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Rated R

Director:  Kenneth Branagh

Stars: French Stewart, Anne Hathaway, Cate Blanchett, Dane Cook, Stanley Tucci, Adam Sandler, Helena Bonham Carter, Gerard Depardieu, Billy Crystal

****

PLOT: The colourful Professor le Spindle (Stewart), feeling restless seven years after having renounced his life of adventure for one of domesticity with his wife Erma (Bonham Carter), sets out to discover the underground city of Hobdenville, which his brother (Sandler) disappeared while searching for. On his dangerous quest he meets various strange and wonderful creatures, including a talking mouse (Hathaway), a man-eating bowl of soup (Crystal), and Mark Twain (Depardieu), all of whom aid him in his quest before then betraying him, repenting, aiding him some more, and then dying. Eventually he reaches the end of his journey and discovers that the city of Hobdenville was inside him all along, and is forced to admit some hard truths about himself and his self-destructive drug addiction.

For guaranteed movie success, there’s no doubt that you can’t go past a lengthy title. In recent years, we’ve seen such masterpieces as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, its less-lauded imitator The Execution of Cardinal Richelieu by Sexy Nude Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, the steampunk stylings of Harry Wilstetter and the Magical Computer Virus of Doom that Travels through Time and Shoots Lasers and is Witty, and the multiple Oscar-winner Sarah, Macy, Lucy, Annette, Isabel, Hilda, Jolene, Nina, Amanda, Olivia, Catherine, Terri, Tenielle, Rosario and Henrietta, the Dangerous Murdering Prostitute Sisters of Late 19th-Century Carson City. And yet nobody before Kenneth Branagh has had the courage to meld a genuinely long title with a good old-fashioned globetrotting romp.

The Peculiar Adventures doesn’t start all that promisingly – many viewers in the preview screening were left scratching their heads trying to figure out why this heavily-promoted action-adventure flick was starting with an explicit sex scene between Adolf Hitler and a Japanese geisha. Fortunately, all becomes clear soon enough: Professor Herman le Spindle is not only the illegitimate son of Hitler and the geisha, but also dresses himself in a curious combination of traditional geisha garb and SS uniform to constantly remind himself of his roots. We too are reminded of this throughout the film thanks to le Spindle’s repeated flashbacks to images of Hitler’s swollen genitalia and a booming off-screen voice shouting “Remember this?” It’s helpful, and doesn’t intrude on the story as much as you might think.

And the story is an absolute cracker. Incorporating the principles of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey and tragicomic riffs on classic narratives such as the Odyssey, Lord of the Rings, Gormenghast, The Chronicles of Narnia, Catcher in the Rye, Field of Dreams, the Book of Revelation, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Little Women and Star Wars, we watch, fascinated, as the good professor journeys through worlds both bizarre and mundane, meeting new friends, learning valuable lessons, and regularly singing catchy songs about helping each other and eating a balanced diet. It is these songs in particular that make the five and a half hour running time seem barely half that long, while also keeping a strong emotional core to the action. It would be easy to become detached when watching Herman and his newly befriended bowl of soup giggling shrilly as they hack a tribe of sleeping Bedouins to death while in the throes of an acid trip; but when, five minutes later, Herman stands sadly, singing to the desert moon, “I know I’ll feel better/if I eat my breads and grains”, you are hit with the full force of the Professor’s lonely yet nutritious quest.

Branagh is not necessarily known for his mastery of special effects – witness the several scenes in Frankenstein when the monster’s head briefly turns into an audience shot from The Price is Right – but here he excels himself, melding CGI, stop-motion animation, traditional make-up and marionette puppetry to create wondrous backdrops and stunning set-pieces that reach their zenith in the climactic battle in the Icelandic wastes, when le Spindle dons full body armour to battle a dizzying horde of giant snow-beasts, lion-riding berserkers, many-headed dragons and mid-90s Serbian death squads. What’s truly amazing about this scene is that the nudity never feels gratuitous, even though in a lesser movie the viewer would himself wondering just how the girls avoided freezing to death.

A film like this, of course, rests most of all on the shoulders of the leading man, and Third Rock’s Stewart delivers in spades. Of course, canny observers had always thought he possessed enormous talent, but up until now nobody had suspected it was in acting. And yet in The Peculiar Adventures he pulls off the not-insubstantial task of sympathetically portraying a half-mad, rickets-stricken, bisexual self-loathing Nazi Swiss spelunker with aplomb, switching smoothly between le Spindle’s array of comedy accents and performing every scene with an odd, loping, horse-like walk that perfectly represents inner turmoil and physical deformity. It would be difficult to recall a better performance this year, although I’m sure I can if I try.

The rest of the cast is almost uniformly excellent, from Bonham Carter as le Spindle’s screeching, chickenpox-ridden wife – balancing her enormous Dutch hat skilfully throughout – to Crystal, whose turn as the foul-mouthed bowl of soup is full of blistering invective and savage violence rarely seen from Crystal during his film career, which suits him well. Hopefully we can see him torturing whores more often in future. It must also be said that the decision to cast Dane Cook as Hitler was inspired, and pays off in spades, as the popular comedian brings a sense of brooding sexuality and easy wit all too often lacking in portrayals of the Fuhrer. Cate Blanchett and Stanley Tucci are, as always, great fun as the two-headed bank manager from whom the professor must gain a large personal loan in order to cross the bridge of death.

The only let-down is Hathaway. As talking mouse Gilberto – a part sh3e was seemingly born for – she struggles with the lengthy rhyming speeches she is required to give, and seems intent on reacting to every piece of news her character receives with an horrific sort of demented rictus and high-pitched puffing sound. Of course, her well-documented falling-out with Branagh over costumes – which saw her refuse to don the mouse costume and therefore appear throughout the film in a dowdy field hockey uniform – didn’t help either, and her entire demeanour is that of an actress who not only doesn’t want to be there, but who is actively trying to spot the director behind the camera so she can shoot him. The revolver she points off-screen for no discernible reason during several scenes adds to this impression.

Fortunately, it is a small fault. Hathaway is not a major character, and her graphic dismemberment hides a multitude of sins. In fact, it’s the genius of the movie as a whole¬†that every time it seems in danger of dragging, a scene of vivid, nightmarish violence springs to life before our eyes to jolt us anew.

If you love movies the way they used to make them – with cameras, and actors standing in front of them saying things – then certain aspects of this movie will appeal to you. If you like rollicking adventures full of loveable eccentrics, spectacular stunts and gut-wrenching emotion such as the sight of a man standing on a mountain crying over a dying Barbary sheep whom he had only just summoned the courage to declare his love for, you will LOVE it. It may even change your life.

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