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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Encyclopedia Brown

Eli’s been reading the Encyclopedia Brown books recently, and seems to be turning to the back much less frequently than did his parents.

For those grownups out of the loop, the Encyclopedia Brown book series, written by author Donald Sobol since 1963, features the adventures of Leroy Brown (not to be confused with the Bad Bad one), a small-town boy who has imprinted the thousands of books he has read over the years onto his photographic memory. He uses this encyclopedic knowledge (thus his nickname) to solve local crimes.

Half his cases involve outwitting neighborhood bullies and con artists, with Encyclopedia doing business as the Brown Detective Agency (at a cost of 25 cents per day, plus expenses). The rest of Leroy/Encyclopedia’s cases involve helping his dad, the local chief of police, solve more serious violations. Each case hinges on some specific fact or observation (such as dogs being colorblind or the atomic weight of gold) and the solution to each one-minute mystery appears in the last few pages of each of the over twenty EB books.

Given the popularity of the book series, it’s a pity that the only film treatment for the character was an HBO kids series produced in the 1980s, now only available on VHS (we found copies at our local library since the video stores barely stock tape these days). We watched two episodes, Encyclopedia Brown – Boy Detective and The Case of the Ghostly Rider. Each story features familiar characters, Encyclopedia and his parents, Bugs Meany (leader of the local gang, the Tigers), and Sally Kimball (Encyclopedia’s partner, who keeps bullies at bay by pummeling Bugs into unconsciousness when necessary).

Ghostly Rider is mostly a Scooby Doo mystery, with EB and Sally helping a local cowgirl save her ranch/theme park by solving the mystery of a ghastly spirit on horseback who frightens away visitors, destroying property values in the process. In Boy Detective, the team tracks down the thief of Idaville’s (the Brown’s home) time capsule, stolen on the town’s 100th anniversary.

Both episodes depart from the book’s quick and simple format, inserting quirky adult characters (a local rock star, Idaville’s doltish mayor, etc.), action set pieces (like a bike and truck chase) and dream sequences – all of which feel like padding, unnecessary to the somewhat thin plotlines. Series producers also seemed to lean heavily on comedy relief elements, turning Bugs Meany (Encyclopedia’s somewhat dim Moriarty in the books) and his twerpy Tiger sidekick into versions of Bulk and Skull from the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Encyclopedia’s dad comes out particularly poor in translation, turning from a generic family man/cop in the books into a typical sitcom moron dad in the HBO show.

Those issues aside, the kid actors playing EB and Sally are charming, and any portrayal of the popular books are welcome, given the legal limbo of the original source material. Apparently, Sobol sold the film rights to the series to a somewhat shady immigration lawyer for $150,000 in the 1980s (before properties like popular kids book series were being bought and sold for millions), and the HBO series is the only output to date. That said, the Hollywood rumor mill has it that Ridley Scott has shown interest in the series, and wants to turn Encyclopedia Brown into a kid action hero for the 21st century, a la Spy Kids. That being the case, let’s hope the legal battles continue for a long, long time.

Whose Pick: Mom


Eli: 4/5
Ben: 5/5
Mom: 3/5
Dad: 3/5

Total: 15/20

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