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Watch what you say, because it may end up as a movie title: the Curious Case of “Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins”

March 11, 2011

A year ago, I mentioned how BBC5’s Mark Kermode summoned the powers-that-maybe to take us away from the deluge of ripoff youth-wizard capers (with obligatory “_____ _____ and the ______ of ______” title construction) aiming to grab the attention of our Harry Potter-hungry populace. Percy Jackson and the Olympians: the Lightning Thief – at least they refrained from the obvious and the Thief of Lightning – exploded square into the between-Potters interregnum, anxious to capitalize on the massive market for wildly-ambitious, magic-themed action-adventure.

When Kermode expressed his fear that we were about to experience an onslaught of fake Pottery like “Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins”, an Aussie listener named Jeremy Dylan decided he would transform this charmingly-fake title into a real movie.

At the conclusion of my aforementioned attempt to explain the greatness of the Mark Kermode Film Review show within Simon Mayo’s drive-time spectacular – which, as always, will be available for download around the exact time of my posts – I saw this comment from Dylan:

Go behind the scenes on Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins. Episode 1 – Rock’n’Roll Music

I was not sure if this was a legitimate comment, or if one of my jokester buds was trying to mess with my sense of reality.

Later that day, after my obligatory download before that Friday’s commute home, I heard Mark oblige an emailer’s request to read a written narration for a Benjamin Sniddlegrass “trailer”. Rife with Quiffspeak like “the end of narrative cinema”, “losing the plot”, and other grammatically-correct wittertania, the trailer featured a Potter proxy stationed atop a flappy-handed penguin in flight. I was not expecting an actual film to emerge from this amusing moment.

Cut to January 2011, and a utilization of That Popular Search Page. A curious search for info on this unlikely project resulted in a few more trailers, and status updates on the progress of the feature film. It was not long until we had an actual movie on our hands. As a fan of the skiffle, rockabilly’s rain-soaked cousin (scroll through the entire catalog of Jay St. Orts – he’s covered it somewhere, I presume), I found myself repeatedly playing the music video for “Famous”, which may be the best original song for a film since “Falling Slowly” from the Swell Season in Once. If I had an Oscar vote, Johnny Leroy and the Impulsives would be the early frontrunner – but the gorilla mask must join them onstage. After offering the 5Live duo a series of email updates, Dylan was invited to appear on a recent eppy of Film Review to give a few details about what has to be the first time a radio host’s tossed-off one-liner has led to a legitimate motion picture. Of course, Dylan also provided a fusillade of inside jokes for we Wittertainment geeks, most notably offering balderdash like “well Simon, there’s a cauldron in all of us…”. When asked by Simon, “Tell me Jeremy, how many penguins fit inside of a cauldron?” (how could you not love this radio show!), Dylan replied, “You’ll have to see the film to find that out!” OK, I’m in! It did not hurt that the Good Doctor offered the caveat that “this may be the most unusual film we’ll ever review on this show.” Besides, after hitting the cheekily-titled “Pay Money for the Film” on their website, I saw that they were charging ten Australian dollars. When Xtine and I were in Sydney back in early 2009, we were able to purchase tickets to see The Drones at the Metro Theatre and a night of comedy at Fringe Bar for about $18 US combined. If 50 Cent played in Melbourne, would he have to change his name to 89 Cent?

As one whose Harry Potter knowledge begins and ends with whatever spoiler is revealed within Kermode’s reviews, I was not exactly sure what awaited. After a few failures with VLC Media Player (where did the dream die?), old trusty WinAmp successfully opened the Cauldron. For those interested in viewing the final product, I suggest that you not expect a super-glossy production straight outta the assembly-line of McG. Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins explores similar territory as the Potter septology, as young Ben escapes his humdrum world for the promise of wizardry (or “witter”), love…and guitar (which, let’s be honest – is the most significant of the three). Aided by Mr. Pentangle, he absconds his evil aunt Davidmorrissey (I’m assuming I have that capiatlized correctly – perhaps it’s Aunt David-Morrissey?) in the “sounds like something Mike Bolton would drunkenly scream in Office Space” town of Cockfosters for the wizardry school of Fairport Island, where Ben can turn over a new (Liege and?) leaf. After his arrival, he meets Scarlett, who emerges as more than merely a Magic Pixie Dream Girl. We get several references to Wittertainment, outside of the ‘Hellos’ and acknowledgement of The Dodge Brothers and the Canterbury folk-rock scene of the late 1960s (Does Steeleye Span not listen?). Most notably, Steven Fry narrates the whole thing. I can sense the graphic playfulness of Zombieland, and although I doubt Dylan has seen Waydowntown, I also caught the meta of Gary Burns. For a film that barely cracked the $6,000 cost barrier – and remember, that’s $6,000 Australian dollars – you get a well-developed story, and a lot of nods to just how weird it is that people are enraptured by simply viewing the life of someone else as a construct, especially if that someone else is a wizard. Then again, my viewing experience coincided with my imbibing of relief to ease the pain from an icy-sidewalk slip-and-fall, where my head hit the concrete. My immobilized state allowed the chastisement of my continuing to watch after the end-credits (“Why are you here – are you waiting for funny outtakes?”). Why yes, so I guess I’ll have to wait for Chapter II for those.

One Comment
  1. March 11, 2011 11:33 pm

    A lovely recap/review, Mr. Stump (you aren’t Terrunce Stump, are you?).

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