Sunday, October 19, 2014

No, don't doubt me, I *will* do the right thing and review "Do the Rat Thing"...

I have a "two reviews a month" rule, which I've met (at a minimum) thus far all year...but a recent pattern is that when a new months start, I'll be mentally out to lunch when it comes to blog, and once I realize more than half of the month has gone by, I'll be like, "Oh, crap..." (This time, I have a -- personal -- better reason than ever for having been busy otherwise, though!)

I plan to have my take on "Do the Rat Thing" up sometime this week. It's not an episode I ever thought much of, but we'll see what I find once I revisit it. What has always stood out for me is that it's a Phasir episode (our second), but one in which his role is even smaller than usual and isn't really consistent with his other appearances -- in fact, his use, as I remember it, is kind of arbitrary in this case. But let's save that for the review...

Check back later this week!

-- Ryan

Monday, September 29, 2014

Aladdin (the series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 11: "Bad Mood Rising" (9/694)

I’m not sure how much I can bring myself to say about this episode. It’s well-animated – as it doesn’t have the stretchy, edgier, exaggerated look of “Never Say Nefir” and “Air Feather Friends”, but it also doesn’t have the occasionally sloppy, off-model work seen in “Raiders of the Lost Shark”; so I suspect a third studio to have had hands their hands on their episode. (I can’t actually verify this, because, arrgh, as I’ve lamented before, the versions that I’ve found online have omitted the credits); the characters are drawn in a more, er, well, not-so-much-rigid-as-composed style, but are consistently on-model and well-proportioned, and the movement is smooth, flowing ... well, it's just correct, anatomically (in as much as semi-full television animation should be. I don't have to always explain what I mean when I say that the animation is good, do I?)

But the plot … well, it’s not really a bad one. It has a certain charm in its simplicity. But it’s not very exciting or appealing, and leaves a lot to be desired. It’s about a bratty, spoiled, vindictive child … and who wants to watch THAT?! That this child happens to be a kingdom’s reining prince and that his volatile moods somehow bring, er, foul weather upon his subjects (again with the weather. Couldn’t Thundra take care of this?) seems to be going for the type of whimsy found in (the just-referenced) “Fowl Weather” and “Never Say Nefir”, but without the fantastical colorfulness and humorous characterizations of the former and without the surprisingly biting satire and unabashed silliness of the latter. Instead, we’re just stuck with a rotten, nasty little punk constantly throwing massive temper tantrums over not getting his way.  For some reason, they decided to expand on the series’ universe by arbitrarily setting this scenario in a part of what seems to vaguely be the equivalent of Africa. All of the premises’ (supposed) fantasy and whimsy lies in the temper tantrum-generated storms, which are your average thunder, rain, and wind storms – not a lot of imagination there. (Although some of the action-oriented “sfx” shots are noticeably slick, enough so to have earned a spot in the title/theme song sequence, where we’re quick to recognize them from.) The aesthetic motif of the kingdom’s structures (Quirkistan – see, this episode is supposed to be quirky!), while to the creators’ credit is distinct unto itself like each new setting incorporated into the show, is pretty non-descript (as is its scorched, dying land – the kind of thing which we’ve already seen variations of in several episodes anyway). All in all, there isn’t much exciting going on here. Much alike “Much Abu About Something”, we’re offered a bland world with a lifeless, defeated population. “Bad Mood” is only a notch or two above that episode because it’s a slightly better idea, a tighter production, and doesn’t have an incongruently-used dinosaur.

The episode does have one other thing (sort of) going for it: a decent role for Jasmine. (I think that for this reason, “Bad Mood” was purposely chosen to follow “Air Feather Friends”, which -- curiously for (what I guess was) a series premiere – was Jasmine-less, despite her being a major character.) That she has the patience, understanding, and, er woman’s intuition for relating to someone to be able to get through to Mamoud and entertain him with her storytelling is consistent enough with what we’ve seen of her level-headedness and compassion, and is a logical plot development. That the Quirkistanians then insist on holding her permanently captive to keep their juvenile king appeased seems a bit ridiculous for a people who had seemed so meek and helpless, and certainly a rashly-considered diplomatic disaster waiting to happen, but I accept this turn of events, as it was pretty much inevitable if we were going to have that essential ingredient to any plot: the good guys facing conflict and danger. I guess it also gives this episode a darker bent, that the seemingly innocuous Quirkistanians turn out to be so antagonizing. However, Aladdin and the gang’s means of rescuing Jasmine, changing the Quirkistanian’s minds, and appeasing Mamoud once and for all – by making him feel sympathy for all of Jasmine’s friends and family back home – seems forced, and I can’t really buy that his sociopathy would suddenly dissipate. I guess (while I don’t really find these incidents as funny as they’re intended to be) Genie posing as Jasmine’s frail, cane-using “saintly old grandfather”, transforming Abu and Iago into Jasmine’s meager, saddened “parents”, and producing a parade of  “orphans from the village” (their relation to Jasmine unaccounted for, just to take the absurdism up a notch) is meant to make the proceeding more cynical than ham-fisted. It still seems like the outcome is forced to me, though.

