Tuesday, June 12

The Misadventures of Benjamin Bartholomew Piff: You Wish


by Jason Lethcoe
Grosset & Dunlap 2007

Think about a cartoon like The Flintstones, or any of the Hanna-Barbara cartoons made for television. Sometimes they were funny, sometimes they weren't, often relying on parodies of pop culture to generate some sort of buzz from the artificial laugh track. It was never about the animation, which just as often used the same backgrounds flying past the characters repeatedly while they ran or drove across the screen delivering a limp gag or punchline. They were churned out for a cheap laugh and an easy buck.

Now, think about a classic Disney cartoon, perhaps one of the how-to's featuring Goofy being directed through Olympic sports training or learning to fly a plane. The slapstick humor isn't new, but Goofy's rubbery and spasmodic antics are, drawn painstakingly against backgrounds with real depth that are never repeated. Those early Disney shorts were a gold standard by which all other animation could be measured against until the perfection of modern digital techniques. They were churned out by artists driven to perfect their craft.

In the realm of kidlit fantasy The Misadventures of Benjamin Bartholomew Piff: You Wish is the unworkman-like equivalent to Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials books.

Ben is an orphan living in an improbable Dickensian orphanage in Los Angeles, present day. His parents died a year earlier in an accident and apparently he has no other family to turn to. Forced to scrub pots with a toothbrush for failing to request seconds at mealtime -- a nod and a wink to Oliver Twist -- Ben's life is a miserable one. But on the day he is about to escape a social worker brings him a birthday cake, a cake on which he makes the ultimate birthday wish...

Meanwhile, in MagicLand, Thom Candlewick is leading a new batch of interns -- faeries, leprechauns, jinn (genies) and, humanoids -- on a tour of the Wishworks, the place where wishes are granted. The tour allows the reader to be taken away from Ben for several chapters while pumping out a lot of backstory about how the Wishworks works and lets us know how spiffy Candlewick is, so spiffy in fact that his stepfather is about to anoint him the Grand Poobah of Wishworks (over his smarmy step brother) when...

The unthinkable! Ben's birthday wish is for unlimited wishes! And what makes it the most powerful is that Ben has not revealed the nature of his power. You see, Ben is the first person in the world to wish for unlimited wishes and never tell anyone his wish. Apparently that's what has undone every unlimited wish ever made, that once people have made them they have admitted it, thereby canceling their wish. And as if that weren't enough, every wish he's granted takes away another wish from some deserving soul.

Sounds like the Wishworks is a pretty messed-up place if it can be so easily undone.

But Ben's living it up, turning the ogres who run the orphanage into his personal slaves while conjuring up Playstations and flat screen TV's for all the other trapped kids (uh, rather than wish for his parents to be alive, to be free of the orphanage, etc). There's a crucial element in this particular segment -- a game called Outback Hunter -- which assumes a much larger importance later but doesn't get a proper introduction here. This is where I began to sense that there was a lot less to this story going on; or rather, that I was reading more of a detailed outline to a much larger book than I was ever going to see.

I'm deliberately sidetracking because this is an important junction, where the real and fantasy worlds are about to collide and I don't have a good feel for either. This is the point where I realized the book was aspiring to the levels of the entire Harry Potter series with brevity of a Half Magic. I was a quarter of the way through the book and it would be a race to finish the book before my attention span waned. I nearly gave up two-thirds in, it was that close. That said, let's not give the review more words than the actual book itself.

The Wishworks wishes, once granted, are formed in orbs, and Ben's is apparently so powerful that the evil Thornblood -- who is resurrecting the old Curseworks, not worth going into here -- is planning to use Ben's orb to power up his mighty curse machine. The Wishworks enlist Ben to help them battle Thornblood, retrieve the orb, and have Ben undo his wish, thus returning the real and the imaginary worlds to their original harmonious states. Ben is retrieved from his orphanage to take up residency at the Wishworks and everything is swell...

Until the forthcoming installment in the series entitled ...Wishful Thinking.

Lethcoe is a former storyboard artist for Disney and Sony, and it shows. The book reads the way a storyboard artist would describe a feature cartoon, in flashy short-handed scenes with only the essential dialog and most cursory of character development. In Hollywood the director would flesh out all this, locate the details that would tell the story, find the moments of gravitas and lightness, give the overall story it's final flow; The storyboard artist presents stagnant scenes where the action jerks along and moments are jumped between. If that sounds like a harsh over-generalization that applies both to animation and this title than at least it's understandable to a storyboard artist.
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