If you had told me a few months ago that I’d be one of the few people defending Your Highness, I’d have... almost no reaction whatsoever. I thought the first Red Band trailer for the Danny McBride-starring, David Gordon Green-directed R-rated fantasy-stoner-comedy looked funny enough, but it also looked like the best bits may have all been crammed into that overly long trailer. I was lukewarm on the whole thing, maintaining an optimistic look forward but really not getting my hopes too high. So, had you told me I’d be one of the few defending it, my only surprise wouldn’t be that the movie needed defending but that so few would be taking up its banner. After all, a fantasy-stoner-comedy featuring Danny McBride, Justin Theroux, James Franco and Natalie Portman can’t be so bad as to actually piss people off, can it?
Well, as the 26% Rotten Tomatoes score shows, apparently it can. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me backtrack a week to set the scene.
Every now and then, the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, gets very excited about an upcoming film and decides to put on a special event for it. Most of the time this means preparing a novelty meal and drink menu for the movie, but sometimes it means putting on a bit of a show and hosting a Q&A with the filmmakers. So last week, the Drafthouse put together an epic fantasy triple feature programmed by the minds behind Your Highness. The night started with Albert Pyun’s 1982 flick The Sword and the Sorcerer, which fed into Your Highness, which was followed up by Peter Yates’ Krull (a personal childhood favorite). David Gordon Green, Danny McBride and Justin Theroux were on hand to talk a bit between the movies, about why they chose to show these two films, what they meant to them growing up and how they influenced Your Highness.
It was a fun time and yet another reason I love the Alamo Drafthouse, but if I’m being perfectly honest, what Green, McBride and Theroux had to say about the other two fantasy films didn’t really impress me. Why? Because their love for Sword and the Sorcerer and Krull was the same love the 240-plus people in the audience had: a nostalgia-tinted view at a time in their lives when movies like those not only represented movie magic, but they were kind of taboo and risky to watch as a kid (well, not Krull; that movie’s tame). There were no deep revelations as to what made those movies great. It was the same “I was a kid and these movies had big, burly men with preposterous weapons fighting over who got to sleep with a scantily clad woman. IT WAS AMAZING!”
And there’s a reason that there was no deep revelation on their end. It’s because movies like The Sword and the Sorcerer aren’t actually that great. Sure, as a kid you love the boobs and the violence and the fantasy set pieces, but as an adult you can look past those and see that the acting is dreadful, the production design is goofy and the plot is abysmal. Don’t get it twisted, I’m a big fan of Krull. I wore out a VHS tape of it as a kid, and as an adult I have a framed UK quad poster of it hanging in my living room. I even happened to watch it with my wife a week before the Drafthouse event was even announced. But even I can admit it’s a boring movie with a charisma-less lead and a really, really stupid story (but man does it have a tremendous score and cinematography, and the Widow of the Web sequence still gives me the willies).
Now, I’m not saying that people today should grade Your Highness on a curve because the fantasy flicks of yesteryear are, in actuality, not very good movies, but I’m a little surprised that people are seriously annoyed by the movie -- that they paint its badness with a broad stroke, completely overlooking some seriously impressive elements of it. Even if there isn’t a single joke in the movie that makes you laugh, how can you not dig on the fantasy elements? The hand-snake battle in the pit is an inspired bit of writing and something I’ve never seen before in a movie. The three mothers given to the evil wizard are far more interesting than most bad-guy henchmen of any genre. Toby Jones’ genitalia-less squire, the minotaur, the merging of the two moons -- all of that stuff is surprisingly rad and more creative than I’d ever expect from a movie like this.
Of course, you can argue that Your Highness is a comedy first and a fantasy adventure second, and I wouldn’t dispute that argument, but I think the latter elements are so strong that they buoy the movie enough to prevent it from ever sinking into worthless territory. And yet the film’s haters gloss over those things with a dismissive, “Really, David Gordon Green, this is what you’re doing these days? Have you fallen this far?” reaction Well, if an indie director convincing a major studio to spend $50 million on a fantasy-stoner-comedy full of profanity and Minotaur penis is considered a step backwards, I’m baffled as to how one defines career success in Hollywood.
