As Trevor (Rowan Atkinson) unleashes hell on an unsuspecting insect in Man Vs Bee from 24 June on Netflix, audiences will tap into a tradition of slapstick comedy, pioneered by silent cinema greats Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
These movie star mavericks from yesteryear, who worked in orchestrated silver screen silence, pulled off feats of physical prowess which would make Tom Cruise blanche. Each man creating a specific persona which conveyed huge emotional heft, alongside carefully choreographed set pieces that would help turn entertainment into an industry.
In the case of Charlie Chaplin, not only did ‘the tramp’ become an icon of classless inclusivity, which instantly translated his films irrespective of language, but he also built a studio in United Artists.
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Rowan Atkinson, who both co- conceived and stars in Man Vs Bee, combined the most influential elements of both Chaplin and Keaton when he created Mr. Bean.
An amalgamation of French mime artist turned film star Jacque Tati, as well as incorporating generous hat tips to his Hollywood forerunners, he turned Mr. Bean into a global brand with universal appeal, which connected audiences irrespective of ethnicity, gender or native language.
What this new Netflix series attempts to do is capture some of that magic, by exploiting Rowan Atkinson’s natural gift for precision pratfalls, non-verbal communication and sheer farce.
He plays the house sitter to a hyperactive dog and an antagonistic insect prone to cause chaos, which brings about some inspired property damage, alongside moments of genuine pathos.
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Where Mr. Bean ushered a true innocent into the world, who traded on his childlike curiosity and emotional honesty, Man Vs Bee connects in a different way.
Atkinson’s character here is someone with the best of intentions, who is hamstrung by an obsessive nature, which has not only ended his marriage, but sets up a characteristic shortcoming for the carnage which follows.
Over the course of nine very short episodes, Man Vs Bee establishes emotional stakes, sets up potential catastrophes and then watches it go up in flames, as priceless works of art, antique manuscripts and vintage cars all pay the price of this one man war on insects. One which opens, at least, on Trevor standing in court awaiting judgement while flashbacks fill in his crimes and misdemeanours.
With an uncredited Julian Rhind Tutt (The Witcher) and Jing Lusi (Crazy Rich Asians) playing the uber rich Kolstad Bergenbattens, things get off to a solid start. Working to a tight time limit as they whip through instructions at a rate of knots, this opening episode is a masterclass in misunderstandings. It only escalates once Trevor is left alone with only a manual for salvation as his misguided war of attrition starts to gain traction.
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Audiences going into this series need to know that Man Vs Bee rarely attempts to break new ground. This is a family friendly piece of light entertainment, which never overtly offends nor deviates beyond the boundaries of good taste. Any and all accidents which play out are counterbalanced by a good-natured characterisation, which never feels malicious or mean spirited.
Even when situations teeter on the brink of disbelief, Rowan Atkinson is able to keep things engaging, by giving Trevor a moral centre. With Lorne Balfe (Top Gun: Maverick) also on composition duties, any musical contributions are on point and incidental, rather than being overbearing or intentionally intrusive.
If there are any complaints to be levelled at this series, it would that the premise seems almost too slight in construction. Although the visual effects, which make up a majority of any major set pieces should be applauded, since Atkinson is reacting to thin air, it may have benefited from being longer. Some of the episodes are barely ten minutes in length, leaving them feeling like extended sketches rather than part of something bigger.
Meaning that this perfectly conceived piece of comedic farce, almost comes undone due to its reliance on brevity. There is no denying the physical skill Atkinson displays, alongside delivering on emotional beats opposite his daughter Maddy (India Fowler), but ultimately this still feels too lightweight for its own good.
Leaving Man Vs. Bee in the unenviable position of only ever being a short-term distraction, rather than long-term investment for those who like their comedy more physical than intellectual in nature.
Man Vs Bee is streaming on Netflix now.