IT WAS a film intended to end Sir Sean Connery’s career on a high note as the star of a children’s animation based in his native Scotland.
With a budget of around £15 million, Sir Billi The Vet also had a host of famous supporting actors such as Alan Cumming and Miriam Margolyes as well as a title song sung by Dame Shirley Bassey.
But although the film has finally been completed after seven long and tortuous years, it is now due only to make a brief cameo appearance in just three out-of-town cinemas this month before going to DVD three days later.
It will open at the Showcase cinemas in Paisley and Baillieston, Glasgow, and the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent on 13 September before heading for the DVD shelves. And there will be no red-carpet premiere of the type which welcomed the launch of Disney Pixar’s $185 million Brave in Edinburgh last year.
The plot follows Sir Billi, a skateboarding vet voiced by Connery, fighting villainous policemen and dodgy lairds in his hunt for Scotland’s last beaver.
Intended as Scotland’s first-ever computer-generated imagery (CGI) film, it was very much a family affair: written and produced by Scottish-based PR head Tessa Hartmann, directed by her husband Sascha, and starring their daughter Tallia Storm.
The Hartmanns raised much of the finance themselves but came up against multi-million Hollywood animation productions such as Brave and Toy Story 3, which cost around $200m (£130m) to make.
Despite the limited release and prolonged production time, Hartmann said she was happy with the outcome. “I’m just glad we have the release, to be honest. Hundreds of films come out every year, and to just see it in the cinema and the fact that Showcase have taken it is just amazing.”
She also said that they had received strong orders from the likes of Amazon, Sainsbury’s and Asda, and that she was even mulling the possibility of a Sir Billi 2. “We’ve been approached by a film finance fund about making a Billi 2,” she said.
“It’s very, very early stages, and I was quite taken aback, but it’s certainly not out of the realms of possibility, and if I could raise the finances I’d do it in a minute.”
However, she was not sure if Connery would participate: “I don’t know. He’s so brilliant with what he’s done for us and for Scottish film production through supporting this project… We’d have to wait and see, though. He’s part of the brand, so whatever we did would be run past him. Nobody would be more excited about doing another one than him. Whether he voices it or not, I don’t know. But certainly, he would love that.”
Although billed as “hilarious and heartwarming” on the production’s website and personally backed by Connery, when it premiered at the Sonoma International Film Festival in the US in April last year, the critics seemed unamused and gave it a frosty reception.
Variety, the industry magazine, panned the film as lacking the “looks or charm of even the most rudimentary CG offerings being made today, as if not only the animation but also the plot and characters were spat out by off-the-shelf software”.
Influential blogger Lisa Summers wrote that “the computer animation in Sir Billi made PacMan look like Avatar,” adding, “If the animation wasn’t bad enough, the story finished the movie off.”
Many of the reviews also made the point that, as a children’s film, many of its target audience would not get the references to Connery’s most famous role as secret agent James Bond.
But Hartmann insisted the film had been broadly welcomed: “There are haters in any society, and anyone who has seen my film has loved it. We had a standing ovation in Sonoma, but there’s always going to be that side to it, though. We are the David in a major Goliath industry.”
But even before the festival showing, the poor quality of the animation had become apparent when a “sizzle reel” – a short, promotional trailer – was released in 2010.
One writer on Slashfilm site described the Sir Billi character as looking like it had “no understanding of human movement” while the background was a “disparate collection of elements that lack any sense of unity or place”.
Film critic Alistair Harkness said attempting to break into film through low-budget animation productions was not an easy task. “Animation is a difficult thing to do,” he said. “It’s not something you can just do by going out with a camera and a couple of friends to shoot a movie.
“It’s a harder thing to do in an independent vein than a drama or a comedy; the chances of having a low-budget breakthrough are much lower.
“If you think of The Illusionist, which opened the Edinburgh Festival a few years, the director Sylvain Chomet [creator of Belleville Rendezvous] works by himself much of the time, and it takes him a lot of time. He broke through because he has such a unique vision; that’s where you get the excitement around independent animation. If you’re going for a much broader audience, it’s much harder to break through on the lower budget.”
Sir Billi also saw Hartmann drawn into a spat with the Scottish Government, which she criticised last year for supporting the US-produced Brave, over her homegrown project.
“The Scottish Government put £7 million of above-the-line advertising and promotions into Brave,” she said at the time. “Wouldn’t it have been nice if the government said they would support and nurture a film business in Scotland?”