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Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller

1988, Starring Lucas Evans, Anthony Rogers, Jill Stanley, Andrew Whitehead. Directed by Michael Rubbo (Les Productions La Fte).

There's no denying italmost all of the childrens' films in Quebec producer Rock Demers' internationally celebrated Tales for All are, well, a little bit weird. Kids slather food on their loins to grow extra long pubic hair in The Peanut Butter Solution, The Great Land of Small features Slimo, a gold dust belching meteorite, and then there's the mystical intricacies of The Flying Sneaker. Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller, one of the most well known entries in the series, features the strangest concept by far'shrunken pre-teens journey to new and exotic countries while dimensionally trapped inside magical postage stamps.

Despite the inherently bizarre plot, Canada Post saw Demers' latest as an excellent opportunity to get spark kids' interest in stamp collecting, and apparently lent production assistance to the film, and even launched a tie-in marketing campaign when it finally hit theatres in 1988. Taking great pains to portray philately as a hip new fad full of excitement and danger, the film begins with a scene of Tommy (Anthony Rogers) and his partner-in-tricking Cass (Paul Popowich) cooly sell some penny bin stamps to their gullible classmates by lying about their rarity. Real trouble starts, however, when the film's main protagonist, Ralph (Lucas Evans), invites Tommy over to his house to do some trading. Always looking for a fast buck, Tommy pulls the old bait and switch scheme and scores Ralph's Dad's 1929 Bluenose with a pricey " printer's error" the outline of a man can be seen on one of the ships' masts. When he realizes he's been swindled, Ralph and his young sister Nancy (Jill Stanley) head to the local stamp store, where they discover Tommy's sold them the Bluenose variant, and made a tidy profit. The kids are unable to afford the $500 asking price, but the kind owners feel bad, and try to cheer up the sobbing Nancy by giving her an old, worthless stamp album they recently picked up at an estate sale.

Later that day, Ralph, Nancy and Albert (Andrew Whitehead), another victim of Tommy's cons, find a note hidden inside the cover of the album. Written by Charles Merriweather, an 11-year-old boy, the note reveals that several valuable Canadian stamps were stashed long ago in a shop in Australia. Hoping he can replace the Bluenose before his father notices, Ralph decides to follow the letter's preposterous instructionshe utters a few magic words and shrinks down into a stamp, ready to be mailed overseas.  Tommy, however, has overeard Ralph's plan, and sneakily re-addresses the postcard to Chen Tow (Chen Yuan Tao), Nancy's pen pal in China. Ralph's bewildered when he first arrives in Beijing, but with the help of Chen and his sister Mai Ling (Han Yun), he eventually makes it to the stamp store in Australiaonly to discover that Tommy got there first! Along with Cheryl (Catherine Wright), the original shop owner's granddaughter, Ralph seeks out Cheryl's "mad" uncle's home in the outback, where the album has been in storage since the store closed. But when Tommy's caught trying to steal the rare Canadian stamps, Ralph and Cheryl are the only ones who can free him.

As any seasoned Tales For All viewer will soon realize, the around-the-world chase for the Bluenose is little more than an excuse for director Michael Rubbo to work in extensive travelogue footage of Australia and China, the film's co-production partners. Of course, this lesson in world cultures is as paper-thin as a stamp itself, only touching on the most obvious and clichd aspects of each countryin Australia, we see didgeridoos, kangaroos, koalas and a game of cricket, while Ralph's visit to China is marked by bowls of rice, a dragon parade and fireworks. While this does add something of an international flavour, the other countries are shown through a distinctively North American sensibility the film's acknowledged Quebec setting is not portrayed as an equally exotic destination, just a bland suburban community.

What's really strange about this film, however, is that it's extremely difficult to get a handle on Tommy Tricker. Despite being named in the title, Tommy's clearly a secondary character, and even then, he isn't even particularly likablehe's a thief and a con artist. He doesn't hesitate to scam Ralph out of rare stamp, and his attempts to reach the Australian stamp cache first are purely motivated by greed. Yet, despite setting the character up as a bully, it's gradually revealed that Tommy has had a very troubled past his father is a homeless drunk who left his mom, and his large family lives in a tiny apartment without much to eat. In one odd, heartstring-tugging moment, Tommy even takes the money he gets for selling the Bluenose and buys a uniquely French-Canadian feast of spaghetti and Jos. Louis for his starving siblings. Despite these heavy-handed pleas for sympathy, by the end of the film, Tommy's character is still just as morally ambiguous, and will probably never give up his "tricking."

Though Rogers isn't too bad as Tommy, especially considering there's not much character arc to the role, the rest of the kids in the film are all fairly poor actors, and like many of their fellow Tales For All stars, weren't able to parlay these roles into lasting careers. The one exception is singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright, only a teenager at the time, who appears briefly in a scene at a mall to croon " I'm a-runnin'," a particularly insipid pop song.

Aside from Wainwright's presence, the crude, but effective, special effects remain the most memorable aspect of the film for most viewers. Although Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller was obviously still constrained by a low budget, the effects team did manage to come up with a visually interesting, cost-effective solution for the film's shrinking sequences. Every time Ralph prepares to travel, he morphs into a black and white animated character, drawn in the style of vintage Canadian postage stamps. Despite the annoying accompanying kazoo music, this switch to animation is a simple, fun device that stands out in a series of films not known for their technical achievements.

Despite the best efforts of Tommy Tricker, Ralph, and the good people at Canada Post, the thrill-a-minute world of stamp collecting somehow failed to capture the imaginations of young Canadians. Even an educational Tommy Tricker tie-in board game and 1994's inferior sequel, The Return of Tommy Tricker (featuring an all new cast) couldn't compete with pop culture phenomena like video games and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. As kids' entertainment, Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller may be passable fare, incorporating just enough sharp turns in the plot to keep easily bored kids from tuning out, but as a philatelic recruiting tool, the film must ultimately be considered a failure. It's obvious that Rock Demers knows a thing or two about low budget filmmaking, but at least on this project, his comprehension of youth demographics apparently got lost in the mail.

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