Films aimed at families usually plant some jokes to ensure accompanying adults aren’t bored witless by an endless stream of goofy gags, but “Horrid Henry: The Movie” flies defiantly against this trend. Thinly scripted, even for a kidpic, but luridly colored enough to keep even nap-needing tots (or parents) awake, this sophomore effort by Brit helmer Nick Moore (“Wild Child”) reps something of a waste of its impressive roster of supporting-thesp talent, while its use of 3D is likewise less than imaginative. The source books’ popularity will ensure solid domestic B.O. during the summer break, especially with the prepubescent set.
Pic’s title character, played here by Theo Stevenson (“In Bruges”) with an overzealous exaggeration shared by the rest of the ensemble, reps the latest bad boy in children’s literature and cinema — a lineage that includes both the American and Brit versions of Dennis the Menace, Junior from the “Problem Child” franchise, and the Little Rascals back in their day.
A resident of an unspecified part of Blighty’s Southeast quadrant that sometimes looks like suburban London and other times looks like someplace deeper in the burg’s green belt, Henry, a boy of about 10, lives with his long-suffering parents (Siobhan Hayes and Matthew Horne) and his immaculate, adult-pleasing little brother, Peter (Ross Marron), whom narrator Harry introduces with the adjectival prefix of “Perfect.”
At his comprehensive school, Ashton Primary, Henry is the class prankster and leader of the Purple Hand Gang, which consists of Rude Ralph (Lloyd Howells), Aerobic Al (Jack Sanders), Brainy Brian (Reuben Lee) and Beefy Bert (Conor O’Mara). Henry’s same-age nemesis is his carrot-topped next-door neighbor, Moody Margaret (Scarlett Stitt), who hates him with a passion, as does his teacher, Miss Battle-Axe (Anjelica Huston, whose perf here recalls her ripe turn in 1990’s “The Witches”).
When Henry’s antics (planting goo bombs, playing air guitar in the science lab, and so on) embarrass Ashton Primary in front of some school inspectors, principal Miss Oddbod (Rebecca Front) fires Miss Battle-Axe, and later it’s decided that the school itself will be closed. It turns out evil Vic Van Wrinkle (Richard E. Grant), the headmaster of posh private school Brick House, has been masterminding a plot to get Ashton Primary shuttered so all its pupils will be forced to attend his institution. Henry and his gang strike an uneasy alliance with Peter and Margaret to save the school with a strategy based, somewhat bafflingly, on appearing on a children’s television show called “Too Cool for School.”
Lucinda Whiteley’s script lurches bumpily from incident to incident, and mostly fails to tickle even younger rugrats’ funny bones, apart from when Henry does supposedly horrid things, or cruel fates befall grown-ups such as eating vomit sandwiches or getting coated in purple goo. Verbal wit is not the pic’s strong suit, which would be fine if some of the mature cast members with a flair for comedy (like David Schneider, Prunella Scales or a criminally underused Jo Brand) were allowed to do more than mug hyperactively in a few scenes.
At best, the screenplay offers some sly digs at class-conscious snobbery in the private-vs.-state-funded school subplot, which also mildly lampoons contempo middle-class Blighty’s obsession with school inspections. But it’s a challenge to read too much sophistication into a film whose idea of funny is to dress the main character in drag for a narratively pointless visit to an all-girls’ school.
Use of stereoscopic techniques, seemingly shot during the production stage rather than added in post, displays a similar lack of creativity, relying largely on predictable projectiles and confetti effects. Given the difficulties any parent would attest to in getting young viewers to keep their 3D glasses on, it’s hard to see how the film benefits from the extra dimension.
Given Moore’s flat direction, the department that comes off best here is easily the art department, as production designer Richard Bullock’s supersaturated palette and busy interiors at least provide some eye candy, even if it’s the kind that could sear corneas. Other tech credits are adequate.