Genie Watch: Though he really should’ve been able to rescue Jasmine from her mortal and relatively powerless captors (come on, he can produce an umbrella), we just have to live with his plot-necessitated passivity sometimes, don’t we? Besides the above-descsribed show he puts on to sell Mamoud on releasing Jasmine, the hokey theatrics he tries to win over Mamoud with upon the gang’s arrival (when they’re still their voluntarily on what they expect to be a diplomatic mission – that’s why Aladdin is in his “Prince Ali” garb; I have to admit, a lot of logical thought went into the conception of this episode) are funny primarily because they ARE total duds (√† la Fozzie Bear). 

-- Ryan

[Note: doesn't have a transcript up for this episode, thus I have no writer-director credits.]

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Aladdin (the series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 10: "Air Feather Friends" (9/5/94)

What's remarkable about "Air Feather Friends" is that quite unlike each of the nine episodes we've already reviewed, there is little to distinguish it in the way of original, singular characters and settings.  The exception, of course (may as well get this out of the way, so it doesn’t look like my argument hasn’t accounted for this, would be the Rocs), but their screen time is minimal (though impressive), their character designs are basic, their function canned, and they are given no context beyond the bare minimum in terms of their part in Abis Mal’s scheme, with background info on them being  non-existent. With the Rocs’ restricted use in mind, you couldn't ask for a more standard episode. However, if that sounds banal, far from it; the animation is well above-par (I think it’s the same studio that did “Never Say Nefir”), more care is put into the direction than usual, and the plot momentum and action are high-charged; the production team was really on their A-game for this one. Thus, I contend that this was quite deliberately presented – and maybe even produced – to launch the series' Disney Afternoon run. (It's real run, frankly.) It plays like a showcase presentation calibrated to define the series for the audience and even to sell it to them. It’s kind of like when you go overboard in cleaning the house when you're expecting company.

In this respect, it's comparable to Gargoyles' second-season premiere (and the launch of that series' expansion to a Monday-Thursday schedule), "Leader of the Pack". That episode's plot was literally: the Pack breaks out of prison, the gargoyles find them, and a near-episode-long fight scene ensues. It was completely unsatisfying story-wise, but it had above-average animation and other production factors. The whole purpose was to open with a bang, as they say.

Fortunately, "Air Feather Friends" has a bit more going for it, plot-wise. Rather than something like, "Oh, the bad guys are on the loose, we better stop them, because, you know, they're the bad guys and we're the good guys", the plot is driven by the menace and mystery of the "wind demons", and then by the characters' necessity and efforts' to stop Abis Mal. As I mentioned, due to the Rocs, this episode isn't completely lacking in unique concepts. By extension, in their capitalizing on the Roc feathers' capacity to imbue humans with the super power of "tornado" has the bad guys – Abis Mal and his goons – are doing something that they don't do in any other episode. So unlike the case with "Leader of the Pack", Aladdin's writers decided that the fact that bad guys are the bad guys wasn't enough to get things moving.

Now, you might be thinking, "Ryan, how can you seriously be trying to say that this episode is largely comprised of completely standard elements for the series, and doesn't have anything wildly singular like a flying ship chasing a sand shark or a giant dancing pink rhinoceros? Giant Rocs and human tornadoes sound pretty over-the-top and like they'd really stand out!"  Well, I have to concede, my argument seems shaky when faced with the facts. However, I would contend that the above mentioned examples are incredibly outlandish, fantastical, and flamboyant. Here, we just see Mal and his gang holding simple feathers, and then turning into a spinning blur of ink lines and pale hues of brown and tan. And remember, these aren't giant twisters -- none are taller than the height of, well, by necessity, Abis Mal's tallest thug. This makes for a relatively modest spectacle in comparison to a giant mechanical centipede or a talking ostrich-sized green bird who controls the world's weather. (Birds and weather – themes common to two very different episodes!) And the Rocs, as mighty and formidable as they are – and the staging of the arrival of the Roc parents at the episode's climax is truly epic – are designed realistically, and don't really detract from the episode's "standard" flavor. I remember this strictly episode as an “Aladdin and co. versus Abis Mal” episode Abis Mal being the series’ standard villain, at least for another 35 episodes, hint hint, wink wink) episode, set in Agrabah and the part of the desert that’s in its immediate proximity (the series' most standard settings), not as "the Rocs episode".

Few other episodes set that open in Agrabah (and that’s a lot of them) open on Agrabah in such a cinematic manner. The sweeping, elaborate panning-in-from-above-Agrabah-and-down-into-the-marketplace sequence seems unnecessary and excessive if you’re thinking of this as just another episode; hence why I suspect that this was intended to be the "first" (even though nine others aired before it – we've been over this) – presenting to the audience the series' primary setting (or its home base, if you will) and drawing them into it, it can be taken as an establishing shot for the entire series.

