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Misguided & Muddled From Start to Finish

Cover Having just dedicated the 79-minutes required to complete this monstrosity of a film, I’ve decided to pen up a review immediately before the awe of its substandard delivery has fully worn off. And just so we’re clear- I read the overwhelming number of negative reviews even before purchase of the DVD and thus went in with low expectations. Even still this one managed to disappoint. Articulating where things went awry here is a bit overwhelming in the “where do we even begin?” variety. That said, let’s take a brief look at the hard facts.

Released September of 2013 in the UK under the name Sir Billi, the film represented some fairly promising firsts; namely it was the first CG animated feature made entirely in Scotland. It also marks what was intended to be a triumphant return to the screen for accomplished actor Sean Connery, who not only voices the titular character but also executive produced the project. It was given a name change and shipped over here to the US in April of 2014 as a direct-to-dvd affair by Cinedigm. It should be noted that the domestic DVD release is not rated; though it certainly seems to fall under PG-13 territory due to language (there is repeated cussing throughout) and some themes that the smaller set may not be prepared for in an animated film (like early on when a deceased beaver is picked up and discarded roughly into a crate).
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The story, or what tries to be one here, tells of an aging, skateboarding retired veterinarian who goes above and beyond the call of duty fighting villainous policemen and powerful lairds in a battle to save an illegal fugitive – Bessie Boo the beaver first from exportation then from drowning. When this, the last beaver in all of Scotland’s life becomes endangered, Sir Billi and a horde of animal pals step into action even though a raging river, a Russian submarine and an obsessed animal control officer all stand in their way.

If this summary sounds a little odd, rest assured that it is a very accurate depiction, then, of the experience that is Guardian of the Highlands. The narrative fails to ever present itself as a singular tale so much as it meanders from scene to scene and situation to situation in the hopes of becoming a movie somewhere along the way. In fact many of the staples of the prose (like Billi being a retired veterinarian or why in the world there no beavers in Scotland) are never even made clear in the film itself; but rather are established only in summaries and movie reviews.

It turns out (through extensive research of my own mind you, perhaps a special feature on the DVD explaining this would have made far too much sense) that the idea of a beaver-free Scotland stems from a bit of historical fact in that beavers were apparently hunted nearly to extinction in the area about 4-centuries back. It’s never even clear what’s going on with the beaver relocation sequence that opens the film. Critics seem to think that what the filmmakers are trying to say is that beavers were then illegally reintroduced to the area by activists are hence being rounded up by the Scottish government to be exported to Norway. But again, these are things that they maybe would have wanted to explain a little better being that it is the crux of the story and all.

Of course it doesn’t even really matter because the film is structured so that conflicts arise, become settled (in this case I guess we’re just supposed to accept that Bessie, the last beaver is happy being orphaned to live with a bunch of rabbits, who, at least in one scene seem to want her to fail) only for new conflicts to become shoehorned in for the solving.

Characters come and go with absolutely no sense of continuity. In one scene we see a family driving down the road led by a naval admiral no less, who seem to know who Bessie is and recognize her being carried down the rapids of a raging river. That’s it for them. How do they know her? Is this guy really an admiral? Why should we care? Events seem to happen at random throughout, many of which do little to nothing to advance the already-floundering plot.

Then there’s the animals- they all wear clothing here and can speak and be understood by the humans; so much for historical accuracy I guess.

The acting is a step above the plotting, which is to say still substandard in comparison to what we expect in animation circa 2013. Though expect heavy accents galore and one of the sleepiest performances from Connery this side of a 5am call in to room service.
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Finally there is the matter of the visuals themselves. I often say in my reviews that solid graphics do not a good movie make; however in this case, a poor movie is made even poorer with some of the more inconsistent modeling/ animation you’re going to encounter anywhere. Some elements are surprisingly decent: the water in the bay, some of the skies, the background details (a fish shop in one scene is called The Codfather). Others are substandard at best, creepy at worst. The models in particular are misshapen, disproportionate and animate clumsily. The lack of fluidity with motion sequences and facial animations make the entire film feel a lot like a video game cut scene from a few years back.

All in all this is a very difficult film to recommend to anyone of any age. It’s tough to tell whether the project was born of great intentions that it simply failed to live up to or if it was a production train wreck from the get-go, but the finished product certainly leaves a lot to be desired! There are a few references scattered about that hint toward the notion that this project was supposed to be an an animated homage to Sean Connery’s storied acting career but the delivery is so muddled that any brilliance found in that concept really can’t be recovered.

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