Billy Owens and the Secret of the Runes:
Lord love a duck, director Mark McNabb (The Mystical Adventures of Billy Owens) is back again to torture innocent souls with this ill-considered addition to the Billy Owens saga. I'm not sure why I signed up for this punishment, after suffering through the first movie. Maybe I hoped to see improvement from McNabb and his cast of amateurs, yet if anything, this movie is even worse than the first, though cinematography seems to have improved slightly. Ultimately, this well-intentioned Harry Potter rip-off should be of interest mostly to the families of the cast.
Taking up right from where the first left off, (albeit in confusing fashion, even for those familiar with the first) Runes immediately drops any connection to that storyline, and all momentum, for a little mystical education. Three of our four heroes sit in their version of Hogwarts - a lame city park by a river, with a small blackboard hanging from a tree - while their mentor Thurgood (Roddy Piper) rambles incoherently, then puts on his cute hobo hat. While learning about runes, the kids mess up, trapping Thurgood in an amulet. They hook up with some girl from a riding academy and wander around working runes for a while, hoping to free Thurgood and ditch their weird enemies - a father-son mystical bully team.
It's hard to be gentle on this harmless film, though certainly everyone involved meant well. And you can't blame the child actors, someone in charge should have known these kids weren't ready for a feature, or at least tried to direct them. The fact is, this movie is so aggressively bad it seems willful. It's like McNabb wants to insult everyone. OK, so the acting is terrible, the story is weak, the special effects are reprehensible, and nothing much happens. Nevertheless, McNabb manages to throw in a few sequences that are so jaw-droppingly awful you have to hit rewind and watch again. You get plenty more endless shots of kids doing nothing much, working on a mystical tree-fort or ambling around a carnival, and you get disturbing levels of incoherence and incomprehensibility.
Never rising above the level of a grade school play, performances are roundly awful. The kids seem to be simply reading their lines most of the time, well enough to never need more than one take, apparently. Piper maintains his noble drunk persona from the first film, popping up Obi Wan Kenobi-style every now and then to wobble on his feet, stare into space, and ramble deliriously. When parents occasionally show up, it gets worse; my wife screams "It's like watching trees!" Late in the film, the kids entreat a looming, unattractive fairy godmother for a favor. "I'm afraid. I can't help you," she says, when it's absolutely clear what she means is, "I'm afraid I can't help you." This misunderstanding of basic syntax is endemic to the entire film, it's an awful piece of work with a good heart. Someone needs to have enough heart to tell McNabb and crew to move on.
Our 1.85:1 widescreen ratio presentation comes on a DVD-Rom screener disc, so it's impossible to rate its quality.
The same goes for the audio track, can't rate it, but I can note that frequent looped dialog does a remarkably poor job of matching the rest of the audio.
A Trailer and the unwanted "Don't steal our disc" burn-in are the only extras we got to see.
Despite my desire to generally be nice and respectful, there's no way to soft-peddle just how bad the Billy Owens series of movies really is. This pre-teen Harry Potter homage is rambling, poorly directed, poorly acted, and has wretched special effects. At every step during its production, someone would have been totally correct in standing up to say "Stop!" But apparently no one had the guts. You might want to Skip It, if you catch my drift.
- Kurt Dahlke
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