Wednesday, January 21, 2015

At last!!!

Look what popped up in my Facebook feed and that someone had found at Previews:




While I'm sad that they've chosen to not resume the series' longstanding numbering, the return of an ongoing duck title hopefully, with a couple more to follow, and at least one "mouse" title) to the U.S. comic book market is cause to celebrate.Can't wait 'til April!

-- Ryan

Monday, January 19, 2015

Aladdin (the TV series) 20th anniversary (...well, now 21st...) -- Episode 16: "Web of Fear" (9/20/94)

With Jasmine's illogical sympathy and standing up for Arbutus, "Garden of Evil" would have been a near-flop of an episode had it not been so elaborately, beautifully produced. "Web of Fear" actually reiterates some of "Garden"'s themes and plot elements, but in this case, Jasmine's behavior actually makes sense and is justified by the rest of the scenario.




Arbutus actually had abducted Jasmine and intended to hold her against her will, while in the case of Jasmine being taken off into the company of the Unkbuuts, all of her friends -- and for a time, the audience, as all that transpires between her and the Unkbuut before Al and the boys catch up with her occurs off-screen -- mistakenly believe that Jasmine is being held captive and is endangered by the Unkbuut. As it turns out that they've actually received her as a welcomed guest and she's found that they pose no threats to the humans of Agrabah on the surface, then when Aladdin first sees her palling around with the Unkbuut queen and urges her to "get away", and Jasmine protests, "No, we've had the wrong idea about them! They don't mean us any harm! They're nice! They're gentle! We need to have open minds and embrace them! Stop being a bigot, Aladdin!", this time, she's actually right. (For the record, that wasn't an actual quote -- I was mocking the disparity in "Garden of Evil" between its message and its actual content.)





 While "Web" isn't on the order of "Garden" as far as its cinematic, sweeping, completely engrossing production values, and so doesn't have its (irrational) emotional impact, it's also not the sloppiest episode. The heavy use of textured purples and (for the "atmospheric" nighttime setting) blues gives the episode that mysterious, "whimsical" fantasy-adventure flavor that the series has a tendency for. Although the wide shots of the giant crater in the middle of Agrabah and the underground realms (ancient layers of the city that have been built on top of each other, per the Sultan) where the Unkbuut dwell use these textural techniques to cover the lack of actual detail in the backgrounds, this visual motif gives the episode a solid, unified feel.




The uniform appearance of the Unkbuut helps in this regard, as well -- in some episodes, it seems that the design artists went out of their way (whether it was due to pressure from executives or self-regulation, I don't know) to make some monsters look not too scary, and while the Unkbuut aren't particularly hideous, they're not particularly goofy-looking, either. In the end, that works well, considering their nature -- they don't look so cuddly so as to make it unbelievable that anyone was scared at the sight of them.

 Of course, even though its reiteration of "the moral of the story" explicitly (and confoundingly) stressed at the end of "Garden of Evil" is justified by the events of the episode (second time's the charm!), the narrative is still exceedingly predictable and as a whole a glaring cliché -- they actually have the pitchfork-wielding (er, figuratively) mob attempting to burn the Unkbuut alive (never let it be said that this series shied away from showing kids the ugly side of human nature, eh?) swayed to "the other side" by having them witness, in a completely contrived scenario, the Unkbuut queen rescue an endangered cute little boy and cute little dog. They didn't even try to avoid this cliché -- in fact, they went all-out with it! But in using this generic plot, they didn't mess it up, either. Thus, like the visuals, the story is "solid" -- not as impressive and memorable as its "soulmate" "Garden of Evil", but it got the job done.





Genie Watch: In the opening rescue scene (which was an unconventional way to open the episode, in the wake of a major calamity, so I have to give them that -- and plus, I liked the portrayal of Aladdin and the gang as a ready-to-go, vigilante, dilligent "rescue squad" ... with Iago's obligatory reluctance and griping, of course), on several occasions, Genie does some sort of impression or elaborate "simulation" to rescue people, and in so doing, is completely effective, with almost no bungling! Woo hoo! Unfortunately, in the flight from the Unkbuut's realm to the surface to put out the angry mob's (literal) flames, Genie botches turning himself into a flying contraption, and Carpet picks up the slack. Well, don't want to put Carpet out of a job, after all, but couldn't he and Genie split the load more often?

 -- Ryan

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

(Assorted) Christmas tidings.

A break from the Aladdin reviews (it's been months of nothing else -- I fear I may have lost some readers!) to acknowledge that I am actually aware of the calendar that the rest of the world follows and wish my regular readers (all of the ones whom I know of I consider my friends) a merry Christmas!