Or, rather than drawing the audience into Agrabah, it seems to be drawing them back into it. While those who saw the movie would recognize the palace, it's a given that it will be part of the picture if you're going to show Agrabah to us. What I find telling is that as the "camera" descends down to street level, we settle in the marketplace (or a marketplace – the city probably has more than just one, right?). While I haven’t spotted in the opening scene any scenery duplicated from the original movie (and I thought that the archway that we pass during the pan-in was a recreation of some sort, but skimming the movie, I haven’t come up with a match), this scene returns the movie’s audience to familiar ground in spirit if not literally. It’s telling that what ensues is Aladdin and Abu having a run-in with the guards over Abu stealing food from a vendor. This is exactly how they make their entrance in the movie. I doubt this is a mistake or coincidence; that earlier, almost parallel scene is deliberately being evoked so as to convince the audience that these are the same characters and that this is the same world. Yes, the audience’s lack of trust was something that the series’ creators still had to overcome, not just despite but even especially because of Return of Jafar. That direct-to-video feature was met by critics and the public with skepticism and a tepid reception. Additionally, that release and the series were never promoted as related, despite Return having begun production as part of the series. The advent of the series was promoted as a follow-up to the movie, with nary a mention of the more-recent “sequel”. Thee production team thus had good reason to feel that it was necessary to sell the series as faithful to the movie that the public in theory had loved (or at least Disney’s hype was always telling them that they’d loved it, as it also was always reminding them of all the awards and critical acclaim it’d gotten).

Aladdin, Abu, and Iago are already on board in this first scene. Genie and the oft-overlooked Carpet are added in the next scene, completed roll call for the episode’s main cast. For a “first” episode”, it’s odd that a major main cast member like Jasmine is so much as even mentioned. I actually didn’t realize for a while into the series’ run that Abu, Genie, Carpet, and Iago were living with Aladdin in his hovel; I’d assumed that the royal family wouldn’t have stood such a thing, and would’ve given them quarters in the palace. (Aladdin and Jasmine would have separate rooms until their wedding, of course.) Apparently, Disney didn’t want to suggest that Aladdin and Jasmine were living in sin … even though throughout the series, Aladdin and his sidekicks seemed to be spending half their time or more at the palace anyway (and it’s not like the Sultan had GPS trackers locked around his daughter and her beau’s necks). Despite the confusion (or at least my confusion) about Aladdin’s residence, the opening scene makes it clear that he and Abu haven’t shaken their “street rat” nature. Abu’s compulsive thieving gives truth to the expression “You can’t take the street rat out of the monkey”, while their post-movie “palace connections” are indicated by Aladdin’s “Oh, Abu, here you go again!”-type reaction. His sympathy and knowing amusement at his friend’s antics is the attitude I’d expect, quite unlike his intolerance of Abu’s “addiction” in “To Cure a Thief”. Iago is actually the one here exasperated by Abu’s habits – because he gets caught up in the ensuing trouble, of course. (The sequence in which Aladdin sneaks some coins behind his back to Abu while blustering to the bloodthirsty guards that “Abu was getting it for me, and I was gonna pay for it!” is particularly well-directed, animated, and timed.)

In “Getting the Bugs Out”, “Fowl Weather”, “My Fair Aladdin”, and “Raiders of the Lost Shark”, Aladdin, leading “the gang”, seems to be functioning in the series as the city’s official “protector” or “hero”. In keeping with the mind the writer’s seem to be paying to the scrappy, survivalist “street rat” conception of Aladdin, his motivation here for investigating the mystery of the “sand demons” is to prove to Razoul that said demons have been stealing valuables. Using the longstanding grudge between Aladdin and Razoul is a good call on the writers’ part. That the guards want the wager to be over Abu plays up their cruelty and how they really still – very sadistically – have it in for Aladdin. That Aladdin, after some waffling, accepts the bet – and then of course tries to talk Abu into believing him that he’s sure he’ll win; Abu’s various pantomime displays of his anger at Aladdin are well-animated and in keeping with his performance in the original movie – shows that his ego won’t let Razoul think he’s gotten the best of him, and that he’s used to “street rat” conniving and double-dealing. Also, although Aladdin’s engagement to the princess is never mentioned, the writers seemed to be fully cognizant of it; when the guards first catch up with Abu, Aladdin stands up to them knowing that he now has the upper-hand over them; in not laying a hand on him (or just throwing him to the ground and throwing him into the dungeon on a skimpy charge), we can infer that they’re aware of this; it actually makes their resent, spite, and yearning to one-up Aladdin all the more palpable. 

It’s actually fitting that Jasmine isn’t this episode; it seems that the writers knew what to do with Aladdin in consideration of his engagement to Jasmine, while keeping him in “his old life”; as we’ve seen, they didn’t always know what to do with Aladdin and Jasmine when they actually put them together!

Much like we opened on Agrabah with a dramatic shot of an especially detailed and lavish background painting of the city, the scenes in Abis Mal’s lair feature some gorgeous, elaborate background paintings (some of which may be resused from Return of Jafar?) Although Abis Mal would later be turned into comic relief more than anything, here, he actually seems to have an edge and be an actual menace; his threats to put more than he already has of his men to death and his gleeful rants about wishing violence upon Aladdin and Agrabah are unusually twisted. Of course, on several instances, Haroud quietly shows his “master” up, although Mal of course won’t acknowledge it, and somehow always contrives a way to take credit for whatever Haroud said or did.

Most of the rest of the episode is (again, very well-animated) action scenes: the rescue of the baby Roc and the flight from Abis Mal’s lair, clashing with Abis Mal’s men; a few skirmishes with Mal and his men in tornado form, and the final defeat of bad guys at the gates of Agrabah – when, as was predictable, Genie shows up with the baby Rocs’ parents. In many episodes, giant monsters and the like didn’t always come up as larger than life as they did; but the wide shot of their shadows falling over the embattled men and the up-shots of their blocking out the sun really do make one feel pretty miniscule.

