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The Order of Oddfish


90-Second Newbery Stop-Motion/Puppet Edition, Part 2: An American Plague and The Old Tobacco Shop

January 26, 2014

Rick Kogan wrote a great article about the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival for the Chicago Tribune. During our interview (at the Billy Goat, no less!), he was classy about my impersonation of him back in December. Onward!

Today we have two more EXCELLENT stop-motion movies submitted to this year’s 90-Second Newbery Film Festival. The first, above, is by Max Lau and Jennings Mergenthal of Tacoma, WA, who last year did a hilarious Claymation send-up of the very first Newbery Medal winner, The Story of Mankind (1922). This year, they did a ingenious—and actually pretty educational—Claymation version of the 2004 Honor Book by Jim Murphy, An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793.

I love all the crazy little touches—the way the faces turn yellow and spotted when they have yellow fever, the spinning newspaper, and especially everything about George Washington: the way he looks peeved, his surreally lengthening arm, the way he slaps his underlings—beautiful! And I’m impressed at how Max and Jennings are so skilled at clay that they actually made George Washington look like George Washington, and Jefferson, Hamilton, etc. look like themselves too. Resourceful and talented artists! The panic in the Pennsylvania legislature was another high moment for me in a movie full of high moments.

If you want to see more of Max and Jenning’s work, check out their YouTube channel. Oh, and did I mention they’re only 15 years old?!

(Hungry for more American Plague? Last year I received a tremendous live-action American Plague from Chase Elementary in Chicago. Worth watching, especially if you want to see lots of fake vomiting.)

BUT WAIT! Here’s another amazing stop-motion 90-Second Newbery. This one is by the Thursday Thing kids of Portland Community Media. It’s of another dubious classic, the 1922 Honor Book The Old Tobacco Shop: A True Account of What Befell a Little Boy in Search of Adventure by William Bowen. The plot? A five-year-old boy smokes some “magic tobacco,” has a bunch of hallucinations about sailing on a pirate ship and finding treasure, goes on a flying carpet ride, gets ill, and wakes up to find it was all a drug-induced vision. You couldn’t get away with publishing this today:

This same group did a top-notch Frog and Toad Together for last year’s film festival. Like last year, they broke the story up into parts, each part with its own signature form of animation. That’s a canny strategy to maintain audience interest over and above the story—you’re always thinking, what great technical trick are they going to do next?

The puppet part was superbly well-done (and one of the team members behind it is the talented Jacob von Borg!), including the voices and performance, and I loved the elaborately detailed tobacco shop. And even authentic fake smoke! Brilliant! And just when we get used to that, off we go to an impressive clay-animation romp. Expertly done! Other cool moments: how they made the boat “sail” in the green-screened water, and the “splash!” when the sailor falls overboard. And then we had the wild, delirious chase with the paper-cut figures—all wrapping up back in the tobacco shop, with the father shrieking “not the magic tobacco!!!” Marvelous and funny!

(And not the first time we got a 90-Second Newbery of it. Check out this live-action version of The Old Tobacco Shop from last year, by Parker from Tacoma.)

Thanks everyone for your movies so far—see you at the screenings!