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With an incredible all-star cast, and a concept that cleverly combines Team America’s love of ‘60s style TV puppetry, and the alternate universe approach to WWII team film homage Quentin Tarantino utilized so well for Inglourious Basterds, Edward and Rory McHenry’s Jackboots on Whitehall seems destined for cult movie greatness based on concept alone. But those of us that thrive on cult movie excesses know the threat of something being too good to be true looms heavily over such projects, and so I approach this particular project with tempered expectations. This story takes place in a universe where the Nazis – including Joseph Goebbels (Tom Wilkinson), Hermann Göring (Richard Griffiths) and Heinrich Himmler (Richard O’Brien) – invade England by drilling under the English Channel, and up through the cobblestones on Whitehall, where they take control of London, and attempt to capture Churchill (Timothy Spall). Meanwhile, a young farm worker with hands too large to join the armed forces named Chris (Ewan McGregor) hears of the invasion via Churchill’s radio broadcast, and rallies a team of misfits to rescue the Prime Minister.

Jackboots on Whitehall
What’s immediately interesting to this animation geek is that Jackboots on Whitehall is only partially animated (mouth movement and blinking eyes mostly), and not puppetted in the traditional marionette fashion, as seen in the similar looking Thunderbirds TV series, and Team America: World Police. This process is apparently referred to as ‘Supermarionation’, which is a broad enough term (as defined on the wikipedia) to include the process utilized here. Minus the minor CG augmentation and pyrotechnics, the McHenrys and their associates are more or less literally playing with toys in front of a camera. Robot Chicken and A Town Called Panic ( Panique au Village) also see the animators playing with toys, but in these cases the toys are being manipulated between frames to create the illusion of movement. The only other similarly ‘animated’ piece with any decent exposure I can recall is the Action League Now! shorts that were included in the short-lived Nickelodeon series KaBlam!. Even if this filmmaking style had been a regular practice outside of 12-year-old children’s bedrooms, I’m guessing Jackboots on Whitehall would be the Citizen Kane of the subgenre. There is a lot of love in this production (which has a reported budget of six million dollars), from the puppet’s gnarly, caricatured faces (slightly less grotesque than those Spitting Image puppets in the ‘Land of Confusion’ music video), to the itty-bitty stitched details onto the costumes, and the epic little sets. I cannot argue against the beautiful technical achievements made here. And the pyrotechnics are pretty spectacular.

However, this isn’t an action movie as much as it’s a comedy. American viewers should probably be warned that a lot of the humour here is pretty UK specific, so a lot of the comedy will probably fly over their heads (I’m one of those people). Jackboots on Whitehall’s may alienate some viewers even further with its dated variety of spoofing. Occasionally a spoof of a newer property will escape, such as a relatively amusing replay of Return of the King’s ‘lighting the beacons’ sequence, and several specific visual references to Saving Private Ryan, but these largely feel out of step with the rest of the ‘old school’ comedic tone. ‘Dated’ isn’t always a bad word, but in this instance I found myself groaning at the stereotypes (the French guy is a ladies man, the American is a brute that mistakenly calls the Nazis ‘Commies’) rather than giggling along with them in spite of myself. The script is occasionally clever, specifically in its ability to skew historical accuracy in favour of a good joke (good being a relative term), but there aren’t any particularly quotable lines, or memorable interactions. The lack of laughs is hurt most exhaustively by the lack of proper timing and pacing. There are too many pauses between gags, and the physical comedy flops with relative regularity, despite the overall dynamic camera work. The action scenes are actually quite well done, better than those of the only comparable non-animated puppet movie I can think of ( Team America, of course). If the plot had been distilled enough to cut the entire film to a more manageable 45 minute runtime, and the action been played a little more straight-faced, allowing the audience to respectfully giggle at the absurdity of the medium, I probably would’ve had more fun, though the climax alone is enough goofy chaos for me to run this one through the player again someday.

Jackboots on Whitehall

Video


Jackboots on Whitehall was apparently not a big enough release to garner the Blu-ray treatment, but overall this standard definition DVD looks pretty great. The image is relatively crisp, details are sharp in close-up, and shallow focus is regularly used to create a sense of depth and scale in the shots, so a lack of 1080p assistance doesn’t really hurt the backgrounds. Colours are minimal due to the dreary overcast of the London sets, but there are some decent poppy elements amongst the dulled grays, greens and blues. The solid red used on the Nazi uniforms and flags is plenty vibrant, but like all warmer hues suffers some blocking effects. The dawn sky, and any backgrounds effected by fire effects are the transfer’s most consistent issue, as compression effects dance all throughout the subtle hue changes. Contrast levels are nice, featuring deep blacks and sharp whites, though some of the highest contrasting elements do produce some minor edge-enhancement.

Jackboots on Whitehall

Audio


This disc comes fitted with a default stereo track, and a slightly superior Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Both tracks are relatively well centered, but Guy Michelmore’s aggressive, old fashion, and rarely silenced score gets some solid stereo play, and some of the battle effects work out the surrounds with relatively satisfying directional effects. An example of the track’s better directional effort comes when American stereotype Fiske is introduced by crashing his plane headfirst into the ground. The plane explodes, and spreads into the stereo channels, while Fiske himself flies screaming from the center channel to the rear left channel, and back again. Machine gun fire also lets loose into the surrounds on several occasions, and the scenes that pay homage to Saving Private Ryan do well with their recreation of tank and mortar effects.

Jackboots on Whitehall

Extras


This disc’s decent, but rather dry collection of extras begins with interviews featuring producer Karl Richards solo, costume designer Elizabeth Marcussen, production designer David McHenry, Editor Chris Blunden, director of photography Mike O’Connor and writer/directors Edward and Rory MckHenry (28:10). Here the storyline is repeatedly rundown, we learn that the script and cast predated the technical development by quite a bit, and are walked through the technical process of tiny costume design, puppet production, general production design, editing, and tiny puppet photography. This is followed by a whole bunch of behind the scenes footage, which acts as a solid window into this particular brand of filmmaking (29:00). Basically these two featurettes are a raw form EPK. With a little editing it probably wouldn’t be quite so dry. Shorter featurettes fill out the extras including ‘The Swastikas’ (1:40), ‘Bad Day to be a Nazi’ (2:20), ‘Hitler’s Rat Pack’ (1:50), ‘The Nazi Hotties’ (:50), ‘Explosions’ (6:30) and ‘Voice Overs’ (:50).

Jackboots on Whitehall

Overall


Jackboots on Whitehall was clearly made with heaping spoonfuls of love, and will absolutely appeal to some viewers, but overall I wasn’t particularly amused, just impressed with the technical aspects of the production. Long time fans of the Gerry Anderson puppet series will find this disc a worthy rental at the very least. The image and sound qualities are better than average for type (make sure you select the DD 5.1 track, as the disc defaults to stereo), and the extras, though a bit dry, do cover much of the unique cinematic process.


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