easily overlook the genial witch and her generous heart nor will they fail to pick up on how the bickering animals overcome their differences to defeat the dragon, and the witch’s impossibly small broom. There’s nothing ostentatious about this little movie, and that’s what makes it so enjoyable.

Released: 2012
Prod: Martin Pope, Michael Rose
Dir: Max Lang, Jan Lachauer
Writer: Julia Donaldson, Axel Scheffler
Cast: Simon Pegg, Gillian Anderson, Rob Brydon, Timothy Spall, Martin Clunes, Sally Hawkins, David Walliams
Time: 27 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2018

Justin and the Knights of Valour

justin and the knights of valour

There are many things to like about Justin and the Knights of Valour. The animation, while not groundbreaking, paints an imaginative world filled with vivid detail. Justin (Freddie Highmore), its star, is also a genial, idealistic youth. He’s kind and principled, which may explain why his father (Alfred Molina) thinks he should follow in his footsteps and study law. And though it’s not always a respected profession, it’s a secure one in the land of Gabylonia, where legalism rules the day. The kingdom is a place where statutes have worked their way into every detail of daily life. Anyone can be ticketed for shouting too loudly in the streets and strongmen will snatch cats from little girls who haven’t updated their kitty’s vaccination cards.

It’s easy to see why Justin would want to trade a bureaucratic future for a life of adventure, and he dreams of being a knight like his grandfather, the brave and of course valorous Sir Roland. But two things stand in his way – his father and the law. And his scrawny physique. Since the king’s death years ago, the grieving queen (Olivia Williams) has banished knights, whom she blames for her husband’s death. Justin remains undaunted, however, and sets off on a quest, with some nudging from his grandmother (Julie Walters), to reclaim his grandfather’s missing sword and to find courage within himself.

I should stop here before trying to further untangle the various plot and character threads because, despite a strong opening, the movie overreaches and Justin’s coming of age gets lost in a confusion of sub-plots and minor characters, all seemingly to make room for the film’s expansive, all-star voice cast. There are a few key figures who aid in Justin’s self-discovery. He meets Blucher (James Cosmo), a monk and former knight who was also Sir Roland’s best friend. A colorful and scrappy old guy, Blucher puts Justin through the ringer and dispenses sage advice. Talia (Saoirse Ronan), a fiery barmaid, eventually turns sidekick while Lara (Tamsin Egerton), a selfish rich girl, is the lady to whom Justin dedicates his quest. Looming in the background is Heraclio (Mark Strong), a fallen knight who wants to reclaim his place in Gabylonia.

This film is hardly this straightforward though. A full slate of sideshow distractions leaves you wondering about the movie’s focus, which seems to be concentrated more on star power than on story. Antonio Banderas voices Sir Clorex, a vain handyman who passes himself off as a knight, David Walliams portrays a soothsayer/wizard/nut who hangs out at Talia’s bar and dispenses fortunes and gobbledygook in equal measure, Rupert Everett plays a fashionable jester and/or knight in Heraclio’s service, and Charles Dance is the head monk whose purpose I don’t remember.

The characters certainly add some laughs, and kids might enjoy their distinctiveness, but none are particularly important to the story. Justin’s journey is not just about following his heart but also about his relationship with his father, who in turn remains very affected by the actions of his father. There is potential for some Pixar-level pulling of the heartstrings, but the film never capitalizes on these moments, making Justin and the Knights of Valour a not altogether successful quest.

“Heroes” by Rebecca Ferguson:

Released: 2013
Prod: Antonio Banderas, Marcelino Almansa, Kerry Fulton, Ralph Kamp
Dir: Manuel Sicilia
Writer: Matthew Jacobs, Manuel Sicilia
Cast: Freddie Highmore, James Cosmo, Mark Strong, Alfred Molina, Julie Walters, Saoirse Ronan, Tamsin Egerton, Antonio Banderas, David Walliams, Barry Humphries, Charles Dance, Rupert Everett, Olivia Williams
Time: 90 min
Lang: English
Country: Spain
Reviewed: 2015

Run Fatboy Run

run fatboy run

I’m not sure why anyone would run away from Thandie Newton, but that’s exactly what Dennis (Simon Pegg) does on his wedding day. Five years after leaving the pregnant Libby (Newton) at the altar, he’s still treading water as a security guard at a women’s clothing store. Meanwhile, she’s let him back into her life, mostly because of their son Jake (Matthew Fenton), but she hasn’t quite forgiven him. Still, things are looking better for her; she owns a successful boutique bakery and is spending more time with her new boyfriend, Whit (Hank Azaria).

His intrusion into their lives jerks Dennis from complacency as he realizes he is in danger of losing Libby again. An everyday schlub who’s mediocre at best when it comes to his job, and life, he knows he doesn’t measure up to Libby’s new man. Whit, by contrast, is one of those guys with a cushy office in the Gherkin and who goes to spin class during his lunch break. Or as Libby points out, he’s a good man because he runs marathons for charity. Realizing that his pride and the woman he loves are at stake, Dennis decides to enter a marathon and prove that he’s a changed man. If he can’t win back Libby, at least he can win back her respect.

There’s nothing extraordinary about this run-of-the-mill romcom script from Michael Ian Black and Pegg, and those expecting the sharp humor of Pegg’s Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End) will be left wanting. Most of the jokes can be spotted a mile or two away as the narrative jogs steadily towards its predictable finish. Dennis’s hefty landlord (Harish Patel) and his best friend (Dylan Moran), who is also Libby’s gambling, pants-less cousin, cheer from the sidelines and offer some comic relief while Whit passively aggressively emasculates Dennis at every turn.

The acting ensemble gives the tired script a strong push though and makes the film pleasant if average. Pegg, always a welcome presence, gives heart to even his wackiest roles with his uncanny ability to get serious. He does the same here, showing that behind Dennis’s sluggish, irresponsible persona, there is much love and regret. Azaria also attacks his part with smug gusto, making Whit’s comeuppance all the more satisfying. Caught in the middle, Newton has less to work with but is radiant nonetheless. It’s no wonder she’s got two guys going the distance for her.

Released: 2007
Prod: Sarah Curtis, Robert Jones
Dir: David Schwimmer
Writer: Michael Ian Black, Simon Pegg
Cast: Simon Pegg, Thandie Newton, Hank Azaria, Dylan Moran, Harish Patel, India de Beaufort, Matthew Fenton, Simon Day, Ruth Sheen, Peter Serafinowitz, Stephen Merchant, David Walliams
Time: 100 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2015