Film Review: Your Highness

A spirited and (mostly) funny genre spoof from the same team responsible for 'Pineapple Express.'

Certainly one of the oddest comedies to emerge from a major Hollywood studio in recent years, Your Highness is an earnest, messy and often quite funny attempt to lampoon a genre that’s already fairly close to parody: the big-budget fantasy film. The movie’s creative team—which includes screenwriters Danny McBride (who also stars) and Ben Best as well as director David Gordon Green—have set their specific sights on ’80s-era medieval romps like Excalibur, Willow and The Princess Bride, while also showering affectionate ridicule on such otherworldly adventures as the Jim Henson classics The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth and the Peter Yates camp favorite Krull.

If you aren’t familiar with or simply don’t about care any of those films (attitudes that likely apply to most mainstream moviegoers), chances are good that you’re not going to laugh much (or even at all) during the course of Your Highness’ admittedly overlong 102-minute running time. On the other hand, if you memorized Ingo Montoya’s speech to the six-fingered man as a kid or still hum the lyrics to David Bowie’s “Magic Dance” at odd intervals, this movie ought to leave you with a big, goofy grin on your face.

Once again slipping comfortably into the vainglorious jerk persona he’s honed over the course of his still-young career (check out the scabrous HBO series “Eastbound & Down” to see this character at his worst…and by that I mean finest), McBride stars as Thadeous, a ne’er-do-well prince whose family rules over an unnamed medieval kingdom. The root of Thadeous’ bad behavior lies in his fierce jealousy of his older brother and heir to their father’s crown, Fabious (James Franco), who is the kind of stalwart, swashbuckling hero that poets immortalize in ballads. Returning home from his latest quest, Fabious rides into the royal hall with a surprise visitor: Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel) a lovely lass who until recently was the prisoner of the villainous warlock Leezar (Justin Theroux).

A wedding is immediately scheduled, but just before the gorgeous couple are pronounced man and wife, Leezar reappears and spirits Belladonna away to his remote mountain lair. So Fabious saddles up for the rescue mission and insists that his brother join him on the trail. With no convincing reason for staying behind, Thadeous reluctantly tags along on a journey that takes the bickering siblings across rugged landscapes populated by pot-smoking wizards, fearsome creatures and, best of all, hot warrior women with superior fighting skills and low-cut wardrobes. (The latter role is filled by the Oscar-winning Black Swan herself, Natalie Portman.)

Your Highness marks Green’s second attempt at poking fun at a favorite genre from his youth; his 2008 stoner comedy Pineapple Express (written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) merrily tweaked vintage ’80s odd-couple action movies like Midnight Run and Tango & Cash. While that film had a frequently hilarious first hour, it struggled to switch gears as it entered its more seriously violent second half. Your Highness manages to keep itself on an even keel throughout, largely because the fantasy trappings render its comic and action elements equally outlandish. Even in its more intense moments—like the scene that pits the princes against a five-headed serpent creature—the movie never loses its sense of humor.

That sense of humor, by the way, is perhaps best described as proudly dumb. McBride and Best’s script unapologetically chases after broad laughs that generally involve one or more of the three “P’s”: pot, penises and profanity. That approach means that they occasionally cross the narrow line that divides dumb from just plain stupid, most notably in a painfully protracted sequence involving a ganja-toking guru (played by a Henson-like puppet that could have been airlifted in from the set of Labyrinth) whose favorite pastime is arranging Michael Jackson-style sleepovers with young boys.

Fortunately, most of the comic set-pieces aren’t this tone-deaf and the stars’ offbeat chemistry can be relied on to generate laughs whenever the script turns pokey. McBride proves himself absolutely capable of carrying his own studio vehicle, while Franco puts that self-aware smirk of his to great effect as the naively virtuous hero. (It must be said that the supporting cast is less well-served by the material; Deschanel and Theroux are notably left hanging, while Portman never seems entirely at ease in a role that cries out for an actress with more attitude.)

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Your Highness is how much care Green and his crew lavish on the silly fantasy realm they’ve created. Given that the movie is largely meant to be played for laughs, it would have been easy to deliberately keep the production design and special effects cheap and cheesy as part of the overarching gag. Instead, this looks like an honest-to-God fantasy film, filled with beautiful medieval vistas (the movie was shot on location in the mountains of Northern Ireland), impressive sets and a strong combination of practical and computer-generated F/X. That attention to detail makes the filmmakers’ pointed ribbing of standard fantasy conventions that much funnier. Your Highness will likely prove to have narrow appeal, but the audience that appreciates this genre should also appreciate this movie.