When the book smart Atti (Sebastian Croft) gets on the wrong side of the Roman Emperor Nero (Craig Roberts), he is forced to join the army and is stationed in Britain. He is captured by the young Celtic warrior Orla (Emilia Jones) and soon they get caught up in Boudica's (Kate Nash) revolt and find their allegiances tested.
'Horrible Histories: The Movie' is in keeping with the great tradition of well-loved BBC programmes like 'Porridge' or 'Dad’s Army'. And by that I mean after some of the best comedy on TV, it goes on to release a likeable yet underwhelming film. Things start well with some solid jokes about Roman numerals and anachronistic sight gags but by the midway point, it’s hard not to notice that the hit rate has dropped dramatically.
In part, it feels like the jump from sketch to a more straightforward narrative has left a lot lost in translation. The show had a very conversational feel which helped ensure the gag rate was always fairly hefty. Without the framing device, it appears the writers are slightly lost. That being said, there are plenty of jokes that work and provides more laughs than the average Will Ferrell slog.
The cast also feels a bit of a letdown. The original core troupe have been producing some great TV like 'Yonderland' and this year's 'Ghosts'. So the likes of Simon Farnaby are sorely missed, especially their silly semi-improvisational delivery. The cast isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination but they don’t get much room to flex their chops. Lee Mack, in particular, is under-utilised. He has one running joke that never quite lands and you sit in eager anticipation for his trademark gags but none are forthcoming.
Could it really have hurt to just let him rewrite some of the scenes? Dan Skinner, a man that can make raising his hand hilarious, gets sidelined and really isn’t given enough screen time to flourish. Angelos Epithemiou as Roman general is a missed opportunity. The cameos are also lacklustre, we don’t get anyone of the calibre of Alexei Sayle or Rob Brydon, we don’t even get Julian Barratt who I thought needed to appear in every British comedy by law.
Instead, we make do with the likes of Alexander Armstrong and Chris Addison, both perfectly fine comedic actors but not personalities that create an eager atmosphere of anticipation. The younger leads are completely endearing and really help pull things along. Both are well cast and their character arcs are simple yet pleasing. Let’s not forget the history part of the title, so how does that hold up? They do well to mine both Julio-Claudian Rome and Celtic England for material, even if some of the gags are recycled.
As a history nerd, I’m not sure how some of the jokes will fly for a broader audience but none of us are too good for the scatological scenes. The educational element takes a back seat for this outing but I am sure will drive plenty of viewers to look up the actual history. If it didn’t have the weight of the previous success of 'Horrible Histories' in the title, it could be judged on different criteria.
This new outing is an enjoyable affair but fans, I feel, will be let down by the overall standard.