By Dean Lamanna
Main Photo by Brevin Blach
At an age when most grade-schoolers are twiddling their thumbs (or, between ?ts of digital fury on their Wii systems, still sucking them), Perry Chen has become known for turning his up or down.
The 11-year-old Torrey Hills Elementary student is earning notice regionally and nationally, writing ?lm reviews for The San Diego Union-Tribune, the online publication Animation World Network and his own blog. His local entertainment opinion pieces have earned him two consecutive journalistic excellence awards from the San Diego Press Club, of which he is the youngest member.
Chen’s publishing path was established three years ago by his third-grade teacher, Joli Harris, and his parents. His Chinese-born mother and father, Zhu Shen and Changyou Chen, both Ph.Ds, challenged him to write a review of Jon J. Muth’s Zen Ties, a philosophical children’s book about a kindhearted panda.
He surprised them with an almost high school-level essay. “I kept writing book reviews,” says Chen, “until one day my mom saw me watching a movie and decided, ‘If he can do book reviews, then why not movie reviews?’”
Shown ?lm columns by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and author Roger Ebert, Chen wrote his ?rst movie review, at age eight, about the 2006 version of Charlotte’s Web. He followed that with a series of critiques on family and animated features that conclude with a moral, including Up (2009) and How to Train Your Dragon (2010).
With a promotional assist from Mom, Chen captured the interest of San Diego print and online editors, who loved his ?ve-star?sh rating system and were eager to give him editorial page space. Thanks to interviews on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric and National Public Radio, his star (and con?dence) rose quickly.
Meanwhile, a meeting with Oscar-nominated animator Bill Plympton and producer-director Kevin Sean Michaels at Comic-Con 2009 sent the youngster’s mind in another creative direction.
“Bill drew a drawing of a dog for me,” says Chen, “and I drew one next to it really quickly. He and Kevin thought it was good enough for me to animate a ?lm.”
With approval from Chen’s mother, Plympton and Michaels storyboards for Ingrid Pitt: Beyond the Forest, a true story about an eight-year-old girl who escapes from a concentration camp.
“I learned a lot about the history of World War II and the prisoners’ lives during the Holocaust,” says Chen, who had to learn how to use computer-based animation tools for the project.
Having exhibited on the ?lm festival circuit to considerable acclaim, the moving, six-minute short-narrated by Pitt herself before she died last year-has been acquired for worldwide distribution and potential Academy Award consideration.
Ingrid Pitt and another Chen collaboration with Plympton, Guard Dog Global Jam, have attracted Glendale-based DreamWorks Animation, which is hosting Chen for a screening of his work and a Q&A session in December.
Even with Hollywood calling, being a kid critic has its disadvantages-like not being able to glimpse the movie screen when adults are seated in front of him. “I just stretch my neck really long like E.T. so I can see over their heads,” Chen says.
His agent will no doubt be phoning home for him, too.
Name: Perry Chen
Occupation: entertainment critic and animator
Favorite movies: Up, How to Train Your Dragon
Favorite concession snacks: pizza, popcorn, Junior Mints
Hobbies: drawing, playing imagination games
Awards: Excellence in Journalism, San Diego Press Club (2010, 2011); Special Jury Award, Animated Short: Ingrid Pitt: Beyond the Forest, Flyway Film Festival, Wisconsin (2011)