________________


Last Sunday, I attended a special screening at Amherst Cinema.




Hard to believe that it's 22 Christmases since, at the age of 11, I saw it at the theater during its original release with my parents and sister. Being that my earliest memories are of watching reruns of The Muppet Show in syndication and that it was the first show that I was crazy about, it was very, very considerate, kind, and generous of my parents to take us. (And my sister was a good sport in coming along. But it made me very happy when, during the opening scene, she recognized Doc's companion from Fraggle Rock and whispered to me from her seat, "Ryan, Sprocket!" 

The first Muppet feature film to be produced without Jim, when seeing it for the first time in 1992, I was very moved when the film began rolling and the dedication below appeared on the screen. It was a powerful, solemn moment. (This time, I applauded.)




In the post-Jim Henson world, until 2012's The Muppets (which not only was clearly a dream project for Jason Segel, but he had a deft understanding of what makes the Muppets tick), I was almost convinced that I would ever again see a new Muppet production that I didn't find heartless and to be trying too hard. For some reason, though, Christmas Carol, hit upon a certain magic. I don't know if Jim's spirit was still lingering, or if it was the raw emotion from the Muppet team having been dealt such a massive emotional blow -- especially director Brian Henson, Jim's son. Or maybe it's just that Brian had a "special touch" similar to his father's -- however much of it is Brian, it's worth noting that its lacking in all the subsequent projects that he hasn't been involved in.

Whatever the case, Christmas Carol's "magic" is an earnest romanticism and its vivid, detailed (liberty-taking) period piece approach. In part, these qualities and can be attributed to the essential trappings and sentiment of the source material. Dickens' classic story (I'm not saying that because I think that it's the thing to say; I consider it a classic) is so good, it's hard to do wrong, and so all of the good things about it would inevitably carry out, right? As if, when chosen to be told, it comes to life and tells itself, more or less? Think again: consider Hanna-Barbera's bland, uninspired 1994 animated TV movie A Flintstones Christmas Carol.) 

So, let's think in terms of practicality, and try to get a handle on what this movie has going for it and why it works:

1. The rich sets. costumes, lighting, and cinematography (from the drab stuffiness of young Scrooge's classroom to "Fozziwig's" bright, joyful, mirthful party to the warm, gilded glow of the Ghost of Christmas Present's "spread" that Scrooge finds in the room adjoining his sleeping chamber). These aesthetics bring intto realization a romanticized only slightly surreal and fantastical vision of Dickens' 19th century London-in-December. 

2. Paul Williams' incredibly tasteful score and songs, with their minor key melodies and string-and-brass-heavy arrangements. Though clearly following the traditions of 20th century showtunes, they still are very fitting to, and greatly enhance, the movie ambience of the movie's "reimagined" fantasy Victorian setting. 

(The following year, a certain other Christmas movie that featured puppetry of a different sort went REALLY overboard on the outlandishness in its sets and music. [Christmas Carol only becomes truly ghastly and distorted in the Christmas Yet-to-Come scene.] The latter film's visual and aural elements alike have since become deeply embedded, iconic -- albeit niche -- pieces of pop culture. While a part of me may resent that by comparison, Muppet Christmas Carol hasn't gotten its due, I can take solace in that least half of every topic isn't devoted to merchandise based on it.) 

3. The casting ... of the Muppets. They seem to have not made it a priority to give all of the "major" characters an important role (e.g., Miss Piggy and Fozzie have minimal screen time), taking care so that each Muppet was a "natural fit" in their role, allowing each to simultaneously be his or her "self" and the character they're "playing". Also, commendable discretion was used in not casting known Muppets as the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, instead following a purist's approaching, creating original Muppets(*) that are wholly based on Dickens' conception of each of these three entities. They're supposed to be unfamiliar and not of "this" world. Kermit's familiarity to the audience makes him as protagonist an easy sell. (I know, someone out there wants to chew me out, as Scrooge is actually the protagonist. I used the term for its connotations.) Thus, the juxtaposition between such a "grounding" character and the alien-ness of the ghosts (besides arguably having been more more stark) allows this iteration of the story to, at least in my opinion, retain the severity of the orignal's thrust. (More on this below.)

(*) Christmas Present, with his felt flesh-toned "skin" and general sweetness strikes me as a formal Muppet, while Past and Yet-to-Come seem like they would have come out of the Creature Shop. However, the credits don't indicate such. But I'm sure there was some crossover in staff.