Genie Watch: Some pretty good moments (becoming a monkey Mafia don behooving Aladdin to “show respect to the simian family), and his growing a rocket-tail and pushing Carpet at rapid speed in pursuit of the wind demons. (Wait, there goes my theory about how he can’t use his powers for unnaturally fast transportation.) Of course, the episode is so well-animated that even his bad moments – like when the wind demons render him inoperable – aren’t sloppy. Heck, even when he first pops out of the lamp – much as he does in many other an episode, doing nothing special besides arriving on screen – has enough flare and acuteness to it to be a treat to the eyes.

-- Ryan 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Getting ready to take off into the "Air" (er, with my "Feather Friends")...

(Yes, I know. My attempts at puns induce groans. I'm just trying to liven up these "update" posts!)

I've started work on the review. Should be up sometime this week.

-- Ryan

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Aladdin (the series) 20th anniversary - Episode 9: "Raiders of the Lost Shark" (5/1/94)

This is a minor (very minor, when you consider how many episodes I have to go) milestone for this blog: "Raiders" is the last episode of the nine to have been "previewed" on The Disney Channel between February and May of `94. It has a second distinction: a few months later, on Sept. 17th, it would be the first episode that be aired on CBS. If you don't count the Disney Channel airings as ever happened, then the episode premiered on CBS. But in that case, it wouldn't be any sort of series premiere episode, as that would make it the 11th episode, following the first full two weeks of the show's Disney Afternoon broadcasts. 

Immediately following “Never Say Nefir”, this episode’s animation is disappointing. As is sadly more typical of the series, a lot of what ended up on the screen comes off as rushed and sloppy. Poses are off-model to the point of ugliness, and a lot of the timing is stilted and awkward. A lot of the “shots” are staged in a functional way and if they seem to have a particular perspective and composition in mind, it seems under-realized; you think that you know what they’re going for, but it’s not really quite there. I’ll point out examples as I go along.

Despite the average animation, there are yet other visual aspects – mostly design-related – of the episode that should be commended. It is more sensitive to atmosphere and mood  than the typical episode. Specific blends of tone and texture, and some “special effects”, are used to create separate, distinct visual themes, one for each of the episode’s three acts (although the third act’s motif is more an evolution of the second’s). These touches effectively give us one of the series’ most eerie, ethereal, mysterious episodes.

The narrative arc – which is only aided and complemented by the evolving succession of visual themes – is one of the most substantive, involved, properly balanced, and fully-realized that we’ve seen yet. Say what you want about it being a riff on Moby Dick with some Jaws thrown in, but there really are no missed beats, lulls, excess baggage, poor or neglected characterization, or unrealized ideas. It is also certainly one of the most non-comedic, heavy-handed, high-stakes, larger-than-life, harsh-toned episodes that we’ve seen yet; in other words, the kind of episodes that to Tad Stones’ surprise – and mine – CBS had preferred.

We open with an establishing/foreshadowing scene that follows a similar template as early parts of "My Fair Aladdin": a group of nomads there, a lone merchant here encounters a menacing monster; reports of this incident and general rumors about this fantastic threat reach the palace, who has to figure out what to do about the problem. In that case, the intrigue was never really delivered on. It was immediately sidetracked by the mundane threat to Aladdin's ego by a phony snob, and the episode was too cobbled together to maintain any continued suspense. It's almost as if the show had learned its lesson and was now poised to set things right. After the opening scene, things are immediately turned up, with the shark raging through Agrabah's marketplace, causing destruction, chaos and havoc. And then the shark comes blazing through the palace floor, literally bringing the threat home. Cut to a gaggle of angry merchants at the palace demanding action, and the viewer is left with no question about the facts of the conflict that's been established and a sense of impending crisis and what the characters' immediate priorities have become and what's going to spur their next actions.

In neither the eight episodes I've reviewed so far nor to my episode in any other episode (all of which I'll eventually review) have I seen anything like the blend of purplish, blueish, and pinkish hues that make up the sky throughout this palace scene (which starts out with the angry mob, and culminates in Merc's arrival). Also, the skin tone of all the characters is quite noticeably darkened. This isn't a case of the animators' mistakenly using the wrong paint; its meant to have -- along with the opaque lavender sky -- the effect of dusk time. If this were an English paper, I'd have to argue -- convincing even myself -- that this represents the dark, harrowing night that is the journey and battle with the shark that the gang is about to be overtaken by. Since it's not, I'll just say that it has a really cool, ominous effect.

And such an atmosphere is fitting for what happens next: Merc's ship sails into Agrabah. The ambience that's been sustained by this atypical use of color, tone, and psuedo-"lighting" (or shading, I guess you would say) is fitting for the otherworldly, surreal, fantastical sight this is supposed to be. In fact, it's what really is responsible for the whole thing being pulled off. The ceremonial wide shots of its arrival on the horizon and those shots of it shadow steadily creeping over a silenced, awed citizenry (by using angled-up shots at it and giving us a perspective of it from the citizens' perspective, we get the sense of how imposing and invasive it seems) play a part, for sure. But imagine if Agrabah had appeared with it usual blue-sky and fast food-cartoon tan-colored architecture, Merc's coming into port would seem a whole lot more casual.

