(Weird) Watching with Alex, Episode 10: Guardian of the Highlands

Sir Billi a.k.a Guardian of the Highlands [2012] (USA Release 2014)
Directed/Written by: Tessa Hartman, Sascha Hartman
Featuring: Sir Sean Connery, Alan Cummings
Production: Billi Productions LTD/Glasgow Animation
Category: Animated Stuff Happens

This one’s a doozy and was my first foray into large-scale movie review and breakdown so forgive me if I seem to ramble. When I originally wrote this, I was still trying to make sense of what I’d just watched so I ended up switching back and forth between explaining the plot and trying to explain my thoughts. I’ve gone back in an attempt to clean things up a bit but it feels a bit awkward so it’s still mostly straight mental flow.

You’re into the cups now, dear reader. Don’t think about it too much.

In 2003, the film adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was released. The experience of working on the film, combined with its poor reception, caused Sean Connery to quit both acting and the film business as a whole. Many years would pass before anybody dared approach him with a film offer and even then it was done through a business acquaintance. The story, in a nutshell, is the titular Sir Billi saving the last beaver in Scotland. I can’t say for sure whether or not Sir Billi sent Connery right back into hermitage but after watching it I can say that the idea isn’t farfetched.

Sir Billi will spend a lot of time spoofing several aspects of James Bond films for obvious reasons, starting with an opening theme sequence done in true Bond style and sung by Dame Shirley Bassey. Following this is an opening monologue narrated by Connery as the beautifully rendered Scottish Highlands sprawl out under a setting sun. This was Connery as I remember him, emotive and noble, lending a reverent quality to the entire room, so it was more than a little worrying when his narration finally focused in on the “Illegal Animals Deportation Center” where officers McKenzie and McTavish are loading crated beavers wearing orange jumpsuits into the back of a truck.

The rest of Europe has recently reintroduced populations of the animals but McKenzie absolutely won’t tolerate their presents in Scotland because it would “ruin the fishing” (Beavers feed on wood and bark and build dams which create an ecosystem that benefits fish and other aquatic wildlife but who am I to question authority?) while McTavish reasons that they’ve “been extinct in Scotland for over four-hundred years now” and that Scotland doesn’t need beavers just because the silly Europeans do; listening to the beavers speak, I have to wonder why Europe wanted them so badly.

Because there’s a candy bar in the foot well and the truck driver is a Fat Guy, he nearly runs over a rabbit sporting a jumpsuit and absurd badonk-a-donk, causing an accident that sends several crates spilling out and tumbling down a hill into the woods, one being jostled open and sending “Bessie Boo” tumbling off behind a rock. McKenzie recovers the crates, tossing the dazed beavers back in and after a “suspenseful” check for any beavers he might have missed heads back to the truck. The rabbit finds B.B. cowering behind the rock and takes her in.

5 Years Later: Illegal Beavers were returned to Norway under orders of the Scottish Government.” Seeing that the Scottish government would have been responsible for reintroducing the beavers into Scotland in the first place, this statement makes no sense. But due to reported beaver sightings, McKenzie is still on the hunt and will spend most of the movie being both loony and ineffective. We are tossed into the town of Caterness and introduced to Victoria, a Duck-ex-Machina from Florida who flies an airplane (Get it? She’s a bird.) and shows up when it’s handy for the plot. Then a milkman drives around so we can cut to McKenzie behind a gate looking stern while Bessie Boo stands RIGHT THERE NEXT TO HIM behind a shrub. I’ve already accumulated many questions about the quality of this movie, please stop giving me more.

It has nothing to do with anything thought because the milk delivery is a way to introduce us to Sir Billi and Gordon. Gordon is a goat in a Kill Bill Bride-styled jumpsuit (All animals that can act like people wear jumpsuits in this movie. I don’t know why.) who acts like a dog, plus he’s hip; my hopes are not high. Then we’re introduced to Jake, an apparent child genius who will use his engineering skill for about a minute to toy with the butler before going on to contribute absolutely nothing for the rest of the running time despite being with Billi and Gordon all the way, and he’s just the first of many characters who will be introduced either to serve a single purpose or no purpose at all.

A love interest plot thread is introduced and then ignored until after the ending song, all she really contributes is maybe three minutes of awkward jiggling before becoming a background character. McKenzie does a lot of nothing for a while, staying in the background and acting like a dope before pulling required helpful plot objects such as helicopters and a friggin’ Russian submarine out of his ass. A lot of plot objects are similarly introduced without any previous exposition or use, like the fact that Billi skateboards and has a Bond car.

There’s also no conflict that doesn’t depend on either the character or me being completely stupid. There’s a log sledding event that the rabbits hold where Bessie Boo’s flat tail gives her an advantage, pissing off The Reckless Guy who takes the hardest path and ends up falling off a cliff and into a river. Bessie Boo jumps in to rescue him and almost immediately forgets that she’s a beaver, spending the rest of the movie trapped on the log with him.

The entire movie revolves around the conflict of saving a beaver from water. Well, there’s also the whole thing to do with a dam and the danger of getting sucked into the pipes and into the turbines, but Bessie-Boo gets sucked into the pipe and not a damned thing happens. I think there’s a waterfall somewhere in there, too, but it’s been so long that I’d have to watch the movie again to see if I’m correct.

Favored Ability: DEX? The movie certainly jumps from point to point like a coked-out Halfling rogue with a +10 in Tumble.

Rating: 2/5 (Below Average) [+1 Environment Design, +1 Unintended Entertainment]

I chose to cut myself off here because for some reason I just have too much to say about Sir Billi and outlining the entire plot of a film wasn’t something I was particularly good at at the time. There’s a lot in this movie that doesn’t work but there are also a lot of things that either do work or almost work. The main problem is that the movie sets up several potentially good ideas, like a boy genius with a Rube Goldberg complex, and then uses them exactly once or stops short of using them at all, something that keeps me from giving Sir Billi a higher score, and I really wanted to.

Sir Billi is based on the children’s book written by the husband-and-wife team who wrote and directed it, something that comes through in the finished product; yes, the character animation and plot isn’t the greatest, but it has a storybook quality that looks less weird when it’s framed in a still. Gordon, the character seemingly set up to be the most obnoxious part of the whole thing, actually comes off as acceptably eccentric aside from an odd montage towards the end.

It’s really Bessie Boo, the character that I’m supposed to feel the most pity for, that drives me crazy. She doesn’t even have the “raised by rabbits” device on her side as she clearly has a beaver family at the start of the movie who must surely have taught her how to be a beaver. She can obviously swim, yet spends all that time “stuck” on the log with her rabbit-brother. I know it’s a cartoon but if the options are “grab rabbit and swim right” or “get the entire town together to drive along the river while the duck spots from the air“, the logic center of my brain is going to fire “Right!” every time.

Despite all my curmudgeonly talk, though, I enjoyed the ride because my brother brought this film to me because he saw it on a shelf and thought it’d be a good fit for my earliest Facebook experiments, even going so far as to watch it with me. If that doesn’t ring to Sir Billi‘s themes of family and community then I don’t know what does.

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