The Hogfather Review
Snow is falling on the night before Hogswatch and in the genteel surroundings of The Guild Of Assassins, Lord Downey (David Warner) is being paid a visit. An Auditor (voice of Nigel Planer) is standing before him with an offer for his services, $3m if a member of the guild can rid the Discworld of a well-known but hard-to-pin-down figure, an easily-identified fat man with a predilection for the giving of gifts this Hogswatch, the Hogfather. Downey doesn't know quite what to say but as the Auditor explains, ask anyone on any street corner and not only will they identify the Hogfather but will also given an approximate address and, on this time of the year, his general whereabouts. Downey, convinced more than anything by the sum of money, accedes to the request and requests that his butler arrange for Jonathan Teatime (Marc Warren) to call that same night.
Meanwhile, as governess in a townhouse, Susan Sto Helit (Michelle Dockery), the granddaughter of Death, is putting the Gaiter children to bed when one of them voices her concern about a monster in the basement. Instead of simply telling the child not to concern themselves with monsters, Susan descends the stairs and, with the aid of a trust poker, bashes the monster over the head and throws it into the street. Later, the same poker will come in handy with a monster that has crawled under Twyla's bed. But when the stillness of the night is disturbed with the arrival of Death, Susan realises that something dreadful has happened. Dressed in a red gown, wearing a false beard and with a pillow stuffed up his suit, Death is very far from how Susan had remembered him but listens carefully as her grandfathers tells her that the Hogfather would appear to be no more. Not, he explains, that it was his doing. As Death leaves to complete the Hogfather's chores that night, Susan's practical side encourages her to leave the Gaiter's home and to the Castle of Bones, where she begins piecing together the events of that night...
At least I'm better prepared this time. Last time I took a DVD release of a Terry Pratchett adaptation for DVD Times - Soul Music, which I don't think I can ever apologise enough for - I thought I was getting a documentary on the Stax record label. This time, thanks to it being heavily trailed in the press and on the main five television stations, there can be no doubt that this is an adaptation of the Terry Pratchett novel The Hogfather. And it's a very handsome one at that, all the more surprising that it was financed by Sky, who are very far from the forefront of investing in British programming. In recent years, the BBC have made little more effort at Christmas than sticking a streamer of tinsel over the set of The Vicar Of Dibley to suggest its taking its seasonal responsibilities seriously but that's more than one ever expected off Sky or any other satellite-only channel. Traditionally, Sky have been very untraditional in their choice of programming. Hallowe'en comes and goes with - perhaps! - a showing of a shockingly low-budget horror, Ghoulies 3 or something like it. Easter arrives and departs with nothing more than a greater amount of chocolate advertising to suggest that it exists at all whilst the various national holidays may not appear in the calendar whatsoever for all the effort Sky makes towards them. As for Christmas, other than six back-to-back episodes of The Simpsons with a seasonal theme and a showing of The Grinch on one of the gamut of movie channels, Sky has tended to leave the holiday well alone.
However, in 2006, Sky trailed the coming holiday by wishing their viewers a Happy Hogswatch and, a week before Christmas, showed The Hogfather, which they repeated - some habits are very hard to break - on Christmas and Boxing Day nights. It is, like the Jonathan Creek specials of some years back, gentle seasonal fare, as mixed up as the very messages of Christmas but well-intentioned and looking very fine indeed. Once we pass the obligatory explanation of just what the Discworld is - cue CG footage of it resting on the back of four giant elephants standing of the shell of the great A'Tuin still travelling through darkest space - we're into falling snow, a crisp night and the warmth of the fire by which Susan reads Jack And The Beanstalk to the two Gaiter children. A quite unique telling of the fairy tale, you'll understand, but a reading of it nonetheless. However, far away from that homely scene, the assassin's guild are planning the killing of the Hogfather and have only one assassin in mind, the very peculiar Jonathan Teatime. The snow continues to fall, children leave out pork pies and turnips for the Hogfather and the tinkle of magic blends in with the jingle of sleigh bells but the world, thanks to Teatime, is not what it was and Death sets out to ensure that the good boys and girls of the Discworld have a happy Hogswatch.
One tends to get a sinking feeling when a writer has a cameo appearance in a film or television adaptation of their work. Their presence on the set indicates they're entirely happy with the work being prepared for the screen, which usually means that none of their original text has been sacrificed in the adaptation. In his cameo role as a toy maker and in the making-of that has been included on this DVD, Terry Pratchett looks very happy indeed - as happy as a child who'd gotten the very gift they'd asked of the Hogfather - but the happier he looks, the more saddened this viewer becomes. And at having to watch a touch over three hours of The Hogfather, really quite bored as well. I can understand why a writer might demand some control over a television adaptation. After all, Pratchett must have expended a good deal of time on writing The Hogfather and may not take kindly to anyone cutting away vast swathes of his story to take it to television. However, someone, perhaps one very close to him, ought to have explained that what works in the slower pacing of a book may not work on a couple of night over Christmas on Sky. Unfortunately, someone didn't and Pratchett's book appears to have come to the screen in fulsome fashion, which includes all of the things that makes the average punter pass on Pratchett, including the flights into parody that, from not really being that funny, are always in danger of sounding more like actual fantasy than any spoof of it. Equally, all of the good things in The Hogfather tend to get lost in its more dreary moments. A considerable amount of time passes in the Castle of Bones, during which the various villains in the piece, from being haunted by the things they fear most, want to give up and go home. As, one is sorry to say, did this reviewer. For a show based on humanity's faith in such things as the Tooth Fairy, the Hogfather and the Bogeyman, I wasn't ever really sure who, in the end, was real and who was not and in the ninety minutes or thereabouts of The Hogfather set in the Castle of Bones, I wasn't really sure that I cared very much either.