After several episodes of Jasmine being poorly used or not used at all, she puts in a first-rate performance here. Take her reaction to the riled up merchants petitioning Sultan for a redress of grievances: she stands at one of the palace's outer railing things, resting her chin on the palm of her hand, appearing to be irritated and disdainful. What I take away from this exhibition is that she thinks that in all the commotion, everyone's acting foolish and unreasonable, and is somehow missing the big picture. Maybe it's that this is a completely unusual, unforeseeable situation, and that the merchants are being ridiculous by being mad at her father for not instantly, magically fixing everything. I don't think it's that she's put off by all of the rabble offending her with their inferior presence and all their meaningless jibbering; that would be out of character, and she's not written as out of character in any of the rest of the episode. While we're not told what she's thinking -- really, this is a fine example of "show, don't tell" -- what we can definitively say of this scene is that she is standing apart from everyone else -- her father, the guards, and the merchants alike. It may be not just that she thinks everyone is acting hysterical, but that even if she had a solution, no one would listen to a silly little girl -- in fact, that's perfectly in keeping with what's going to happen between her and Merc throughout the rest of the episode. One way or the other, I'd argue that the clear intent is to establish Jasmine as being alienated from the discussion, and by her being the first to notice the ship, she is perceptive and ahead-of-the-curve; she does have a lot of value to contribute to the proceedings, despite her being a "mere" girl. (And, yes, she just happened to be in a position to see the ship while the others were preoccupied otherwise, but I think the idea that she sees what everyone else is oblivious to is innate to the scene.)

It's not a mistake that Merc's vessel hovers above even the royal family, just as it had moments ago to Agrabah's peasants. Part of its imposition is its inaccessibility. Merc's immediate hostility and severe sternness only tightens the tension; not only is this killer shark running rampant, but this is decidedly not some shining, friendly, affable white knight whose come to save the day. His "This is no job for a woman" slight at Jasmine and her immediate resent and determination to prove him wrong obviously marks the beginning of their antagonism and what's going to take place between them over the course of the rest of the episode (which certainly earns Merc less than any sympathy).

With the prevailing visual theme, it's as if a switch has been set to "dim", shifting Agrabah into some sort of purgatory-like alternate plane of existence; they're now in Merc's world, run by Merc's rules. That the desert he takes them to doesn't look like the desert of any other episode seems to virtually bear this out. 

I like Jasmine donning a cloak for the journey. I don’t know why she did so – was she expecting it to be cold – but it contributes to the episode’s “feel”; she’s prepared to face harsh conditions. Or she might just want to be cozy being crammed in on a tiny ship for who knows how long.

And I also like how the second act opens with our heroes now underway on their quest, showing Genie and Abu caricaturized as shipmates; Genie swabbing the deck, Abu lazily playing an accordion. These little touches us put us “there” with them, giving the sense of an extended lull; all they can do for now is wait.

A very interesting touch: the clouds seen throughout the journey have a form distinctly unlike that seen in any other episode; they’re not all the same shape, but if they were characters in a Microsoft Word document, they’d all be of the same font. I’m not sure what the significance of this design is, but it does contribute to the surreal feel of the journey; like I said, the gang has ventured out into the desert well beyond Agrabah in plenty of episodes, but this doesn’t look like the same desert it at all.  And I haven’t even mentioned that the crux of the whole scenario is a flying ship pursuing a “sand shark” that treats the desert as if it’s the ocean. That’s pretty fantastical, whimsical, and surreal, I’d say.

Well, once we’ve established our “long lull/waiting period”, the episode doesn’t beat around the bush:  the inevitable first shark attack occurs, and, basically, it’s all the spectacle, action, terror, and thrills that you’d expect. Mere seconds before the shark makes his appearance, we’re watching Aladdin and Jasmine have a conversation, and the sky fades to blackness behind them. No, we don’t see gargoyles turning to stone, but this does support my “descent into a darkest night of dark darkness” theory.

In Jaws fashion, we have the shark attacking, the heroes driving him off, and then some tense waiting for him to reappear, a few times over. After his first retreat, Merc makes an ultimate dick move and tosses Abu, without discussing it with him beforehand and with no lifeline or anything of the sort, to the desert floor below. I don’t know why the gang just didn’t tell Merc to screw off and leave him to carry on his merry way as they all flew back home on Carpet. But I guess they felt obligated to try to solve the shark problem, and felt that his ship and gear were good resources to have.

Abu is rescued (by Genie – see below). The ship enters rocky waters – er, a part of the desert with these strange, tall rock formations. In keeping with the episode’s established inclinations, these formations are very surreal don’t look like any part of any landscape shown in any other episode, reinforcing the feel that we’re a strange, unearthly realm. The ship becomes wedged on some rocks, but Genie frees it(!)(again, see below), only to be swallowed up by the shark. He turns up fine just a few moments later (I kind of thought that he wasn’t able to die in the first place), but in the interim, Merc’s callous indifference is pretty appalling.

But that’s nothing, compared to what he does next: it’s at last time for his and Jasmine’s dislike for each other to come to a head. Merc decides to abduct her from her chamber on board the ship while she sleeps (really nice “candlelight” effect in the scene inside her room, btw), lower her on a wooden plank by rope to the desert floor, and abandon her.

