A patchy but well-meaning WWII-set British laffer, “Dad’s Army” reimagines a nearly 50-year-old BBC sitcom for 2016 theaters with mixed results. Amiable to a fault, with gags both broad and gentle, Oliver Parker’s pic prompts sporadic chuckles rather than guffaws; its main attraction is a spirited turn by Toby Jones as the leader of an elderly platoon ready to act as Blighty’s last line of defense should the Nazis invade. Flat action sequences hardly make the case that this new cinematic interpretation was altogether necessary, though it’s no more superfluous than Columbia’s largely forgotten 1971 outing involving the original sitcom cast. Nostalgia factor notwithstanding, auds seem unlikely to enlist in droves.
When showrunners Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s original BBC sitcom “Dad’s Army” debuted in 1968, the response from elements of the contemporary press was: “Too soon?” The question a 21st-century version invites is: “Too late?” Both the show and the film derive their humor from the bumbling efforts of the Home Guard —composed of those either too old or too wishy-washy to fight across the Channel — to prepare for a possible German invasion. It’s a scenario that was too raw for comedy for some in the ’60s, and one that risks datedness now.
For auds alienated by the latter-day trend for darker irony in British comedy, “Dad’s Army” will be a 2016 highlight: There isn’t an edgy bone in its body, with the possible exception of a surreal sight gag involving a baby with a Hitler mustache. Respecting the spirit of the original, punchlines tend to wire through advance warning of their arrival a few hours ahead, so as to give us proper time to prepare. It’s a time-honored style of comedy, accessible to a broad audience, and it works on its own terms, without too many ill-advised attempts at modernization. (Fans of the show will also enjoy a couple of brief cameos from original cast members Ian Lavender and Frank Williams.)
The pic’s secret weapon is Jones, cast as bumptious Capt. Mainwaring; without his theater-trained knack for physical comedy, the entire enterprise could collapse. Executing several neat little bits of business alongside broader pratfalls, with imaginative choices in his line readings, he doesn’t attempt an impersonation of Arthur Lowe’s original Mainwaring, and the performance is all the better for it.
Other cast members display varying degrees of commitment: Michael Gambon is also excellent value as the most doddery old duffer of the lot, Pvt. Godfrey, while the likable Blake Harrison reprises his dim-but-keen shtick from his breakout role in “The Inbetweeners,” but doesn’t have comparable material to work with. In the newly created role of sexpot spy Rose Winters, Catherine Zeta-Jones hits the required single note with some spirit, but is generally underused. (Rosa’s status as German agent is revealed early; we then have to wait to see when and how the characters work it out.)
Action set pieces are not the reason anybody will buy a ticket to “Dad’s Army” — which is just as well, since these moments are among the film’s flattest. A climactic gun battle in particular never settles on a tone: Are we supposed to believe our heroes are credibly endangered, or is the whole thing a lark? The scene in question offers no answers, with heavy fire rattling away in all directions to absolutely no consequence, while a couple of characters arrive at breakthroughs dictated more by the structural conventions of drama than any plausibly developed emotional arcs. Nothing much seems to be in jeopardy; the stakes are allegedly as high as the Allies losing the war, but we don’t fear for one moment that anything bad is going to happen. None of this should matter as long as we’re amused by the comedy, but when the pic gets bogged down in plot, the humor suffers.
Where the writing is more acute is in realizing the pathos of aging men, who so desperately and understandably want to believe that when a woman like Zeta-Jones tells you you’ve only improved with age, she has no ulterior motive. Where cinema is often quick to condemn female vanity, it adds a bit of balance to see the male equivalent skewered — even if the film also characterizes the women of the fictional town of Walmington-on-Sea (Yorkshire here standing in for Sussex) as inevitably threatened by the arrival of a Chanel-suited glamourpuss.
Despite the “too soon” controversy, the original “Dad’s Army” was never “M.A.S.H.” Much of the sitcom’s considerable charm derived from the joy of anticipating a well-worn catchphrase or cozy character gag, before seeing it delivered with perfect timing by a talented ensemble with chemistry honed over time — difficult to replicate on a film set, however well everybody all gets on for the few weeks they’re together. Perry and Croft’s vision didn’t aspire to the anarchy of BBC comedy stablemate “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” while managing to avoid the more extreme racism of contemporaries like LWT’s “Curry & Chips,” and in doing so ensured an enduring appeal.
That appeal is what producers will be banking on to coax auds into theaters. Commercial prospects even in Blighty seem dicey; the cast are on the record as stating that when they first heard the idea, their gut instinct was a tactical retreat. Yet repeats of episodes of the TV show still regularly pull in almost 3 million viewers, indicating considerable enduring affection and awareness of the brand. Persuading those millions to consider paying in theaters for a modern version of something that they get for free at home is a challenge. Ancillary revenues in the U.K. should be relatively healthy, given the target audience is one of the demographics still buying DVDs with the weekly supermarket shop. International exhibitors, however, needn’t prepare for mass invasion.