4. Successfully walking the fine line between telling the story straight, hitting all of the right cues in terms of drama and suspense, while simultaneously being a spoof. It's crucial to note that it succeeds at the latter but is never a mockery, keeping all the Muppet-ian puns, absurd behavior, and physical comedy on an even keel, giving it consistent zest and spice without detracting from the main ingredient. And how is this consistency achieved? Delegating much of the comedic asides to a "narrator", Gonzo, and his "assistant", Rizzo was a very astute move -- in this function, they are explicitly removed from the story, allowing it to retain its, if you will, dignity. The Ghost of Christmas-Yet-to-Come scene is considerably dark, with said ghost's visage beingactually quite scary, but that in sensing the reaction of the kids in the audience, Gonzo and Rizzo's single moment of levity during this sequence (informing the audience in hushed tones that the proceedings are too scary and that we're "on [our] own" until "the finale") broke the tension at just the right moment ... a very fleeting moment, at that; we then resume -- with no flinching -- the so-tense-you-feel-like-you're-about-to-be-a-squished-tomato buildup to the revelation of the name on the tombstone and the outpouring of unabashed pathos that immediately follows. As far as I'm concerned, Michael Caine nails this scene -- if there's an audience that would laugh "ironically" at the melodrama, I don't want to sit in a theater with it.

...and how have I not addressed the lead role? In casting a real person as Scrooge, Scrooge's "non-Muppetiness" and innate "Scrooginess" are emphasized. Michael Caine, a fan of The Muppet Show who professed that he had always been jealous that he was never one of its guest stars and so relished that he "got to do a whole movie", was only too happy to be part of this movie. Having Scrooge played straight, much like the three spirits, is a move that at least has the right idea in preserving the story's austerity, but having a world-class actor whose completely sincere and fully invested in his performance is what brings the whole thing home. (And though Scrooge being a real person and not a Muppet sets him apart from them, having other "live" human actors interspersed throughout the crowds of London's Muppet denizens affirms that he's part of their earthly world, allowing the three spirits to be just as unearthly in contrast with him as they are in contrast with Kermit and Robin.)


My favorite song from the film (drove my whole family crazy by incessantly playing it over and over, day after day, rewinding -- and possibly fast-forwarding, at least a little -- the cassette tape after each play until I found "the right spot" so that I could hear the whole thing again ... and again, and again, and again, and again ...):




Unfortunately, the above YouTube upload does a disservice to the song by jumping in after it has actually begun -- here's the full version, sans video:




Though I've seen the movie many times over the years, seeing it in the theater again really transported me back to that Saturday afternoon at Showcase Cinemas all those years ago. More than once, it struck me, "This is just how I remember it." Even though it's clearly been the same exact movie every time that I've seen it on VHS and, more recently, on the Internet, there's something about seeing it on "the [a] big screen" ... it's not just a matter of scale, but of environment and perspective/vantage point. This time around, I was particularly struck by the cinematography in the build-up to Marley "and Marley" appearing to Scrooge -- it was clearly inspired by horror movies (the more classy, atmospheric type, not slasher flicks!) Unfortunately, the only version of not just the song "Marley and Marley" but this scene in full, including the "creepy" build-up sequence that I'm talking about, is in German. But you should be able to get the idea: 




(Pretty good dubbing and mindfulness of the original voices, I must say!)


________________


I'd like to get one more Aladdin review in before the New Year. I have been giving much apprehensive thought to instituting a length cap, so that it won't take me until 2025 to get through the whole series. However, I only meant to write one or two short, casual paragraphs about The Muppet Christmas Carol in this post, and look how that turned out.


________________


Merry Christmas, Chris, Joe, Joseph, Geo, David, Mom, and whoever else who might be reading!


-- Ryan

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Aladdin (the TV series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 15: "Some Enchanted Genie" (9/19/94)

Genie Watch: Yes, I suppose it makes sense to designate this entire post as a "Genie watch", given that the character with which that regular feature is concerned is integral to this episode, and not in his usual role of a tag-along supplier of (sometimes clever or enjoyable absurd, sometimes stomach-turning and obnoxious) comic relief. One may logically surmise from the episode's title that he takes center place in its story ... but it actually might have been more accurate to have called it "Some Enchanted Genies", for, in the end, Eden's feelings seemed reciprocal, did they not?

I have actually always been pretty "eh" about this episode -- the premise reeks of the writers realizing that a Genie-centric episode was "due", and then in trying to figure out what they should do with the character, they went one of the most obvious routes: "Hey, we should give him a love interest! Hey, there's other genies, right? And there's no reason that there wouldn't be girl genies, is there? So let's give him a genie girlfriend for an episode! And in so doing, we'll show what other genies are like and how they interact!"