I would expect that an episode in which the only thing that the writers could think of to do with Jasmine is have her prove her worth “in spite” of her gender would be a failure, but Merc’s thick-headedness is a completely logical foil for her in this regard. And SHE, for one, never has any self-doubts, and is completely mentally and physically impressive throughout, so she performs completely impressively, as she SHOULD, because she does so while being completely in-character.

I’m giving this blow-by-blow to demonstrate what an airtight dramatic narrative through-line this episode has. As I said, at the beginning of the second act, the character’s circumstances is clearly defined, in a “homey” way so that – at least for those of us captivated by the episode – we’re mentally “with” them, identifying with the protagonists, as should be the case with any well-told story. And we’re kept there with them – the narrative is never side-tracked or hits any ruts. The situation escalates without a hitch, one event leading directly to the next – never a dull moment, as the clich√© goes.

When Aladdin and the gang wake up and discover her missing, we’ve of course passed from nighttime back to day time – the hues of the sky has gone through several phases, but now a violent storm has overtaken the desert, and the wind is represented with these swirly, cluster-like white-colored formations that kind of resemble aerial tumbleweeds. (I don’t know if the white coloring was made using the same kind of paint they use on all the cels. It seems to be some sort of effect applied separately from the “regular” animation. The rock Jasmine takes refuge on is the most bizarre and ghastly in design yet (it kind of reminds me of the exterior of Merlock’s citadel in DuckTales: The Movie, actually – an outcrop at its base looks like a gnarled claw.) Taking all of this together, we are given the sense that this takes place in (you know this song by now) a strange, unearthly realm.

And I haven’t even touched upon the appearance of the desert sand all throughout the journey. It’s grey in most scenes and blue-ish in the moonlit scenes. It actually doesn’t seem to be the desert at all – when Abu and Jasmine are each in turn forced overboard, it’s as if they’re being subjected to completely alien terrain, and not the desert that they’ve lived upon for their entire lives … or, well – and obviously, this is the intent -- like they’re stranded in deep, dark waters swarming with deadly predators. I’m almost surprised that they’re able to stand up and don’t fall right through the sand upon first making contact with it.

Jasmine’s rescue dovetails with the final faceoff with the shark. Like the earlier action scenes, this one has perfect form. It’s the big, slam-bang, tumultuous climax you’d expect. It’s just what it should be, and is not anything that it shouldn’t be. What more can I say?

The (almost-)closing scene, showing the captured beast on display, rigged up on some wooden apparatus, is one unique for the series – the faux-lighting from the glow of the jewels in its stomach (which never glowed that bright at any point earlier) creates an atmosphere of a big celebration, almost like the whole city has gathered for a grand fireworks today. The wide shot of this gathering, the aforementioned faux-lighting, and the audio ambience of the excited din of crowd chatter gives this the feel of a jubilant big crowd scene at the end of a classic Hollywood epic.

The turnabout (the real closing scene), showing Razoul, on patrol the next morning, discovering that “The beast has escaped!” (I always liked the way that line resonated – a sense of Agrabah’s community was carried over from the previous scene, and I really get the feeling that he’s urgently calling this out for ALL his still-awakening neighbors to hear) is also a highlight. The discovery of Merc’s seeming betrayal and Aladdin’s closing words of wisdom (“I think he finally discovered that there is more than treasure”) might some strike as hamfisted, sappy, and (especially given that we really have no reason to suddenly feel sympathy for Merc, after he completely deliberately seriously endangered Abu and Jasmine!), but I always got some fleeting chills and an elating feeling of inspiration from it, so that’s something. And in high school, when I showed it to a friend, that line made him nod appreciatively, so there you go. I like to think of it as the show having its own little Don Rosa’s Uncle Scrooge moment.

This episode suffers from a paradox that much of the series does: the whole gang is along for the ride because they’re the main cast. Aladdin is, of course, fulfilling the “hero” archetype – the cockiness with which he accepts (without having really even been offered) from the Sultan being “assigned” to the mission is certainly preferable to his lack of confidence in “My Fair Aladdin” – and more in keeping with the guy who sang “One Jump Ahead” in the original movie. In being psychologically dominated by Merc over the course of the journey, and not knowing what to expect or what to do at each unexpected, a good balance is struck in not making him Superman but also not moralizing about how his ego is overinflated. Abu being used as “bait” doesn’t “offend” me in making him look feeble in the way that “Much Abu About Something” did, because that was Merc’s deal, not Abu’s. And Iago, of course, is preoccupied the whole way through with the treasure embedded in the beast’s belly. In other words, nailed it, writers.

Genie watch: Seeing as Merc’s such an insufferable dick, Genie could’ve at any point turned himself into the gang’s own flying ship. But considering, none of his impersonations or transformations in this episode are especially annoying (in fact, they’re wildly appropriate: a mop to swab the deck, a fisherman to “catch” Abu from the “sand” ocean and save him from the shark; a jack to raise the ship off of the rocks its stuck on) or culminate in him having some sort of “epic fail” moment … in fact, as mentioned earlier, there’s two moments where he completely comes through: as juts mentioned, saving Abu and freeing the ships from the rocks. All considered, by comparison to many others, this is a great Genie episode!

-- Ryan

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Soon, I'll raid "Raiders of the Lost Shark"...

