Filmmaking used to be something of a merit-based, if not at least effort-based endeavor. Aspiring directors and actors did a lot of work aimed at: getting together enough money to do the job, acquiring the skills to use the equipment for making a convincing movie, and arriving at a final product good enough to warrant some form of distribution. Of course dreck would be made, but times have radically changed. Though it still takes skill to film, score and edit a movie, The Mystical Adventures of Billy Owens proves that anyone with a few thousand dollars and friends willing to act can find their DVD in the hands of someone like me - someone who's never made anything beyond experimental Super-8 fluff - yet someone who knows when he's being taken for a ride.
Though advertising materials make Billy Owens appear to be a Harry Potter homage, the similarity ends there. Young master Owens, (Dalton Mugridge) turning 11-years-old on the 11th of November, learns that 11 is a super-number, information that should help him when he finds the magic wand and fights the dragon threatening to take over his hometown. Owens faces that dragon with bravery, an attitude that might well help you endure this well-intentioned, but quite amazingly amateurish effort (see below). Kudos are due to everyone for at least trying, but not to Producer Roddy Piper, (Rowdy Roddy Piper to you old-school wrestling fans) who turns in a truly baffling performance while essentially green-lighting this whole thing. It's not that Billy Owens doesn't have the requisite parts to be an adequate fantasy movie, it just doesn't have enough of them, and what it does have is delivered with such timidity and lack of skill that there's little to recommend here other than a way to get unintended amusement. If you look at the competition - even other direct-to-DVD stuff from budget studios like Asylum - it's clear to see that you must come with game to entertain the pre-teens. You have to pay your dues, and it doesn't look like anyone here has done that.
Execution seems geared more towards capital punishment than effective completion of cinematic elements. Shots of pre-teens wandering school hallways or riding their bikes around town linger too long. The viewer becomes uncomfortable: while these overlong establishing shots feature the most naturalistic performances (kids just doing whatever) they do nothing to advance the plot or establish an appropriate mood, they feel like padding. A 75-minute movie doesn't need padding. Further unnerving the viewer is the uncomfortable proximity the camera often has while roaming with its subjects through the halls - it's somewhat like a creepy, first person COPS for middle-schoolers. Lastly, what may have been a post-facto voice-over track simply spells out whatever is happening, necessary or not. Blow-by-blow narration generally just tells you what you're seeing, when a few well-done shots and a line or two of dialog would have sufficed.
Performances lie dead on the Quidditch field too. Acting ain't easy, as our young protagonists demonstrate. They try, and actually knock out a decent laugh line or two on occasion, but their stilted performances just seem artificial and unstudied - these kids just aren't ready for acting at this level. Nor is Roddy Piper, who plays the role of weird, mystical curio shop owner as if he were a drunken bum with Parkinson's disease. He stutters, stumbles, twitches and twitters in a heavy coat and shaggy facial hair. It's ineffectively weird, though you can feel where he's going, or trying to. You can also tell he's about 15 blocks away from where he needs to be. Yet it gets worse, as parents and teachers come across with so little affect it's like they're reading lines in a Benadryl haze. Their chops have to be seen to be understood, but take it from me, it's not pretty. Even the extras fail, as little things like bumping into walls or looking at vines come across as awkward and inept.
So where does that leave us? Hopefully with some exciting fantasy elements at least. But no, Owens starts his magic wand adventure by doing thrilling things like opening doors. His indoctrination into the arcane arts involves watching Rowdy Roddy Piper write words in the air in cheap CGI, after which the kids bonk each other on the nose with the wand. They eventually face a dragon (for literally about ten seconds) the likes of which hasn't been seen since Nintendo first started making video games - it's really that bad, unconvincing and bargain priced.
The Mystical Adventures of Billy Owens isn't evil, it just shouldn't be a DVD. It should be a middle-school play. Performances are roundly below sub-par, the mis-en-scene is just inarticulate and off-putting, and fantasy elements are uniformly weak. Though one might frequently ask for the movie to end already, its brief run-time at least keeps things bubbling along amiably. Yet there's a final affront: the dang thing is 'To Be Continued'! Originally produced in 2007, perhaps this movie won't see a second installment.