order of oddfish cover

The Order of Oddfish

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90-Second Newberys from the Center for Talent Development (2014)

February 6, 2015

CTD 2015 90SN collage exp

San Francisco and Oakland! The 90-Second Newbery is coming to you Saturday, February 7, 2015. Make your reservations now! You can find all the information on our Events Page.

For the past two summers, Chicago filmmaker John Fecile and I have taught 5th and 6th graders a 3-week class in making movies for the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival at Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development Summer Program. I’ve decided not to do it this summer—I need time for writing!—but I’m already kinda starting to regret my decision, because it’s a rollicking three weeks, and some great 90-Second Newbery movies come out of it. (Check out the movies from last year’s CTD 90-Second Newbery class.)

Just as last year, the students were talented, energetic, and committed to making great stuff. It was hectic, but looking back, what fun! The students mostly wrote their own scripts, did most of the camerawork, handled their own acting, and did their own editing! My only hard-and-fast rule: I demanded movies that went beyond merely summarizing the book. I wanted the movies to be produced in some weird or iconic cinematic style that would transform the story.

And boy, did our students (Gavin, Dami, Quinton, Sadie, Sheridan, “Catwoman,” “Bob,” and Elleson) ever deliver! For instance, everyone remembers Beverly Cleary’s 1978 Honor Book Ramona and Her Father. Ramona’s father Mr. Quimby loses his job and gets depressed. Ramona tries to make her father stop smoking. The family’s nerves are strained. The Quimbys do have one nice night carving a pumpkin, but then their cat Picky-Picky devours and ruins the pumpkin in the middle of the night. Mr. Quimby eventually gets a new job.

Straightforward, right? But what if you do all of that . . . in the style of a musical? Take it away, Gavin, Dami, Catwoman, and Bob:

Great work! Gavin’s mustache is immortal, and I love how he dances “the worm” at the end. Everyone really sold the singing, too! No mumbling or shrinking violets here, I love it! The emoting in the scene when they discover Picky-Picky has destroyed the pumpkin is intense, especially with “Bob.” I love how “Catwoman” sells the most depressing takeoff ever on Pharrell’s “Happy”: “Clap along if you feel hopeless even though you’ve tried your best.” And Dami does a great job keeping everything emotionally grounded as Ramona. Great performances and singing all around. This one killed at the Chicago screening!

That’s not the only adaptation of Ramona and Her Father that the CTD did. But how do you answer a musical? By going all the way into the hyperspace of weirdness: by adapting Ramona and Her Father in the style of James Bond!

Wait what?! But when you think about it, it makes sense. What if Ramona’s father was James Bond? And instead of losing his normal job, he was sacked from MI6? And their cat Picky-Picky was actually a secret agent working for Blofeld? And when Ramona feels insecure about her sheep costume at the Christmas pageant, it’s Blofeld who has the better sheep costume? It makes sense: all those punning double entendres that James Bond makes are, at bottom, painful dad-jokes. What if James Bond’s family was as exasperated with him as the Ramona’s family was exasperated with Mr. Quimby?

Take it away Sheridan, Sadie, Elleson, and Quinton in his double role as both Bond and Blofeld:

Of course that’s how would James Bond carve a pumpkin! I love the way the family reacts with perfectly reasonable scorn to all of Bond’s would-be puns and witticisms. The way Sadie delivers “Drive on the right side of the row, we’re in America” is priceless. Picky-Picky explodes with hilarious gratuitousness, and the trick photography in making Quinton fight himself, as he plays both Bond and Blofeld, is ingenious! And of course it’s hilarious the way the whole family deserts him at the end, as he’s too thick to realize what the letter means . . .

So much for Ramona and Her Father. The CTD kids adapted another Newbery classic, Kate DiCamillo’s 2001 Honor Book Because Of Winn-Dixie, which is all about how a newcomer girl to a small town befriends a rambunctious dog she finds tearing through a Winn-Dixie grocery store. She names it Winn-Dixie and adopts it as her own, but the mischievous dog pulls her along on one adventure after another, the effects of which end up bringing the whole town together.

Now, how do you tell that story in a distinctive way? Well, how about instead of doing it from the point of view of Opal . . . doing it from the POV of the dog Winn-Dixie?

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I love the way Winn-Dixie ransacks a store! Great work with the “puppy-cam” that includes the nose and paws in as many shots as possible (my wife says it looks like it’s from the POV of Predator). I love “Bob’s” insane scream when she thinks Winn-Dixie is a bear, and “Catwoman’s” eyerolling response to her puns about bears being “unbearable.” I love the way Elleson sells her jar of “peanut butter” (that is clearly a mislabeled jar of pickles). The idea gets pushed all the way through the movie, consistently and ingeniously!

And finally, one more Because of Winn-Dixie—with Winn-Dixie played by Sadie:

I loved the enthusiasm and energy Sadie brought to her role here. Good set-up and payoff with the thunder storm. Everyone’s bringing their acting A-game, from Dami’s sincere Gloria Dump to Sheridan’s plucky Opal to Quinton’s disengaged father. Well done!

Great job, kids of the CTD! I’m looking forward to sharing selections from these videos with everyone at the screenings!