I'm working on the review. Hopefully, it will be up by the end of the weekend. (I have to find a way to write shorter reviews. Even when I intend to, it ends up getting away from me, though. Sure, I could just write some capsule reviews, basically a statement or two about each episode, but what I really want to do here is cover each episode more thoroughly than in your average "episode guide".)

-- Ryan

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Aladdin (the series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 8: "Never Say Nefir" (4/2/94)

When I posted yesterday's notice that I planned to do this review last night, I had yet to hear the news of Robin Williams' passing. Of course, he is relevant to Aladdin, because the character of Genie was birthed for the original film in a unique collaboration between Williams and the Disney studio animators. It so happens that "Never Say Nefir" prominently features Genie and gives him a legitimate character arc. Moreover, it's a rare episode in that the blue guy actually comes off respectably, resembling his original incarnation. And so, though I was going to review this episode anyway, drawing attention to it honors Williams in that it does his character justice.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not much of a fan of the original movie to begin with, but even then, unlike seemingly the rest of the world, I was never that enthralled by Williams' performance in it. I found his shenanigans self-indulgent and extraneous. It was fine to use the genie as comic relief, but the producers allowed Williams to go way out of bounds, resulting in Genie creating a big hullabaloo that was a textbook showstopper. Thus, I've never felt the series is lacking because of William's absence. Rather, it was that the character was all too often written as incompetent and buffoonish, when in the original, he had been quick-witted, perceptive, proactive, and generally had his crap together. Genie's bumbling and fumbling in the series wasn't Dan Castelleneta's fault.

Given Genie's prominence in this episode, this review in itself will largely account for today's installment of Genie Watch. I'm pleased to report that none of the Genie-based gags -- whether impersonating a heavily armed, jingoistic military commander, or "hooking up" Iago with the tools he needs for cheating at the tables -- are actually smart, well-executed, and even somewhat funny. Better yet, none of them culminate in him looking like an idiot. And besides these numerous asides, he has real story functions: his longstanding issue with imps causing him to want to one-up them, as well as stop Hamir once and for all and thus stop the Imps' profiteering; and his desire to not fail Aladdin, who unwittingly walked into being expected to save Getzistan, by solving the Hamir problem himself.

The only really questionable Genie moment that I have is how trusting he was when Nefir tipped him off about Hamir's sleeping place. But I suppose his being overeager to come through for Al made him put his guard down without realizing it. I had been planning on writing something like, "Why do the Imps' taunts and insults make Genie so insecure, when he had such a low opinion of them from the get-go?" But then I realized that, although he's incredibly wary of them (and rightfully so, as we'll see), their exchanges resemble the resent and antagonism between fans of rival sports team. I'm intrigued by the concept of their being a sordid history between these two "magical entity" species. The impression is given that even natural enemies like genies and imps have a shared culture and history that mortals aren't privy to. Sometimes, I wish that the series had expanded on and more fully defined its world and certain facets of it like this, but really, the ideas in this episode come across just fine with little back story.

This may seem like a personal quirk, but part of why I think Genie comes off well here is that his ability to shift his size from the original movie, largely forgotten throughout the series, is exhibited. Seeing him towering above the city reminds us that he's not pathetic or useless -- not because "bigger is better", but because we're reminded of how much energy, life, and exceeding brightness he projected in the movie. Interestingly, this is one of the few episodes that mentions more than once Genie's downgrade to "semi-phenomenal, nearly cosmic" powers. (Again, what is their parameters in comparison to what they were before? DECIDE ON IT, writers!) He seems a bit embarrassed about it when it's brought up, and it even seems to be (though I'm a little iffy on this) part of why he wants to prove his worth to the Imps (even though he hates them) and not mess up saving the city. Hmm, why did he seem to forget his many positive attributes in so many subsequent episodes?

Much like the scene in "My Fair Aladdin" where he went seeking the reported "monster" (actually Mechanicles' giant mechanical centipede), it's nice to see Genie proactive and taking initiative on his own by venturing into Hamir's cave. (One might ask, why does Genie walk in on foot, as if he can fly and pop up out of thin air in different places? I have a theory that the conditions of  a Genie being free is that they can use such powers for comical purposes, but not for long-distance instantaneous transportation -- at least when they NEED to get somewhere. The show is somewhat -- but not by perfectly -- consistent with this idea, leading me to consider that Stones and Co. actually had something along those lines in mind. If there were any rules, I wish they'd TOLD us what they were.) And the cut from Genie reacting by sweating in fear to Hamir waking up to Genie and Hamir having tea together and having an in-depth conversation about their personal lives is GOLD. It's a moment that's exemplary of this episode's wit and whimsy ... and I know that I've already used "wit" earlier, and that I'm going to run into a snag where I want to reuse "whimsy" or its variations further on, so let me take this opportunity to say that I feel that those adjectives sum up this episode's general qualities, but since I'm going to be citing multiple examples, I'll find different terms to use. So, hmm, how do I describe this "confidences over tea" scene? Hmm ... it's very British in its sense of humor. Does that work? That seems like a cheap shorcut; as if I could actually explain how it's so "British". ...oh, I know. It's Python-esque. Yeah, that works!

