Dad’s Army (2016) – Movie Review
Directed by: Oliver Parker
Written by: Hamish McColl
Starring: Toby Jones, Bill Nighy, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon, Blake Harrison, Daniel Mays & Bill Paterson
Music: Charlie Mole
Release Date: February 5th 2016
U.K. TV-to-Film adaptations, much like horror films and pop-music, seem to operate under “Sturgeon’s Law” (90% of everything is crap). We’ve had successes like ‘The Inbetweeners Movie‘ but we’ve also had total flops like ‘Harry Hill the Movie‘, ‘Keith Lemon: The Film‘ and ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie‘. While these films have generally been met with box-office success, their critical and audience reception leaves much to be desired. As a result, if this potential gold-mine is still to be mined then it makes sense to try different types of franchises.
Enter ‘Dad’s Army‘, a movie-reboot of one of the most successful U.K. sitcoms of all time. Broadcast between 1968 and 1977, “Dad’s Army” was created by Jimmy Perry and David Croft and was made one generation after World War 2. Now, a few generations later (and with only two regular cast members of “Dad’s Army” still alive) a movie adaptation seems appropriate. But can a low-concept sitcom adapt to the big-screen decades later or is this just another TV cash-in?
It’s 1944 and it’s World War 2. In Walmington-on-Sea, Captain Mainwaring (Jones) leads the Home Guard, volunteers who were considered ineligible for military service. His second in command is Sergeant Wilson (Nighy) and there’s Lance Corporal Jones (Courtenay), Private Pike (Harrison), Private Godfrey (Gambon), Private Walker (Mays) and Private Frazer (Paterson), all of whom range from inept to kind-heartedly stupid. As a result, they have very little involvement with the war which means they jump at the opportunity to be a part of a written article on the home guard written by Rose Winters (Zeta-Jones). But MI5 inform the group that there’s a spy reporting out of Walmington and it’s up to them to apprehend the spy and play a real part in the war.
First things first, I’m approaching ‘Dad’s Army‘ as someone who’s not really familiar with the TV series. I’ve watched one or two episodes and I know the broad strokes of the characters, their catch-phrases, recurring jokes etc. So treat this review as coming from someone who only has a passing familiarity with the Jimmy Perry and David Croft TV series. With that out of the way…
The issue with taking a small show like “Dad’s Army”, a series that was predominantly set in a handful of locations and mainly revolved around light slapstick and word-play, and trying to justify a big-screen release is that you need to incorporate more of a narrative and include more elaborate set-pieces. Otherwise you’ve just got an episode of the TV series which can be watched at home. However, when it comes to ‘Dad’s Army‘ you probably could have gotten away with a 90 minute episode of the TV series. There are no new episodes coming out, you’ve got a fantastic cast who are incredibly well suited to their roles and work wonders with the comedy, so the movie’s weakest moments come from when they feel the need to think outside the box and justify the movie-treatment.
Because the best moments in ‘Dad’s Army‘ are when the Home Guard are playing off each other, taking part in slapstick, being generally incompetent but always well-meaning etc. And while it’s a bit of a cliché plot trope, the inclusion of Catherine Zeta-Jones’ character as a female-figure for the boys to compete for and try and one-up each other does get a lot of laughs, particularly from one scene where Mainwaring and Wilson are trying to give the home guard a briefing while simultaneously attempting to impress their visitor.
The main focus, cast-wise is Toby Jones as Captain Mainwaring who isn’t directly copying Arthur Lowe’s original performance from the TV series, but is still able to come across as true to the character and incredibly funny. Toby Jones is one of the most versatile actors working today and he’s side-splittingly funny in ‘Dad’s Army‘ as he’s trying to be a figure of authority despite having no idea what he’s doing and has no one worth leading. His line delivery is the epitome of making something out of nothing because many of the lines he’s given aren’t all that funny on paper, but when Toby Jones works with them, he’s comedic gold. And towards the end, when he gets a small dramatic moment he actually sells it and hits it out of the park.
Also, Toby Jones trying to embody Winston Churchill is not only the joke that kept on giving in ‘Dad’s Army‘, but it also cements who should play the former Prime Minister in a potential biopic. #TobyForChurchill
‘Dad’s Army‘s ensemble cast really do deliver, for the most part. Michael Gambon is endlessly endearing as the senile Godfrey and it’s easy to argue that he walks away with most of the scenes in the movie. Blake Harrison brings his natural on-screen naivety to Private Pike (which is one reason Harrison was often a highlight as Neil in “The Inbetweeners”), Daniel Mays plays to type as con-man Private Walker and Tom Courtenay and Bill Paterson are memorable and equally hilarious. We also have Catherine Zeta-Jones who may not be a very funny or interesting character as Rose Winters as she’s mainly a cipher for the plot and the comedic hi-jinks, but she does well with the material.
