Review: ‘Your Highness’ is filthy fantasy fun with Franco and McBride

“Your Highness” is a preposterous movie.

The idea that it even exists sort of blows my mind.  From the first time I was told about it, I kept waiting for something to happen to derail the film.  So many movies I’ve wanted to see over the years that sounded like they were genuinely deranged have gotten derailed in pre-production or at some point in development.  This one, more deranged than most, actually made it all the way through production and actually will play in theaters.  Where people can see it.  And that seems insane to me.

When I was a kid, there was a span of about six years where there were sword-and-sorcery movies being made all the time, and I’d estimate that of the hundreds of them I seem to remember sitting through, a solid 97% of them were absolutely awful.  And if you had handed a 13-year-old me a crew and a budget and asked me to make one of them myself, the results probably would have ended up looking a lot like “Your Highness,” a move so hopped up on the genre that it seems to break it beyond repair through sheer force of will.  Once you’ve seen “Your Highness,” it will be impossible to sit through, say, Marcus Nispel’s “Conan” with a straight face.

Danny McBride has been developing a specific comic persona from the time we first saw him in “All The Real Girls” as Bust-Ass, a movie that was directed, of course, by David Gordon Green, who also directed “Your Highness.”  The thing I like about the characters that McBride plays is that they are often possessed of a swagger and a strut that they know in their heart is unearned, and it is the way their insecurities and vulnerabilities pop through that exaggerated confidence that makes them human and hilarious. Zooey Deschanel also starred in that film in a serious role, and it’s nice to see her cut loose here as a girl who was raised in captivity and who has no sense of social graces as a result.  It’s also nice to see they built in a place for her to sing, something that should be required in any film where she stars.

Prince Thadeous (McBride) has second son syndrome when we meet him at the start of the film.  He has long since accepted that he will never be the king, and so he’s dedicated himself to being a spectacular wastrel.  When we first meet him, he’s about to be hanged by the neck for having carnal relationships with the Dwarf King’s wife while his faithful manservant Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker) watches.  They manage to escape thanks to a natural miscalculation, and we’re off and running.

There’s a warm easy chemistry between McBride and James Franco, who plays his brother Fabious, and I like the earnest lunacy of what Franco does here.  There’s an early sequence, once the brothers have been forced together on a quest to rescue Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel) from the disturbing Leezar (Justin Theroux), where they stop by the home of the Wise Wizard for advice.  If you make it to the end of that scene, and you’re not laughing yet, get up and go home.  This is not a movie for you.  If, on the other hand, you find yourself laughing in a mixture of horror and delight, then “Your Highness” will probably entertain you as much as it entertained me.

Not every joke lands in the movie, but that’s okay.  It’s the sort of film that is willing to try anything along the way, and it demonstrates both an affection for the genre as well as a deconstructionist’s eye for how to tear it down from the inside.  There are so many little touches in the film that appealed to me, from the “Ghostbusters”-looking visual effects to the straight-faced epic second unit work to the monsters that are state-of-the-art while also managing to be both ridiculous and profane.  Natalie Portman’s character, Isabel, is driven by a need for revenge on what seems like a list of 10,000 names, and she plays it like she’s in a serious fantasy movie.  That just makes it work better, and again, it’s very true to the genre.  The more straight-faced she plays it, the more ridiculous things seem around her, and it really pays off the film’s production values, which all is in service of making this feel like an authentic fantasy film and not a silly comedy version.  When Mel Brooks made “Blazing Saddles” or “Young Frankenstein,” he made sure to craft the worlds of those movies carefully and with an expert eye for detail.  That’s exactly why those films stand the test of time, and why they work side-by-side with the films they’re making fun of, and I would imagine that if I put together a triple feature of “Red Sonya,” “The Beastmaster,” and “Your Highness,” they would play perfectly together.

This sort of comedy is far more about attitude than it is about set-up and punchline, and that rhythm isn’t for everyone.  For me, this is what gives me a ridiculous case of the giggles as I watch.  It’s a sort of building thing for me, where the longer the film plays, the more I laugh at behavior.  Leezar, for example, keeps revealing stranger and stranger facets of his personality as he gets closer to the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy, or, as he calls it, “The F**kening.”  That raises a point regarding the use of modern profanity and slang in the film, and for me, it’s like the David Milch approach to “Deadwood,” where we’re supposed to accept that we’re hearing the equivalent to modern profanity, and it’s just that we’re hearing it through a filter.  The film aims for humor both high and low, and seems willing to score a laugh by any means necessary.  They’re capable of poking holes in the oddball nature of their own reality, doing almost abstract jokes, while also going for the occasional pratfall.  They’ll do ten minutes of character jokes, then throw in a boner as a sort of punctuation mark.  It’s that shotgun-blast approach to hunting down the laughs that I admire, and I think the film works far more often than not as a result.

The entire crew, including composer Steve Jablonsky, cinematographer Tim Orr, monster-maker Mike Elizalde, and production designer Mark Tildesley, all seem to be on the exact same page as Green and McBride, and the film throws some truly bizarre imagery at the audience, but still manages to look like a genuine fantasy film, never really winking at the audience.  The cast strikes a consistent tone, with nice supporting turns from guys like Toby Jones and Damian Lewis, and I would argue that Natalie Portman has never been consistently more attractive than she is in this role.  “Bad-ass warrior girl” is evidently a look that suits her well.

Here’s the highest praise I can pay the film:  I look forward to seeing it again, and with comedies, that is the real test for me.  Comedy is based at least in part on its ability to surprise, much like horror, and for me to watch a comedy a second time, there has to be something else going on besides just surface laughs.  I think this is far more uneven than “Pineapple Express” was, but it’s also more ambitious, and it seems to be more unhinged.  In the end, I’ll take uneven and messy as long as it delivers the sort of twisted fun this one does, and I’m curious to see what people make of it once it opens wide this weekend.

“Your Highness” opens in theaters everywhere this Friday.