In 2008, David Gordon Green surprised his modest but dedicated following by pivoting from Malickian post-industrial indie movies to Pineapple Express, a stoner buddy picture so indebted to cheeseball 80s action comedies that it commissioned its own Huey Lewis theme song. Far from a sellout, the movie still exhibited his sensibility, chasing humanist absurdities with unexpected violence, recalibrated for mainstream delight. Three years later, delight turned to alienation with his follow-up, Your Highness, a fantasy-spoof vehicle for Green’s longtime friend and collaborator Danny McBride. Critics cringed, audiences stayed away, and McBride’s career as a big-screen star was short-lived.
It worked out for the best; McBride found a more productive outlet for his antihero coarseness on a series of HBO shows, and Green had his biggest hit ever with his 2018 Halloween follow-up, which McBride co-wrote. But given how often Hollywood tries and fails to make entertaining big-budget fantasy comedies, usually by ripping off Ghostbusters, the gnarly goofiness of Your Highness deserves another look 10 years later.
McBride plays Thadeous, a foppish vulgarian of a prince consumed with petulant jealousy over his dashing older brother Fabious (James Franco). Fabious is engaged to marry Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel), and when an evil wizard (Justin Theroux) kidnaps her on their wedding day, Fabious and Thadeous set out on a standard-issue quest to save her. Along the way, they cross paths with vengeful warrior Isabel (Natalie Portman), along with various nymphs, knights and creatures.
The best joke of Your Highness is that it’s a genuinely inventive fantasy pastiche, reminiscent of the way that the Jack Black/Kyle Gass rock band Tenacious D satirizes prog-metal bombast with well-crafted songs. Green’s movies always have a sense of texture and this one is no exception, with Green and frequent cinematographer Tim Orr capturing verdant tones before unleashing neon lightning blasts in the grand finale. The fantasy details are sketched in with the enthusiasm of detailed ballpoint-pen drawings on an eighth-grader’s binder: an acid-spitting five-headed hydra controlled by a deranged ruler sticking his hand into a cauldron of yellow goop; golden fairies ground up and snorted by the grotesque wizard; a maze of branches and eyeballs housing a pants-less minotaur.
It’s all silly, yes, but in service of celebration. Green and McBride seem to find this stuff sincerely cool and worthy of their full attention, content to let the anachronism-heavy jokes swap in for (and playfully josh) the ponderous dialogue of more straight-faced fantasy epics. Even the more blatantly irreverent elements are weirdly character-based. When Thadeous learns that the lifelong kinship Fabious shares with an old soothsayer has a creepily sexualized side, it’s a statement about the traumas men train themselves to suppress or ignore in the name of masculinity and a bad-taste sight gag where McBride and Franco must make intimate contact with a lizard-y puppet character.
Opposite its caricatures of impossibly pure-hearted heroism and blowhard insecurity, the movie offers exaggerations of two popular types of genre-movie female characters: Portman as an all-business badass who moves swiftly between acts of violent revenge, and Deschanel as a naif so sheltered she’s flummoxed by a fork. (Little Mermaid homage? You be the judge.) They both go a long way toward tempering McBride’s sometimes-overbearing comic style. Even that coarseness, though, has a certain honesty in the way it rejects a then common comic narrative of belated maturity, in favor of a simpler reconciliation between siblings. Like Step Brothers, the movie recognizes how many male impulses aren’t just immature but barely adolescent.
While I enjoyed Your Highness from my first viewing in largely empty “premium large format” auditorium in Times Square, it looks less inexplicable (and perhaps less offensive to those who didn’t vibe with it) following another decade’s worth of Green movies, varying in content and style while remaining recognizably his. The prolific film-maker seems to increasingly make films in groups of two or three: after the studio comedies Pineapple, Highness and the similarly ill-regarded (and underrated!) The Sitter came a triptych of smaller-scale character studies toying with movie-star personas (Prince Avalanche; Joe; Manglehorn), then a pair of fact-based dramas (Our Brand Is Crisis; Stronger), and now an in-progress trilogy of Halloween sequels. Your Highness isn’t Green’s most essential film; it’s not even his most essential broad comedy. (Yes, Pineapple Express is much better.) Yet it’s far from the lazy Pineapple cash-in many saw in 2011. Like it or not, Your Highness is a part of David Gordon Green’s whole deal. Its very existence is a tribute to its creators’ bizarre desire to make it.