And apparently, all genies are spastic and prone to impressions and cultural references. Eden is modeled after a certain type: a "sassy", sort-of "hot" but somewhat aged and rough around the edges (personally, if this weren't a kids' show, I would think that her character is a smoker) single 30-something, who is so socially savvy that she sees through people's "BS" ... but despite -- in fact, in a way, because of -- channeling her perceptiveness through sarcasm and loud-mouthedness -- two of her primary traits -- she still is popular in her social circle and general locale. (I'm bad at pinpointing accents, but with her voicing, it seems like they were going for one that is severely diluted Long Island or "Joisey" -- it makes sense that she wears hoop earrings, à la Fran Drescher's eponymous role in The Nanny, who exemplifies the "type" I'm talking about ... though admittedly, Eden's not so grating -- at least vocally -- when compared to Drescher. But it does make sense that a female genie would be comparable to a female comedian, given that Robin Williams was essentially playing himself when recording Genie's voice tracks.)




Take such a brassy, overbearing character, whose performance is modeled on one (Williams') that I'd never cared for, and feature her in an episode that amounts to a sitcom, and you have a recipe for a production that my adventure story-preferring self would never be too thrilled with (but especially at 13, when I first saw it). But this time around, I definitely admired the writing (Abis Mal's efforts to become Eden's master is adroitly woven into the the story of Genie's "Does she like me, does she hate me?" ordeal) and animation. It looks to have been animated by whatever house is the one that I favor, which I believe worked on "Never Say Nefir", "Air Feather Friends", and "Garden of Evil". Their squash-and-stretch style -- fluid in movement but exaggerated and incredibly specific in poses and facial expressions -- is certainly fitting for a comedy episode, but particularly for the hyperactive, heavily physical antics of the genie species (or at least the two presented here).



(I'd expect Robin Williams' Genie to react to a female genie
more like Tex Avery's wolf and less as a lovesick sap.)


It's bewildering that Eden is written as Genie originally was in the movie -- fully in command and the master of (no pun intended) his own powers, intelligent but preferring to be the comedian present in every situation (even if no one's looking for one), perceptive, on top of things, quick-witted, fast-talking, fast-acting, and generally having his **** together -- and yet on his part, he is still the incompetent, clueless bumbler that he all too often is throughout the series. (Do genies lose functionality after they are "freed" and are no longer in the servant-to-their-master/slave-of-the-lamp/bottle role?) One could argue that here, his ineptitude stems from him having gone gaga for Eden -- he's a nervous wreck first in asking her out and then on their date, and during the depression that he sinks into after he thinks she's stood him up, he certainly doesn't become any more alert, aware, or capable than usual. His being lovesick, and all the stomach butterflies and mind-blanking-out that comes with it, is certainly a factor. However, I question if the original Genie would've even been nearly this vulnerable -- he was so "smooth" and quick on his feet, and I could see that iteration of the character as having been a natural "player". If he hadn't been so dumbed down for the series, I would accept the premise that it was a clear exception for him to turn into a klutz and have his confidence drop when Eden enters the picture, as it's normal per genie biology for a male genie to turn to jelly when falling for and courting a female genie ... something we just hadn't previously been given the opportunity to witness.





Though taking a carriage ride to Saturn and skating on its rings actually seems pretty mellow for a genie date, considering the "cosmic, phenomenal" powers at their disposal (presumably, they can go anywhere in space and time; if "our" -- or the series', but that's semantics -- universe is but one atom to another, then the evening out that they opted for should be like what going to a gas station convenience store is to us), but the fantastical, whimsical (hmm, I think I may have used those adjectives before...) nature of this excursion is fitting, given that they're both playful magical entities and that it's played as an idyllic, storybook perfect, er, enchanted (well, can you blame me?) romp.




Being when it comes down to it common thieves and not sorcerers or mad inventors, Abis Mal and Haroud are the most suited to be used as "generic"or "default" villains. A Mozenrath, Mirage, or Mechanicles episode tends to be about their respective scheme and efforts; the spotlight is on them. Here, the spotlight is on Genie and Eden, and Abis Mal and Haroud were a logical choice. Acquiring power is always Abis Mal's goal, and having him operating from a place of desperation -- pathetically skulking under the boardwalk to hide and spy (above), and sneaking into an impoverished orphan child's hovel to steal from her -- isn't a betrayal of his character whereas it would be beneath the dignity of the other villains listed above. Abis Mal can both carry an episode as its heavy and at center stage, or function as a go-to antagonist who, as in much of this episode, is kept to the sidelines. (That term is especially appropriate, as until the end of the first act, he and Haroud spend their time observing the goings-on from a distance.)





