Waiting for the Hogfather
Discworld, a world riding four elephants atop a massive turtle floating through space, is (in other respects) a world much like ours. They too hang up stockings on a special night of the year and wait to find out whether a jolly visitor has decided if they were naughty or nice. In Discworld, though, all of this happens on Hogwatch, and the gift-giving anthropomorphic manifestation of the holiday is the grinning, tusked figure of the Hogfather.
Belief in a man in a red suit and a white beard watching over children upsets the Auditors, spectral beings who make sure the universe is orderly. To their way of thinking, belief in strange beings like the Hogfather is messy and clogs the works. So they've decided to commission the assassins' guild to kill him. They send their strangest man -- Mr. Teatime (pronounced, as is he quick to remind you, Te-a-tim-e) -- on this strangest of jobs.
Teatime, as ruthless as he is childish, tracks the mythological victim in an unexpected way: he attacks the castle of the Tooth Fairy. He knows that old, old magic gives a possessor of cast-off parts of the body -- hair, nail parings, or even teeth -- control over what someone believes.
Meanwhile another mythological being, Death, realizes that belief in the Hogfather is in danger. This is very bad, as the Hogfather is a relic of another kind of old magic; if belief in him fails, the sun won't rise. As Teatime diminishes the Hogfather to a real hog, Death takes up the role of Hogfather himself, counting on his granddaughter, Susan, to foil Teatime and restore belief in the spirit of Hogswatch.
A Twisted Holiday
Hogfather originated as the twentieth Discworld novel by science-fiction / fantasy master Terry Pratchett, the second most read author in the UK; this is the first live-action adaptation of one of his Discworld novels, and it is an unmitigated success. Hogfather had me at hello -- in this case, the narrator's delightful introduction that begins, "Everything stars somewhere ... though many physicists disagree," accompanied an absolutely gorgeous extended rendering of Discworld atop its elephants and turtle. This imagery alone would be worth seeing, especially for Discworld fans.
Hogfather is very smartly created, with clever writing, excellent realization and effects (particularly for atelevision miniseries), and superior direction by Vadim Jean, who also helped Pratchett adapt his novel. (Pratchett received a "Mucked about by" credit.) Hogfather never loses sight of what it's about: the importance of belief. "You need to believe in things that aren't true," Death, the central character, says at one point. "How else can they become?" Later, Death expresses bemusement at the follies of mortals: "Do you know that in a universe so full of wonders they have managed to invent boredom?"
Discworld and its city, Ankh-Morpork, have been rendered startlingly real, populated by Edwardian dandies, governesses who frighten the monsters from under the bed, shrewd children, childish men, and batty old wizards. The rules are clear and what's at stake isn't merely the sunrise, it's the belief in what can be -- without that, Pratchett argues urgently, we cannot surpass what is.
Character Actor Heaven
Of course a film like this is made or broken by the acting, and Hogfather is stuffed with delightful British character actors who have a field day bringing home Pratchett's message. The face best known to American audiences will probably be David Warner, he of the long somber face (in Star Trek he was Chancellor Gorkon, and Captain Sawyer in Hornblower). Here he is Lord Downey, the head of the assassins' guild, who knows Teatime is the right man for this job even if he doesn't quite know what to make of this very strange cove.
Teatime himself is played to creeptastic perfection by Marc Warren, whom Doctor Who fans might recognize as Elton from season 2's "Love & Monsters." Warren manages to make Teatime even more fascinating than his set-up merits, projecting him beyond cipher into a unusually troubled man. Also excellent is David Jason as the crusty pixie Albert.
The driver of the film is Ian Richardson, who functions both as narrator and the voice of Death. The wrong casting in such a role could doom the movie, but one could never get tired of listing to this rich, dark voice, and Richardson is even able to provide Death with a character arc, coming to understand humanity and his role in their fate better from being the Hogfather for a day. Richardson also has much comedy to work with (he has trouble with the mechanics of being the Hogfather, particularly the "ho ho ho") and provides a large share of the laughs. Special mention should go Marnix Van Den Broeke, who plays Death's body, and provides just the right physical performance to match Richardson's portrayal.
Though long (189 minutes in two parts), Hogfather is brilliant and fun and should be destined to be a holiday classic. It rightly won two BAFTA awards and should have won more. Moreover, its message is a valuable one in this cynical age. Come this December the 32nd, I'll definitely be waiting up for the Hogfather myself.