Film Review – Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans (2019)

This one might be a case of unreasonably high expectations. The Horrible Histories TV show, loosely inspired by Terry Deary’s fantastically accessible series of history books, was so comprehensively brilliant, that I sat down to watch the series’ first big-screen offering fully expecting it to be one of the year’s highlights. All things being equal, Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans is sprightly, watchable and occasionally amusing – but not a great deal more than that. It’s nothing like as misguided as so many big screen incarnations of British comedy shows – think Kevin & Perry Go Large, Are You Being Served?, The Inbetweeners Movie – but something has certainly been lost in the translation.

The format has shifted away from the quick-fire sketch show approach of the TV show, to something more straightforward. Sebastian Croft’s ingenious-yet-physically-underwhelming teenage Roman, Atti accidentally offends Emperor Nero (Craig Roberts) and gets sent to Britain as a punishment. In Britain as part of an army garrison, the lad gets kidnapped by Orla (Emilia Jones) a hot-headed young Celtic girl desperate to fight the Romans and prove her mettle as a warrior.

Much of the series’ genius, TV show and books alike, was its ability to be informative as well as superbly entertaining, often focusing deliberately on the more ghoulish aspects of history to keep its young audience hooked. Despite boasting many of the same behind the camera talents as the show, this theatrical adaptation seems to have lost its ability to juggle the twin demands. Unlike the raucous, fast-paced factoid approach of its small-screen counterpart, Dominic Brigstocke’s movie feels too bogged-down in narrative scene-setting to be truly informative. It lacks the ballsy, anarchic sense of fun that made the TV programme great and, despite boasting comedic talent the ilk of Nick Frost, Kim Cattrall, Kevin Bishop, Alexander Armstrong, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Lee Mack, it never gets out of second gear comically. You suspect that all the best gags had already been used up over the course of 100 television episodes.

And yet, it’s not so languorous that it ever drags or is unlikely to bore its core audience of children. Kate Nash as Queen Boudicca brings a cart-load of energy to the lesson (which circles back round to the merits of multiculturalism) and Croft and Jones are a likeable, if slightly asexual, double-act. All things being equal, it’s perfectly fine, although that feels like a problem in itself. Spinning-off such a repeatedly excellent show and bearing the famous name of one of the greatest children’s book series of recent years, this doesn’t match the reasonably high expectations.

Chris Banks | [rating=2]

Comedy, Family, History | UK, 2019 | PG |  26 July (2019) | Altitude  Films | Dir. Dominic Brigstocke | Sebastian Croft, Emilia Jones, Kim Cattrall, Nick Frost, Rupert Graves, Craig Roberts, Kate Nash ,Derek Jacobi.