This month, the final shwan-shong of an esteemed, Oscar-winning actor turns 10 years old – but chances are you have never heard of it. But, crammed as it is with gross sex-puns; slobbery grandpa-kisses; and unwieldy references to ethnic cleansing; it’s probably no wonder the ‘children’s film’, Sir Billi: Guardian of the Highlands, passed you by.
Perhaps the most important trait of all good-bad films is that they take themselves seriously. Tommy Wiseau treated The Room as a legitimate Citizen Kane long before he leant into its prolonged title The Citizen Kane of Bad Movies, while Neil Breen imbues every one of his environmental monologues with the chilling earnestness of a mass-shooter’s manifesto video.
No bad film, before or since, has ever taken itself as seriously as Sir Billi though. A caustic blend of nightmarish animation, tonal dissonance and fading star-power meant this film was set up for a roasting even without the assertions of its producers, who went on a public offensive in its defence. The film’s protracted release into the wild passed many people by, but I remember the rare days of 2012 I spent reading the dirt on the blatantly doomed production.
Sean Connery had already lambasted the Scottish tourist board for producing a special tartan for the world’s favourite ogre in 2007’s Shrek when the film (then titled Sir Billi The Vet) was in production. Why hadn’t they backed his film instead? After all, it was a real Scottish film – not some vehicle for a former Saturday Night Live star from Canada.
Five years – and £15 million – later, writer Tessa Hartmann and director Sascha Hartmann joined their disgruntled star in attacking the Scottish Government. The SNP-led administration had invested £7million in activity aimed at maximising “the benefits for Scotland’s economy” of Disney-Pixar’s Brave. Why was there no money for the film claiming to be “Scotland’s first” homegrown animation feature? After all, it was Sean Connery’s first film since 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen… How could anyone be so short-sighted as to disregard such a cinematic legacy?
Well, I think it’s fair to say history has absolved the Scottish Government for its shunning of Sir Billi. Aside from being a better film on every technical front, Brave was also a resounding success financially – grossing five-times its production cost, and playing in cinemas across some 72 countries. Comparatively, Sir Billi’s box-office total was just over one-tenth of its colossal budget, and featured at relatively few venues beyond its bizarre premiere at the Sonoma International Film Festival (SIFF).
Interestingly, while Sir Billi was panned as a joyless mess by critics, landing it a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes, the prestigious(?) SIFF saw the film “well received” by its audience (though write-ups of the event only cite the producers, and have no indications of attendance – so it may just have been them). Nobody beyond the production seems to have been half as kind, though. Only eight critics bothered to write anything at all – and reviews ranged from Fred Patten of Flayrah calling it “the ugliest [CGI] that I have ever seen,” to Siobhan Synnot of The Scotsman labelling it “mirthless“.
Now, it’s here that I have to disagree somewhat. Sir Billi is many things – but I contest that it is without mirth. It honestly remains one of the funniest films I have ever seen. The plot follows ageing veterinary Sir Billi (Connery, obviously) as he tends to the animals of fictional Highland town Catterness. The film opens with a young family of beavers being transported to what appears to be some form of labour camp – complete with guard towers and barbed wire – following a controversial attempt to reintroduce them to the Scottish wilderness.
When the truck transporting them to their grizzly end has an accident, one baby beaver escapes – much to the ire of Officer McTavish. He spends the film scouring the highlands, cursing the very existence of “stinking wet beavers” – while Billi does his best to cover up the beaver’s whereabouts. On top of these bizarre snatch-puns, the film decides to creepily sexualise every woman in the cast – while Billi is regularly alluded to having been a bit of a ‘charmer’ back in the day. He even has a parachute with a Scottish flag on it – harking back to those days as Bond… but the wrong Bond. That was Roger Moore. All this is beside the point though, because exactly who any of this should appeal to is what is really up for debate. The one demographic it will definitively pass by, is the one the film is most explicitly aimed at. Children. Meanwhile, what adult is going to genuinely enjoy it without feeling the need to bathe in Clorox afterwards?
Meanwhile, side-stories maintain this characteristic tonal dissonance. We are introduced almost at random to an American duck, who flies a plane, and seemingly has no relationship with anything on screen. Then we witness a seemingly endless rabbit Olympics, at the end of which, the mother rabbit hits her head – and Billi discusses loudly with his goat sidekick Gordon (dressed in a skin-tight Enter the Dragon/Kill Bill suit) whether the bunny will die, or just spend the rest of her life disabled. At one point, the submarine from The Hunt for Red October turns up, before the goat has an accident of his own that may well see him lose the use of his legs. Then the whole thing concludes with a psycho-sexual dance number at the local pub. It is truly, remarkably, awful. Oh, and Billi kisses his grandson full on the mouth.
Surely all this is anything but mirthless. From a perspective of not taking this film at face value, but instead enjoying its awfulness, what more could you want?
Perhaps the problem was that these critics saw it during the film’s limited cinema run – and as such, probably saw it in a deserted cinema, with nobody else to suffer with. In my case, however, when it finally (briefly) appeared on Netflix in 2014, I was able to gather a screening committee of my closest bad-movie-friends.
We’d pointed out flaws in films before, giggled at unwieldy dialogue and hilariously misjudged storylines in everything from Double Down to The Ghost and the Darkness. But nothing came close to this unhinged family film, centring on a doddery Sean Connery using a skateboard in his bid to rescue a wet shivering beaver from the clutches of a genocidal police lackey. One of the party laughed so hard that he threw up. Another silently convulsed, breathless tears ebbing down his reddened cheeks. There was plenty of mirth on display. Just none of it seemingly intentional.
All the while, the context of the film danced around in the back of our minds. Writer Tessa Hartman (who The Record stated “openly backs the Tories”, adding another delicious layer to the film’s abject failure) constructed the ultimate conspiracy theory to defend this work. But the reality was the government and the press had no need to scheme the demise of this dumpster fire. Even with its hefty budget, its relatively well-known cast (presumably whom the producers had something on – from a bemused Alan Cumming voicing the goat with a bed-wetting problem, to Miriam Margolyes as Billi’s busty love interest), and the bluster of Sir Sean himself; it had all amounted to this. One of the worst-judged, most visually corrosive films ever produced.
If you haven’t seen Sir Billi – I sincerely recommend you gather a group of friends and allies and seek it out. It is a face-melting disasterpiece for the ages, and while it seems the film is currently stowed away in the same place as the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders, it deserves to be brought back into the light. This could, and should, be a cult classic on par with the very best of the very worst.