Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graeme Chapman

This was such a beautiful idea, and could have been something wonderful. And while I suspect I liked it rather more than the critics who eviscerated it, and it had flashes of something brilliant, mostly it simply wasn’t a good animation at all.

The strong idea: to take the audiobook version of Graeme Chapman’s 1980 ‘autobiography’ – with four listed authors other than Chapman and the typically glib appended joke ‘Volume VI’ – and make an animation using Chapman’s voice. What we know now about his hedonism, his alcoholism and of course his death from cancer will surely lend extra poignancy, and getting the surviving pythons involved for new voiceovers can only help, right? What’s more, to reflect the many and varied elements of Chapman’s life, how about commissioning a number of British animation studios to provide different segments for a compilation animation like Fuyu no Hi or Genius Party? Sounds great, right?

Well, there are two massive failings here – one is that the animations dictate the pacing, and the pacing is entirely wrong; the other is that without fail, the animations are ugly. There is no cuteness here, not even the quirky cuteness of Aardman or Peppa Pig. There is no stop-motion or classic animation in the Superted/Count Duckula tradition. There is certainly no Watership Down realism, storybook winsomeness of The Snowman or any of the clever mixing of styles of Gumball. I’m sure it’s because of a low budget, but we get almost nothing but bad CG best-suited to early 2000s European music videos (yes, I’m talking Jamba!-level), unimpressive Flash and some clumsy hand-drawn animation in the style of unimpressive adverts. And not Kellogg’s smoothness or Compare the Meerkat decent CG. The film fails to represent either the history of British animation or how good it can be. Some sequences are done very well, mind you, but others are awful and there is a constant need for the experimental parts to be tempered by some sincere, straightforward, solid animation.

The film starts very clunkily. After an awkwardly-timed rendition of Chapman choking during the Oscar Wilde sketch done in cut-out animation, we go back to his childhood, and things get awkward. A story about body parts during World War II isn’t really one that benefits from visuals, even crude cartoon ones, and Chapman’s ideas on class get muddled. Asides with awfully-rendered monkeys as the Pythons long overstay their welcome after the well-known story of coming up with the Python name. And then while the scene of miserable British holidays in the rain worked, stiff video-game CG for a quite clever passage about Freud (bafflingly played by Cameron Diaz here) analyzing an obviously homoerotic dream about Biggles and pointing out only signs of feelings of navigational inadequacy completely ruined it. It not only made the dream itself hideously unfunny, it was far too slow to unfold and all the humour dried up.

Bland animations covered Chapman going to Cambridge and meeting Cleese, who did an unkind impersonation of David Frost. The most obvious and puerile animations were used for Chapman discovering his sexuality (which came over far more as bisexual than homosexual) and sadly, later, his penchant for promiscuity. Things got better as he realised his alcoholism and he went cold turkey – the sort of event that requires odd, experimental animation, which is what we got, and the animation towards the end where he grows very tired of Hollywood parties yet incessantly namedrops is superb, like a smoother Superjail, especially when Wilde himself appears – voiced, of course, by Stephen Fry.  

Chapman was a funny man – ignoring the awful and butchered Yellowbeard – and I sense the autobiography reflected that. But coupling his writing with badly-paced, ugly animation kills it. And having all the Pythons bar Idle (whose singing voice features) provide new voice-overs makes me think that the project deserved to be better-realised than, sadly, it was. 

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