What if the British army was stranded at Dunkirk and we lost the Battle of Britain? What if the Nazis thought of the Channel Tunnel 50 years before we did? What if Hadrian’s Wall was still intact and no one had heard from the Scots in 100 years? This is the alternative Second World War England of Jackboots on Whitehall, the epic stop-motion animation debut from brothers Edward and Rory McHenry. When Nazis invade London it’s up to farm boy Chris (Ewan McGregor) and vicar’s daughter Daisy (Rosamund Pike) to rescue Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall) and lead him to the safety of Hadrian’s Wall, marshalling an army of villagers along the way.
Jackboots is a film for anyone who played with Action Man, Barbie, Airfix kits or Hornby model railways as a child. The animation is excellent, with large-scale battles, plenty of plastic gore and only the bare minimum of computer manipulation to help with the lip-syncing and facial expressions on the dolls. Similarly, the sets are incredibly detailed and anyone familiar with London will appreciate the effort that’s gone into creating the model versions of real landmarks.
The brothers McHenry have done a great job attracting a cast of big British names (even American volunteer Billy Fiske is voiced by great British export Dominic West), but this cannot have been based on the strength of the script, which is sadly lacking. Because there are just not that many mainstream stop-motion films, Jackboots invites comparison with films like Team America: World Police. Indeed, it shares the same simplistic dialogue and immature sense of humour. But whereas in Team America the childish jokes provided an ironic counterpoint to the serious subject matter, Jackboots doesn’t have that excuse.
There’s something in our received culture, be it from our grandparents’ war stories, or the war films we’ve all seen, that means we’re still happy to watch the Nazis being drubbed even in an alternate version of history. In this way Jackboots can be said be to be British both in terms of production and spirit, and it’s wholly appropriate that it was chosen as the opening film for this year’s Raindance Film Festival. This British spirit should carry Jackboots a long way, and in spite of its flaws it is an impressive debut feature. However, it will be interesting to see how its subject matter and technical achievement fare against the similar, child’s toy based Belgian stop-motion animation A Town Called Panic, which is released the same day, and while less technically accomplished, is more original, surreal and has a superior sense of comic timing.