Art via Re-appropriation: Brad Neely and H.P. the Child-god

23 01 2010

One strange quirk about my ongoing, torrid love-affair with journalism is that certain themes are starting to emerge in my work and studies. One element that keeps popping up for me is the way that a culture recycles and reinvents itself; how talented people use old art to create new art.

Journalism students are bred to be tech-geeks, because we’re scared. The news industry is wobbling like a two-wheeled shopping cart, threatening to topple and knock over a fruit display. In order to save our hides, we tend to obsess over timing our jumps right so we can land in the correct technological bandwagon. There’s always lots of talk about how new media is making everything interactive. You, the all-powerful reader, have the ability to consume your information in any format and for any duration you please. You have the ability to alter it, to customize it, to fit it to your own individual tastes. My role is to dance for your amusement, in hopes of holding your fickle attention long enough to plead with you for a quarter.

There’s a strong argument that giving average people access to increasingly advanced technology is a powerful force for cultural democracy. People can reclaim works of art for themselves, and alter them any way they see fit. And when you give talented animator Brad Neely Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone, you get Wizard People, Dear Readers. It’s not only a cultural landmark, but also a testament to the power of guerrilla creativity.

The general concept is simple to explain: Neely takes the film Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and provides an overdub of himself giving running commentary of the action on-screen. I can hear the sounds of hundreds (alright, dozens) of yawns echoing through DSL hookups. By this point, we’re bored with the concept. We’ve already had Mystery Science Theater 3000, Rifftrax, and ESPN’s Cheap Seats. Our apathy is compounded with memories of similar re-envisioned overdubs like Kung Pow: Enter the Fist, Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lilly?, and the FUNimation Entertainment version of  Shin Chan. You can even go on YouTube and watch overweight gamers play through levels of Mario is Missing while providing snarky commentary.  So what’s the big deal about this Neely guy and his Wizard People, Dear Readers?

Well, first off, it’s hilarious. That’s important. Neely’s got a pretty big back catalog of work, and the vast majority of it is pretty sidesplitting. Secondly, Neely brings stylistic flourishes that no one else has thought to use. His narration consists of absurd literary prose, using a slightly abrasive “books on tape” voice. Third, and most importantly, Neely alters the perspective on the story, and makes us re-imagine the character of Harry Potter in a new light.

In Neely’s unauthorized adaptation, Harry Potter is essentially an omnipotent god in mortal form. He looks upon other humans and wizards as lesser beings. He’s oftentimes bitter with his lot in life, and with the help of his magical powers, “is drunk everyday before noon.” It sounds pretty absurd, but then you remember reading the books. In the universe of the novels, Harry has saved humanity from utter annihilation numerous times, is seemingly immortal, and has magical powers stronger than any other wizard. He is immediately recognized as famous and powerful wherever he goes, and he’s super rich because daddy died young and left all his money. And we’re giving all this power to an abused child who spent a goodly portion of his formative years living beneath the stairs. This does not sound like a good idea. How can we really feel any tension or empathy for Harry, The Greatest and Most Powerful and Most Famous Wizard in the World (Which he has saved from utter destruction more than once, thank you very much)?

Neely exploits this angle endlessly, with overwhelming comedic results. Harry is no longer a reluctant child, he’s an alpha male thunder god of infinite power. I find Wizard People, Dear Readers satisfying on so many levels. Neely’s over-the-top narrative posturing is spot on, and the gag never wears thin over the two-and-a-half hour runtime. But the real genius of Wizard People, Dear Readers is that it makes viewers think critically about this silly little kid’s book that turned into a phenomenon. Neely takes the Potter character to a logical extreme, and in doing so he has illustrated the democratic potential of the new media. Neely has taken someone else’s movie and claimed it as his own. He has enforced his own sensibility on the Potter universe, and has done so in a way that encourages people to think analytically about art, characters, and literature. All with little more than a microphone and some talent. I think I might have just inspired myself a little.

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