Edward and Rory McHenry, British brothers making their debut as writer-helmers, reinvent WWII with “Jackboots on Whitehall,” a witty puppet animation that sees the titular Nazi footwear stomping over the heart of England. Echoing the flip humor and lo-fi artistry of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s “Team America: World Police,” pic employs a stellar voice cast to enliven the heroically revisionist war story. Iconoclastic comic tone should resonate with squadrons, if not armies, of U.K. moviegoers, while foreign landings will rely on niche-aud appreciation of an unapologetically British sensibility.
Echoing Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” “Jackboots on Whitehall” floats an alternative history of WWII, in which the British army was not successfully rescued from Dunkirk in 1940 but instead stranded in northern France. Its air force destroyed in the Battle of Britain, the nation prepares for a Nazi invasion.
Irreverent, joyfully silly comic tone is established from the get-go with the introduction of meaty-fingered Kent farmer Chris (voiced by Ewan McGregor), “a village orphan with fat, retarded hands.” Chris is sweet on vicar’s daughter Daisy (Rosamund Pike), a volunteer with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), and he is handed a lucky break when his rival, a conceited Royal Air Force veteran, is amusingly killed, mid-boastful oration, by a stray German bomb.
Chris’ physical abnormality has prevented his being called up, but he gets his chance at action when the Germans tunnel under the English Channel right into London’s Trafalgar Square, and Churchill (Timothy Spall) calls for heroic resistance from the last men standing. The plan is to retreat north to Hadrian’s Wall, where the resistance can begin.
Like “Team America,” “Jackboots on Whitehall” is strongest when it’s being randomly and perversely funny, and weakest when it gets bogged down in lengthy action setpieces. The grotesque depiction of Himmler (Richard O’Brien), Goebbels (Tom Wilkinson) and Goering (Richard Griffiths) works as both knockabout comedy and satire of previous Hollywood depictions of the Nazi elite. The ace card arrives late in the game, with the introduction of an Australian-accented, woad-painted Scottish braveheart (Alan Cumming) who brings his lethal weapons to the aid of the party.
Film is very much a labor of love for the sibling helmers, who are both in their 20s. It’s also a family affair, with father David McHenry credited as production designer, and more brothers, Dominic and Jack McHenry, toiling as puppeteers. The hand-crafted approach recalls the earthy charm, if not the sophisticated execution, of Blighty’s premier animation house, Aardman.
Since Scottish McGregor’s sole contribution is his voice, his appearance as an English-accented war hero seems especially eccentric, even by the perverse casting traditions of WWII movies. Of course, if the pic were to truly ape the classic conventions of the genre, Chris would have been played by an American.