If you don’t like children, and I mean what children are really like when they’re away from their parents, don’t go to see this movie. I went to see it in a screening full of primary school kids. Not ideal viewing, you might say, but it did offer me an altered perspective on things. For Horrid Henry is a strange phenomenon restricted to the world of the underdeveloped. Henry is so mischievous and downright horrid throughout, it’s pure wish fulfilment for the little blighters who’d like to do the same.
So, there’s a lot of children, a whole film full, in fact. Some are better than others, granted, but tolerance of a child’s more unattractive side is a minimum requirement before entering the cinema to see this one. Unless you’re under 10 years old, of course.
The film follows Henry as he battles against the injustice of being a kid, fighting against adults and their insistence that he do his homework. But after the future of the school is put in jeopardy, he tries to save it by winning on his favourite television show, Too Cool for School.
The Horrid Henry books have sold over 16 million copies in the UK alone, and Henry is now the most popular literary character after a certain boy wizard. Unlike Harry, though, you’re unlikely to see any adult picking up a copy for his or her own enjoyment, and this anticipated film adaptation goes quite far to explaining why. It’s loud, crass and rude, exactly what many a small child would love life to be like. Although Henry often feels hard done by and downtrodden, he holds the power in these stories.
Admittedly, Theo Stevenson’s performance as the title character is impressive. The 13-year-old has to carry all the unbelievable dialogue and zest for life on his tiny shoulders, and he makes it look easy. As the character’s not exactly a good, wholesome role model, it would be easy for him to be unlikeable, but he manages to charm his way through in the end. In a film so often maniacally frenzied and shrill, Stevenson’s assured take on Henry grounds things.
The other performers don’t come off so well. Ross Marron is adequate as Perfect Peter, but he constantly seems overwhelmed by his pivotal role, and so brings little personality to the part. Scarlett Stitt, on the other hand, brings her all to a character so overwritten and detestable she does well not to come out looking the same. I’m aware that this is a film made for fans of the books and animated CITV series, but some things work better on the page than the screen.
The main draw for parents is the all-star supporting cast, and it becomes something of a game to spot the national treasures amidst the newcomers and TV personalities populating the screen. For every Anjelica Huston or Richard E. Grant, there’s also a Kimberly Walsh and Mathew Horne hanging around, and this makes for a decidedly bizarre mixture. For some reason, natural comic performers like Jo Brand and Noel Fielding are pushed to the margins, meaning the former Girls Aloud starlet ends up with more screen time than both combined.
Anjelica Huston as Miss Battleaxe is, obviously, a pleasure to watch, as she takes a pivotal role in Henry’s effort on Too Cool for School. The sequence is the climax of the movie, and features an appearance by TV stars Dick and Dom, much to the delight of those kiddies. Folks unaware of their existence will find their prominence within these final scenes quite strange, but this will soon turn to terror as they begin prancing around the screen like particularly unnerving silent movie stars. A cross between evil clowns and mimes, it’s a great performance from the pair, if you’re trying to give people nightmares.
And this brings me to the most troubling part of the film. The entire plot centres on the closure of a school Henry claims to hate. The narrative must move forward, however, so our hero decides to save it. His first master plan is to win a local talent contest, but he’s reminded that his fame won’t mean the school is saved. His second plot is to bribe the school inspectors into leaving. Yes, bribe them. A lovely thought, his teacher tells him, but unnecessary, as they’ve already used subterfuge. If we’re going to make allowances for it being a kids’ movie, shouldn’t it have a nice moral message to take away with you?
The film is troubling, both for the obvious performances and dubious moral grounding. The 3D inevitably adds little to the experience, and the cynic in me guesses they just want to squeeze every last penny from the millions of fans Henry has already acquired. It’s definitely of the poke you in the eye variety, and is accompanied by an equally obtrusive soft rock soundtrack that wouldn’t be out of place a decade ago.
However, Henry is a treasure amongst his target audience, and I definitely heard a small boy call the film “sick” during the closing credits. I may doubt his critical thinking, but he was 10 years old, so who am I to tell him otherwise?