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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 20, 2005

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Winn-Dixie, One Man Star Wars, Harvest Moon, Shakespeare

Because of Winn-Dixie is a movie based on a children's book by Kate DiCamillo, and it's a good one.

Annasophia Robb plays Opal, the young motherless girl whose loneliness as a stranger in a small town is relieved by a mutt that she adopts and names for the grocery store chain.

There's not a lot of suspense in the story. There might have been more, but when Winn-Dixie seems to have run away, the situation is resolved within a few hours instead of lingering, as it could have, for days. False tension is set up a couple of times by the local law enforcement, but it comes to nothing.

It's just one sweet thing after another.

But what are we asking for? A kids' thriller?

Basically, this story is Pollyanna with an easy ending. Opal and her dog go about touching the hearts of lonely people, making them happier and uniting them in friendship.

It is not Old Yeller, where the dog has to be put down at the end. (That would be Million Dollar Baby.) It all ends happily.

Nothing wrong with that. I'm a sucker for movies like this; I get teary-eyed right on cue.

If you're looking for something thrilling and new, this isn't it.

But if you're looking for something cheerful and sweet, then take your kids to Because of Winn-Dixie.

*

I recently had a chance to see a remarkable stage performance: Charles Ross in One-Man Star Wars.

Ross, alone on stage with a microphone, reenacts the whole Star Wars trilogy, taking about fifteen minutes per movie.

The better you know the movies, the funnier Ross's parody is. But even if you barely know the films, it's still amazing to watch a performance of such wit and incredible energy.

Not only is Ross all over the stage, athletically reenacting all the characters and the starships, but vocally he is reciting the lines and the sound effects and the film score.

Naturally, he omits a great deal of material, but the main storyline is there, with satiric touches that leave the audience in stitches.

He's in such incredibly good physical shape that he never runs out of breath.

He also does a One-Man Lord of the Rings, which he'll be performing at the official Tolkien centenary this summer. In Britain, alas, so I won't be going.

I hear that Ross charges about $2,000 to put on a show. When you compare that with the cost and entertainment value of, say, a speech by Bill Clinton, Ross is an incredible bargain.

Ross's agent can be contacted at the website http://www.OneManStarWars.com.

*

Almost twenty years ago, I did a consulting gig with LucasFilm Games. One of the things I urged was that they develop computer games for girls.

In those days, there was nothing aimed at kids who wanted no-conflict games. "Girls want games where nobody dies," I said. Games where you can build something or accomplish something, but in a cooperative way.

My older daughter was then quite young, but she was repelled by most of the solve-the-puzzle-or-die games that were available on the PC. I suggested that they license the Sweet Valley Twins for adaptation as a computer game, or create a game about baby-sitting.

"That's just task-management," I was told -- and by the dismissive tone, I gathered that task-management games were considered sub-par.

But then, it was a guy telling me that.

I was informed by them and everybody else at the time that games always had to appeal to that core gaming audience -- boys -- and there was no point in trying to reach other audiences. "How would we even tell them such a game existed? Where would we advertise it?"

Now, many years later, other companies have long since figured out how to do it, and there are lots of games aimed squarely at girls.

Some are free online games, like Neopets -- which is so popular that it now makes money from licensing.

But the favorite at our house is Harvest Moon. The versions for the Nintendo Game Cube and the Nintendo Game Boy Advance are different from each other, but the verdict is that both are great fun.

In the game, you start out by inheriting your grandfather's farm, which has been neglected for some time. You clear the land and plant things, acquire animals ... and even try to get a woman to fall in love with you and marry.

Yes, girls play this game -- I daresay more than boys do -- but then, girls have always been willing to read books with boy heroes, while boys will almost never read books with girl heroes. Girls are just more open-minded that way. So it makes commercial sense for the farmer to be a male.

It's a task-management game, however. It involves work. Repetitive chores dominate a farmer's life, and this game doesn't pretend otherwise.

But the game becomes so engrossing that it begins to feel like a real life. Our ten-year-old announces to us with real excitement: "My cow had a calf!" or "I finally got married!"

And kids who would never dream of going to a real barn dance or harvest festival are perfectly happy to take part in one on the computer screen -- or help with a bridge building project or go fishing.

Who knew that a farmer's life could be turned into a great videogame? But it has been, and I know of adults who are as delighted with the game as kids are. Best of all, it's a game that can involve you for hours but doesn't leave a pile of corpses behind.

*

I grew up on Charles & Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, a prose retelling of the stories of Shakespeare's plays. While their work has its critics (and some complain because Charles gets first credit while Mary apparently did all the writing), it was good enough for me as a kid.

When I later came to the plays in their original form, my memory of that childhood reading guided me through Shakespeare's difficult language and encouraged me that the story would be worth the effort.

One story that doesn't work with prose alone is Midsummer Night's Dream. It's hard to tell the four lovers apart, and with four seemingly unrelated plots going on, the story doesn't make much sense.

So children's writer Bruce Coville and illustrator Dennis Nolan worked together to create a picture book, William Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream.

Nolan is an extraordinary artist, and his envisioning of Puck and the fairies is not so much cute as intriguingly strange.

Meanwhile, Coville has deftly compressed the story so it actually fits in the space available.

I wish he had not left out the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, but as Coville explains, the real value of the play-within-a-play is in the hilarity of the way it is performed -- which was simply out of reach in a book.

Coville has adapted several other Shakespearean plays into illustrated picture books, collaborating with different artists, including Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night. I haven't seen them yet, but I intend to have them all.

*

I don't usually review my own work here, but I can't help but rave about Stefan Rudnicki's performance of the unabridged audio version of my novel Lost Boys.

His performance was recently named a finalist for the Audie Award -- the Oscar or Grammy of the audiobook world. But I had already been listening to tapes in my car.

There was an earlier production of an abridged version of Lost Boys, read by Robby Benson. Benson's reading was sensitive and sweet, but my work doesn't abridge well -- I don't include things that can easily be cut out without damaging the storyline.

Rudnicki's voice could not be more different from Benson's -- a rumbling bass as opposed to a sharp tenor -- but Rudnicki is a wonderful actor and he brings these characters to life as well as I can imagine it being done by a single voice.

The story of Lost Boys is set in the fictional North Carolina city of Steuben -- a town very much like Greensboro -- and is based in part on my experience as a westerner moving here in 1983. It's the most autobiographical of my fiction -- so much so that I vowed afterward never to do anything so personal or painful again.

But listening to someone else's voice read the story made it possible for me to reread it, and I'm happy indeed with how Rudnicki brings it to new life.

*

If you ever find yourself in Boston, looking for somewhere to eat, of course you'll buy the Zagat guide and if you're lucky, you'll land a reservation at L'Espalier in the Back Bay area. The food is innovative and exquisite. The service was perfect. However, if somebody else hadn't been paying, I would have had to mortgage one of my kids to cover the tab.

More in line with real people's budgets -- and just as brilliant in its own, more modest way -- is the Cambridge restaurant Henrietta's Table at the Charles Hotel (1 Bennett St.; 617-661-5005).

Henrietta's Table is devoted to traditional American cuisine and simple garden-grown food. But the chef has a deft touch and gives new meaning to the word "homestyle."

Let's put it this way: Nobody actually grew up in a home that cooked all this great American food this perfectly.


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