However, Michelle Dockery is very good as Susan, perhaps not quite as sparky as she was presented in Soul Music but with a healthy amount of practicality in amongst the flights of fantasy. It's good to see David Jason doing comedy again - something that he's much better at than, as Frost, he is at drama - whilst Ian Richardson is as dry and warmly amusing as the part of Death demands. Unfortunately, Marc Warren, despite being generally very good, is absolutely terrible here, channeling Johnny Depp's character of Willy Wonka into a Discworld assassin and in spite of the wonky eye and wayward attitude to children isn't terribly frightening. But the very best part in the film is given to Joss Ackland as Mustrum Ridcully who, you suspect, could probably do this sort of thing without thinking about it for very long but who brings just the right amount of bluster, warmth, humour and confusion to the part of the chancellor of the Unseen University. Sometimes what should have been his best moments are painfully bad - the hottest sauce in the universe is one such gag - but it doesn't look like Ackland's fault, more the very flat direction of Vadim Jean. And even if it was Ackland's fault, he is so good elsewhere that to forgive him is amongst the easiest things in the world.
Perhaps I would feel different if I was particularly keen on Terry Pratchett but the most unforgivable thing about The Hogfather is how easily it spoils that seasonal goodwill with some dreary plotting. It does that Christmas thing so wonderfully in its opening twenty minutes or so that, like The Box Of Delights, one really wants it to do so very well. But unlike that classic BBC series, described elsewhere on this site as being, "...a concoction of Christmas events and traditions brought together in a sweetly nostalgic package", The Hogfather begins very well but quickly moves away from the chilly streets of Ankh-Morpork to the much less interesting breeze block design of the Castle of Bones. Not even a late flourish with the Hogfather being chased through a forest of pines by the Auditors, who have taken the form of wild dogs, can save it, largely because for all its three-hour running time, The Hogfather doesn't do a very good job of ever explaining what's going on. I grant you that it might have gone down much better on Christmas and Boxing Day nights than it does now - it is odd to be munching an Easter Egg in a very warm April whilst watching snowfalls on television - but it is very far from being the seasonal classic that I'm sure Sky had hoped for. One hopes, though, that they're not entirely done with Christmas programming and that they'll continue joining the others in the showing of televisual eggnog.
Presented anamorphically in 1.78:1, this looks pretty good, perhaps not as good perhaps as a theatrical release but taking into account the television origins of the production, The Hogfather looks very decent even if the CG is rather obvious throughout. With 20th Century Fox handling the DVD release - being a case of one arm of the Murdoch empire handing content to another - the DVD isn't a bad one at all even if, by putting both episodes onto only one of the discs, the three hours does push the format somewhat. However, the picture is reasonably sharp, detail is very good throughout but what the disc really gets right is the blacks, which is, as you'll understand, important in a production set around Christmas. The DD5.1 default audio is very good indeed with there being clear use of the rear channels and of the subwoofer. The dialogue is very clear and with a really lovely score, the whole thing sounds wonderful at times. Finally, The Hogfather is subtitled in English.
The Whole Hog... (Making Of, 13m21s): Beginning with Terry Pratchett talking about the Discworld series, this short Making Of describes the process by which The Hogfather made it to the screen. Pratchett is clearly overjoyed at the adaptation and his cameo role but many others in the cast are interviewed about their roles as is writer/director Vadim Jean about his involvement. Very little is said about the actual story, more how the cast prepared for the series - Michelle Dockery had to learn how to ride a horse - while Marnix Van Den Broeke had to think like Death and, being a tricky thing I would assume, properly portray his movements on the screen. Slow would appear to have been the conclusion of all concerned.
12 Days Of Hogswatch: These twelve short features, none of which last more than five minutes, were produced by the Mob Film Co. for Sky and were, I would imagine, shown on Sky One in the run-up to Christmas. With the aid of Discworld Cartographer Stephen Briggs, Nigel Planer, Terry Pratchett and Death, the background story to The Hogfather, the characters, the city of Ankh-Morpork, the Auditors and the Discworld itself are all explained rather well, with these little bonus features all taking a suitably light-hearted tone that the main feature would have done well to take a note of.
Finally, the set rounds off with Deleted Scenes (4m12s), a Gallery and Trailers for Night At The Museum, Eragon, The Simpsons Movie and Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer. In particular, the Deleted Scenes are very good, with onscreen subtitles explaining what is yet to be done during post-production, such as background effects, CG characters and treatment of the picture.