Graham Chapman, in his own voice, leads the audience through his bookish youth at Eton, confused sexuality at Cambridge and the early days of success with Monty Python, but this is not a narrative of glory. The deceased narrator also provides a cutting analysis of alcoholism and the vacuous existence of fame.
The feature is divided into 17 scenes, animated by 14 different studios in the UK and abroad. This proves to be a huge challenge in terms of continuity. Often the feel is that of a stream of well-curated short films. Without the ever-present voice of Chapman himself cohesion could be lost entirely.
One way to look at this is as an anthology of contemporary British animation. In these terms there are many diamonds to be cut from the rough. Matt Layzell directs a sumptuous journey through space and celebrity. We encounter abstracted polygon caricatures of Graham’s peers as he drifts though a swirling cosmos in search of famous guests to attend his party.
The aesthetics of alcohol withdrawal are successfully encapsulated in the sweating glow of the oil on glass technique employed by Arthur Cox director George Sander-Jackson. The intricate free hand texture lends itself superbly as a luminous expression of suffering. The fiery sepia glow goes so far as to suggest a sort of hell on earth.
The glassy veneer of Los Angeles was captured in all its transparent glory by Matthias Heogg. Rendered digitally, the Beakus director made every component see-through to emphasize the falseness of Graham’s life at that point. This superb visual metaphor is both beautiful in its simplicity of concept as well as its formal execution.
Sadly one or two of the scenes were behind the quality of the others and stood out in contrast. Mr & Mrs Monkeys, a gathering of 3D primates each representative of a Python member, were not appealing. The look of the scene was visually underwhelming; textureless with a muddy colour palette, while the character design was at the level of the most basic of caricatures.
Such a plethora of styles has it’s pros and cons. A certain excitement is built up when waiting to discover the next scene regardless of the narrative arc. Some say a change is as good as a rest, however I must admit this may not be true for 17 changes. Being exposed to a new visual language every few minutes was at times draining, but more concerning it distracted on from the narrative and drew attention to the frame.
Nick Park of Aardman speaks of around 200 people working on any one of their features, but he emphasises the studio would always make the effort to create the illusion that this all came from one person’s mind. This cohesion is so clearly disrupted in A Liar’s Autobiography. The unique selling point of dividing labour between studios, despite all its richness, shouts of practical reasoning. Potentially it is more affordable to ask many animation houses to complete relatively short sequences in exchange for a modest fee and the chance to contribute to a feature film.
I must emphasise that despite a disordered formal composition the film is thoroughly enjoyable, visually fascinating and witty. The feature is propelled forward by the sheer quality of its source material. Graham Chapman lived life like a shambolic rock star while maintaining dignity, self-awareness and a self-deprecating tone which is unique to British comedy.
A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman is available on DVD and Blu-ray now. The trailer can be watched here: