THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Kids have always been fascinated by magic. The art form has become a lot cooler in recent years. The broad showmanship of Doug Henning and David Copperfield has largely given way to the comic mischief of Penn & Teller and the Gothic intensity of Criss Angel. Make Believe is a documentary that looks at the next generation of magicians, who are sure to continue changing the face of magic. It takes as its subject a group of adolescent magicians, all aspiring to be dubbed Teen World Champion at the World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas. The annual victor has the title bestowed upon them by none other than famed Vegas magician Lance Burton.
The competitors are as talented as they are diverse: Derek McKee is well-trained but prone to occasional distraction; Nkumbuzo Nkonyana and Siphiwe Fangase, who hail from Capetown, South Africa, do as much physical comedy as actual magic; Japan's Hiroki Hama is a loner who has mastered incredibly complicated moves and adds elements of nature into his routine; Krystyn Lambert has the skill and personality to make it big, but also sticks to classic routines that are at odds with her youthful personality. Then there's Chicago's Bill Koch, who has an overflow of charisma. He likes “big” tricks, and even hand-makes most of his materials. (Wait until you see what this guy does with a Rubik's Cube.) Director J. Clay Tweel follows the six magicians as they train, prepare, and ultimately complete. He also interviews them about why they've chosen to pursue their hobby with this amount of intensity. For each of them, the reasons are extremely personal.
Watching kids or teens compete to win a competition is almost always compelling, whether they want to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee (Spellbound), a ballroom dancing contest (Mad Hot Ballroom), or a battle of the bands (Rock School). Make Believe fits squarely into that tradition. The level of dedication on display is amazing. Have you ever tried to learn anything more than a basic magic trick? I have - it's something I do as a hobby. Mastering technique is hard; being able to do it effortlessly is harder, and developing a viable stage persona is harder still. The film shows us how these teens figure it all out, turning a stage performance into an act of personal expression.
The highlight, naturally, is the Teen World Competition itself. Candid backstage footage shows some of the mental preparations each person must make. The tension grows as some of them do really well, while one experiences every magician's greatest fear – a trick going wrong onstage. Amazingly, they seem generally supportive and admiring of each other, even as they are locked in a dog-eat-dog situation. And the tricks themselves are fantastic, guaranteed to boggle your mind and bring a smile to your face.
Make Believe has it all: likable “characters” we want to follow, a subject that both astounds and amazes, and a mounting sense of suspense as the competition reaches its conclusion. I suspect that everyone who sees this movie will have their own personal favorite; that adds to the overall engrossing nature of the doc. (Full disclosure: my favorite comes in 2nd place.) In the “kids competing” genre of documentaries, this one easily ranks near the top.
The DVD contains over an hour of bonus footage, plus a handful of tutorials so viewers can learn a few tricks of their own. Pretty sweet stuff.
( 1/2 out of four)
Make Believe is unrated but contains nothing objectionable. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.