 When beginning this revisiting of the series that I'm doing here, I thought that I would always prefer "hardcore", Big Event, high-stakes, huge-threat, sword-and-sorcery, fantasy-adventure episodes like "The Prophet Motive". However, of the several episodes I've covered so far, this one has the most going for it. In "Much Abu About Something", when a foreign community expected one of our heroes to save them from destruction, they gave us a plain ol' big monster ... and it was a Tyrannosaurus rex, to boot, which I think was to somehow make the episode "different", but without any context and using it in the most generic big, mean monster role possible, it was a dud. Here, they came up with something actually different: a giant pink hippo ballerina dancer. Now, on paper, that sounds like the kind of thing that, when I watch Darkwing Duck as an adult, makes me want to say, "They think they're being SO funny, but they're really not." Or, for instance, there was an episode of Dangermouse about a giant chicken stomping London Godzilla-style, and I was like, "Uh, guys, making the giant monster a chicken really isn't that funny. What's so funny about chickens?" Or the Howard the Duck comic that's a Frankenstein parody where the mad scientist's creation is an animated giant gingerbread man. What's so funny about a gingerbread man? get the idea. So what makes the giant pink ballerina hippo work? Really, I think it's in the execution. This is the most well-animated episode yet, across the board. The characters are stylized and have a slightly more "edgy" look than usual, but their poses and expressions are carefully rendered, and never look sloppy or rushed. The movement is fluid, smooth, and fuller than in the average episode. The timing is never awkward or rushed. Hmm, did I say almost the exact same thing about portions of another episode? I'm having deja vu here. Well, I might as well use the same analogy I'm pretty sure I used then: it's kind of like Daan Jippes or Daniel Branca as compared to the Whitman-era artists. (I haven't actually figured out if these factors are more dependent on the episode's director or which animation unit worked on it. And though Aladdin Central provided me with the name of the writer and director, the fact that whoever uploaded the widely-circulated online versions of the episode omitted not just the title sequence but the end credits, I can't track which studios worked on what. But judging by my observations of other series, I might hazard a guess that this is the work of ... Walt Disney Animation Japan? I really am not confident in being right about that, though.)

The episode's climax: as Aladdin's band competes with 
Nefir's band, playing faster and faster, Genie and 
Hamir get hot feet and grow exhausted.

Hamir's dancing, including his duet with Genie, is a bizarre, almost ingenious orchestration of physical comedy. When Genie and Hamir are performing their dance duet, there's a bit that lasts a mere few seconds: Genie swings Hamir to one side, and Hamir's nose, pointed upward, nearly touches Carpet the hovering Carpet, carrying Aladdin, Abu, and Iago. In his deep, booming, but smoky voice, he lets out a friendly, childlike "Hi!" This happens while we see his head from the side, taking up about half of the screen, while Aladdin and the crew are taking up a small portion of the upper left-hand corner. The framing, timing, poses, expressions, and voicing work in confluence to have caused me to laugh out loud giddily. It wouldn't have worked with more banal animation. And the "dance-off" is certainly a more original, creative way of bringing the story to a climax than the usual action fare.

The Imps remind me of Gummi Bears' trolls -- short, gnarled thieves with an angry, abusive, conniving leader and a few imbecilic sidekicks. The premise of the Imps' profiteering off of the destruction that they're actual machinating is ... I don't, Swiftian? Like something in The Little Prince? Worthy of Pogo or Krazy Kat? More Python-esque stuff? I don't know, but for this series, that's satire that has some FIRE to it! I think "the man" got off to easy by having the sultan just be an oblivious buffoon, but, hey, I'm not expecting Ayn Rand from a Disney Afternoon show.

Having just arrived in Getzistan, Carpet and Abu 
are distraught to find it in ruins.

Nefir orders his crew to work, and the 
gang is wowed by the speed with 
which they rebuild the city.

An Imp rebuilds steps as 
Getzistan's sultan ascends them.

Oh, and the idea of the city being destroyed and rebuilt DAILY: that's some Alice in Wonderland shit right there. Or is it The Little Prince, again? Or maybe even Little Nemo? I don't know, it's just...just...just WHIMSICAL, okay?! Isn't that description good enough for you?!

Using Iago having talked the guys into a trip to the gambling city of Getzistan as the story's setup works without a hitch. The closing gag, seeing him completely plucked from the neck down and covering himself with a barrel is yet another unexpected bit of delightful bizarre-ness; the final feather in the episode's cap, if you will. (Not pun intended. Yuck.) Er, it's the episode cap, but metaphorically, it's the episode's cap (that it's wearing on its head). Wow, talk about mixed metaphors.

Aladdin is in his usual "straight man" role here. His reluctantly-expressed objections to Getzistan's sultan appointing him the city's savior is actually a pretty nice way of having him pretty much go through the dashing hero motions that he does in many an episode, but acknowledge that he never really asked to be a hero to all, 24/7. And his uncertainty awaiting Hamir's arrival on the gang's first night in the city isn't uncharacteristic cowardice or meekness, but a normal reaction, given the situation. So, I have no complaints about his character being spoiled, like in "My Fair Aladdin" or "To Cure a Thief". Abu (I overlook him in a lot of these reviews, don't I? Hmm, maybe the writer of "Much Abu About Something" had a point...) is pretty much just along for the ride, supplying little moments of comic relief in reaction shots featuring him or in shaking his fist at Iago. But these moments are certainly well-rendered and animated.

Okay, that's enough! ;)

-- Ryan