Our rating: 4 out of 5
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
The best author takes a story we are familiar with and turns it on its head. Such is the talent of British author Terry Pratchett, whose best-selling books all take place in a far away universe known as Discworld. Hogfather is one of only three adaptations in which his novels are translated to the screen, and it's a fantastic journey into his brilliant and sometimes twisted imagination.
Each winter a holiday known as Hogswatch comes around. Children leave their stockings and treats out for the legendary Hogfather, who fills them with treats and presents and once more fades into the darkness. But there is something sinister afoot this holiday season, as mysterious, ghostly forces have arrived at the offices of the League of Assassins and requested that someone "off" the jolly old bearer of seasons greetings by morning. Unaffected by this unusual and potentially impossible request, the head of the organization summons Teatime (Marc Warren) for the task. You see, Teatime has spent an extraordinary amount of time plotting the potential deaths of immortal figures such as Hogfather, even if his methods are sometimes a bit... um, extreme. He has a diabolical plan as to how to bring this about and sets it into motion, unaware that Death (voiced by Ian Richardson) has noticed the Hogfather's magic sand in his lifeline timer draining out at an increased pace. Death is more than concerned, he sets out to do something about it -- and before he knows it, is trussed up in Hogfather's sleigh and robes, filling in for the seasonal spirit in an effort to keep children believing in the spirit of Hogswatch.
In the meantime, not all is quite normal about Susan (Michelle Dockery), a governess to a pair of lovely children who frequently involve her in beating up monsters hiding in the basement and under the bed. Their parents are blissfully unaware of the fact that this is not the children's imagination -- and there really are monsters under the bed! Susan starts noticing something is amiss and inevitably will be called in to save the day, do battle with Teatime, and assist Death in preventing the Hogfather from being slain, something that would cause the sun never to rise again. There are other characters and secondary plot threads, some of which seem to make no sense within the context of the story until we reach the second half -- but then everything comes together and we see how different characters and events are important. It may be a bit difficult to follow because of this, but if you can last an hour or so without becoming completely lost, it's an immensely entertaining and unique adventure, full of magnificent characters, terrific special effects, and hints at the humor of the author. I will say that the book is much funnier and some audiences have complained that the miniseries is dull -- I did not find it so, but then am accustomed to conversational costume dramas in which talking is frequent and action limited. There is a lot of talking here, but the way the film sets up the menacing overtones of the characters is terrific and the entire series is fraught with tension.
From the moment Susan appeared with her upswept mane of mostly blonde hair but with a morbid streak of black in it, I knew this was going to be a visual masterpiece and it is -- everything is very picturesque and Victorian in its overtones, but with unconventional twists and clever slight of hand. Her story is only briefly touched on but stirs the imagination -- and that is, after all, what the moral of the tale is, that without imagination and a desire to create fantasy, we are no longer human. There are some very deep and profound remarks to that effect, but at the same time a certain amount of cynicism is revealed in the author's implication that most of what we believe in -- truth, mercy, justice -- are in fact lies. They better our society, but are lies nevertheless. But the approach particularly to Death is a fascinating one, for while appearing quite frightening (in the classic Grim Reaper attire, with skeletal proportions and glowing eyes) he is in fact something of an old softie who enjoys bending the rules now and again to make children happy. Where permitting little ones to watch this stands, I would encourage a certain amount of caution based on the child -- the grim sequences, multiple deaths (while never graphic, a dozen or more people do perish), and scary-looking Death may frighten sensitive kids. Teatime has no problem killing anyone who stands in his way -- usually by knifing them, although various individuals are hurled down stairs. Bodies in the mythical Tooth Fairy's kingdom vanish and reappear falling through the sky and landing on the roof of the local wizarding school.
Magic is involved in the form of various inhuman, immortal characters and the team of wizards that unite with Susan in an effort to save the day. Most of them could use a bit more practice... or talent, but there is a fair amount of wand-waving and explosions. References are made to the gods. Spectral forms appear on several occasions, as do ghosts and other monsters -- the fact that their voices are altered so as to sound like many speaking as one might put off Christian audiences, who associate that kind of thing with multiple demons. Although never seen, references are made to Teatime having brutally murdered animals on several previous occasions -- conversation briefly touches on nailing a dog to a ceiling, setting a cat on fire, and a woman having drowned a kitten because it was "dirty." Audiences familiar with the actors will find humorous nods to previous projects, including one reference to Ian Richardson's most famous role as a British Prime minister in a patch of dialogue ("... I couldn't possibly comment!"). The humor is not as entwined as it might have been but does provide a few laughs -- the first of which being Susan reading aloud from a children's fairy tale and completely changing the title character from Jack and the Beanstalk into a thieving scoundrel who deprived the Giant children of their father! It's extremely quirky and if you can take staring at Death for three hours, a guaranteed good romp through a fanciful world.