Speaking of Zeta-Jones, possibly the biggest departure in the ‘Dad’s Army‘ movie from the TV show is that this re-imagining has a much bigger female-influence. This is most apparent in the casting of Felicity Montagu as Mrs Mainwaring. Yes “Dad’s Army” purists, we actually see Mainwaring’s wife. With the male Home Guard consisting of bumbling baffoons, it’s often the women in the fictional town of Walmington-on-Sea who find out what’s going on concerning the Nazi spy and the solution to many of the problems.
Incidentally, the spy sub-plot may be touted as a mystery in the trailers but the movie itself shows its hand very early in the runtime. This was a good call as the identity of the German spy is phenomenally easy to figure out, even if you’ve not seen the movie.
However, the cast member who seems to not be pulling their weight is Bill Nighy as Sergeant Wilson (who gets top-billing despite not being the main character by any stretch). Now, I love Bill and he has done terrific work in the past but in ‘Dad’s Army‘ he’s not playing Wilson. He’s playing himself in an army uniform. His delivery, his snorting laugh, his posturing it’s Bill Nighy on-screen and not Sergeant Wilson. And this is coming from someone who isn’t well-versed in “Dad’s Army”. He’s also given a poorly written sub-plot about him wanting to pursue a romantic relationship with Rose Winters and leaving his loving, despairing family. Obviously, the movie makes him see the error of his ways towards the end but it takes way too long for Wilson to get there and the way Bill Nighy portrays the arc makes him way too unlikeable.
But the main issue with ‘Dad’s Army‘ is its stop-start pacing. Very rarely do you get a funny scene that is beneficial to the plot. It feels like the actual narrative and the comedic set-pieces were worked on by two entirely different writing teams and the two weren’t allowed to interact with each other during lunch-break. The expositional scenes desperately need a shot-in-the arm and the comedic set-pieces needed to be more frequent. This is actually an issue with director Oliver Parker’s last movie ‘Johnny English Reborn‘ and that movie seems to have the same strengths and weaknesses as ‘Dad’s Army‘. They’ve both got great comedic talents ready to commit, but there are a lot of slow, inert moments that make the movie feel like it’s dragging its feet meaning it has an uphill climb to get the pacing going again. The movie’s lost its momentum.
It feels like ‘Dad’s Army‘ spent too much time in the pre-production process over-thinking the screenplay. When you have a cast this accomplished and this willing to commit to these iconic roles, then you don’t need a world-saving narrative about a Nazi spy that climaxes with a mini-Normandy sequence and poorly edited gun-fights and explosions. And when it comes to the movie incorporating the catch-phrases from the series, some of them work well (“Don’t panic!”, “Permission to speak, sir?” and “Stupid boy!”) but towards the end of the movie the script just piles them on back-to-back without any thought. At one point, Lance-Corporal Jones just says, out of nowhere “They don’t like it up ’em!”. It’s un-motivated, I don’t even think he’s saying it to anyone and it’s strange that the movie chose THAT moment to use that line when there were plenty of fitting opportunities earlier.
In terms of its production values, ‘Dad’s Army‘ does well with its on-location shooting in Yorkshire. Screen Yorkshire did a great job capturing the countryside by shooting in Bridlington, Flamborough and Berverley. It’s a handsome looking production that does have a nice variety of locations, strong period detail, good costume-work and make-up etc. But when the movie has to do anything more than be a sitcom, you do start to see the cracks.
A few of the homages to the spy genre and the climactic battle-scene feel so out of place and not even that well handled, in particular the final moments of the finale which don’t make a lick of sense in terms of geography or logic when you take more than a second to think about it. But iconography from the originally is earnestly re-created such as the credits and the theme-song is actually the original version from Bud Flanigan but with the audio cleared up slightly and it’s never sounded better.
‘Dad’s Army‘ is an earnest attempt to re-vitalise a series that has long remained dormant with a (mostly) brilliant ensemble cast and a creative team who clearly have a love of the series. It has a lot of laughs and fans of the series will be glad that there’s very little shark-jumping and that the new actors do these roles justice. But it’s hard to deny that the creative team may have over-thought the narrative. When you have a new cast of actors for a new generation in a new format then why do you need to try and distance the structure of the series? Just get these actors together, put them in the line-up and let the comedy come naturally. At 100 minutes, it’s a bit too long to accommodate its awkward structure, but even if the comedy here doesn’t gel with your sensibilities it’s hard to get mad at ‘Dad’s Army’ because…they definitely tried here. Maybe a bit too hard, but they DID try.
I give ‘Dad’s Army‘ 3 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 8th Feb 16