Yeah, I thought giving a handjob to a weird puppet creature-pedophile wasn’t very funny, and Danny McBride still isn’t my first choice to lead feature films, but you know what? That weird puppet creature-pedophile looked pretty awesome, and McBride was surrounded by the likes of Natalie Portman (as the sexiest ranger ever, I might add), James Franco, Justin Theroux, Toby Jones, Rasmus Hardiker and Damian Lewis. For everything in Your Highness that doesn’t work, there’s enough in there that’s at least worth talking about. That’s what defines the beloved fantasy movies of the ‘80s. As a whole, they’re far from flawless, but the mixture of their imperfections with their swing-for-the-fences commitment is what made them awesome. And if claiming a Minotaur penis as a trophy in a fantasy-stoner-comedy made by a major movie studio isn’t swinging-for-the-fences commitment, I don’t know what is.
I expected Your Highness David Gordon Green's R-rated sword-and-sorcery farce to be a medieval stoner comedy something in the vein of Monty Python-meets-Cheech and Chong. This was not an unreasonable assumption given a) the film’s clearly suggestive title and b) the fact that its stars (Danny McBride and James Franco) and director previously collaborated on the THC-laced epic Pineapple Express. But I was waaaaaay off. Sure drug references abound in Your Highness but they are relatively benign in comparison to the film’s exhausting barrage of adolescent sexual humor and often shockingly crude language. Less bongs more schlongs is Your Highness' overriding ethos.
Taking care not to stray too far from the winning comic persona established in Eastbound & Down and The Foot Fist Way McBride plays Prince Thadeous a royal ne’er-do-well who lives in the shadow of his handsome older brother Prince Fabious (Franco) gallant knight and heir apparent to the throne of the kingdom of Mourne. While Fabious is out defending his father’s realm against various supernatural threats and earning acclaim for his illustrious deeds cowardly and entitled Thadeous parties with loose maidens and smokes hallucinogenic herbs with his twink-ish toadie Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker). But he finds he can no longer shirk his heroic duties when an evil sorcerer named Leezar (Justin Theroux) crashes Fabious’ wedding and absconds with the crown prince’s fiancée Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel). Urged to aid in his brother’s quest to rescue her Thadeous resists — that is until his father threatens to cut him off from the royal teat.
Very soon into his journey we discover why Thadeous was heretofore so reluctant to join in his brother’s adventures: Quests in the Your Highness universe entail an awful lot of encounters with homoeroticism – both latent and blatant. Knights dress in tights and codpieces and seem unusually affectionate toward one another. The price for advice from the Great Wize Wizard a bedridden seal-like creature wearing what looks to be a jellyfish as a skullcap is an open-mouthed kiss and a handjob. A sassy manservant is stripped of his clothing and revealed to be a eunuch. A tribe of feral women is ruled by a half-naked highly effete cherub-like figure named Marteetee. And so on.
Your Highness reaches its homoerotic apex during a pivotal scene in which Thadeous in his first real act of bravery intervenes to prevent Courtney from being raped by a minotaur which minotaur happens to be sporting a massive erection. Wanting a trophy to commemorate the deed he severs the slain beast’s still-engorged member and hangs it around his neck giving us for the remainder of the film a vivid monument to the filmmakers' most reliable comic device. (It’s an impressive sight – I fully expect “hung like a minotaur” to gain much greater prevalence in the lexicon should Your Highness be a hit.)
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And Your Highness does throw in a few hetero bits to help balance the sexual ledger especially when the cast is joined by Natalie Portman playing a feisty fellow-quester and McBride’s unlikely romantic foil. Portman should at the very least be commended for being able to utter lines about a "burning in her beaver" with unvarnished sincerity.
Your Highness is often wickedly funny – a filthy spot-on send-up of The Beastmaster Krull and other campy '80s fantasy flicks. But there’s precious little beyond the filth and eventually the bawdy language and infantile shenanigans grow repetitive especially when the plot starts to meander in the second act. Green's primary comic instinct is to aim for shock value — as in Pineapple Express the action in Your Highness is punctuated by cartoonish violence — which grows tedious toward the end credits. His efforts would have been better devoted to expanding Theroux's and Deschanel's roles — they are woefully underutilized — or giving McBride something funnier to say than "motherf*cker."