Given the (unknown, thanks to the credits not being available online) studio that animated this episode, with their "fluid in movement but exaggerated and incredibly specific in poses and facial expressions", Abis Mal and Haroud's are especially kinetic and snappy here. (See examples above.) The energy of their performance only augments their prickly exchanges -- my favorite moments are: 1. The ever-more-observant-than-his-"master" Haroud having finally (after a struggle, as such things with the thick-skulled Abis Mal tend to be) succeeded in drawing Mal's attention to Eden, only to have her simultaneously change into a seal, prompting Abis Mal to ask, "You brought me to look at a seal?" 2. Abis Mal drawing a blank when attempting to declare his second wish and have it nullify Genie's powers (as if they ever actually got in his way?), and Haroud having to repeatedly whisper his ear, "feeding" Mal his "line" broken down into segments. 3. Haroud dead-panning, "Yes, you'll be needing that" when Abis Mal asks for "mega brain-power" in addition to being made giant-sized. His only other line until Abis Mal is thwarted and his normal size and lack of super powers are restored is a dry, "Wonderful, soon you'll be able to play children's birthday parties", in reaction to Abis Mal panicking and hopping on one foot right after having set the other one on fire. It may have been that otherwise, the writers put Haroud out of sight for this scene. We don't actually see him do this, but I picture him standing aside, his arms stiffly folded and looking away to his side, resigned to the inevitably of Abis Mal blindly botching and squandering the whole enterprise. We certainly do see some eye-rolling on Haroud's part, though, as shown below. (But couldn't we have SOMETHING besides "Abis Mal turns giant-sized"?)







A couple of miscellaneous notes:

  • So, rubbing a lamp "calls" a genie not just from inside, but if he's anywhere else, anywhere at all, makes him instantly disappear there and reappear where the lamp is? Has this been established in the franchise? Like, did Aladdin ever do it in the original movie?


  • Also, speaking of lamps, I like the nod to other genie traditions in fiction in outfitting Eden with a bottle instead. (Below, with Dhandi.)




  • I like that besides being impoverished, wearing tattered clothes, and having saddened eyes, Dhandi (above, with Eden's bottle) is smart and resourceful (as demonstrated when she repeatedly points Abis Mal in the wrong direction when he's tearing apart her hovel in search of Eden's equivalent of Genie's lamp (a bottle, but Dhandi won't let on that fact) and her seizing the bottle just in time to use her second wish to undo Abis Mal's last wish. Her being a clever, wily kid counterbalances her generosity and compassion, avoiding the "homeless child as perfect angel" trope.


  • Why do Aladdin and Abu appear to be living on the riverbank?




  • Is "gumdrop pizzza" one of those things that's supposed to be funny because it's soooo "wacky"? And a literal "leaning tower of pizza"? Really?!


  • Dhandi "needing someone" shouldn't have really precluded Genie and Eden from continuing their relationship, as Dhandi lived in Agrabah anyway. Perhaps they thought that contriving a reason for Eden and Dhandi to relocate far away would come off as just that, contrived. They could have at least specified that raising Dhandi will be a "full-time gig" ... but even that would have drawn attention to the fact that Eden would still be able to at least take nights off, especially when Dhandi's a little older. Hmm, in inevitably having to restore the status quo at the end of the episode and get Genie's new girlfriend out of the picture, maybe the writers actually, for once, avoided the traps they usually fall into and thought the sentiment, the affectation of it would convey to the viewer in full what was happening, as if it were a "natural" development that "just felt right". And more or less, it did ... although it is highly appropriate to wonder if being conditioned to "end-of-episode status quo restorations" might account for buying this type wrap-up scene wholesale.

-- Ryan

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Aladdin (the TV series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 14: "Garden of Evil" (9/14/94)

Owing to active, fluid animation that's both graceful and quirky, striking background art that is more lush, ethereal, dense, and intricate than that of virtually any other episode, and a tight, lazer-focused, rolling, expedited plot, "Garden of Evil" is in terms of story craft and aesthetics one of the most outstanding episodes of Aladdin. Unfortunately, it plays as thought it's actually too aware of how exceptional its sensitivity and preciousness is, and got enough of a swelled head to believe that it could encapsulate and relate a deep, profound, enlightening eternal truth concerning peace, love, openness, and understanding ... but ends up making no sense and being self-contradictory, ending by overtly stressing a moral that hasn't been justified, and in fact does a disservice to the audience by mis-characterizing the story that had just been told to them.




Out of the 13 preceding episodes, I think of "Garden"'s closest kin as being "Raiders of the Lost Shark", for both have a harsher than usual tone and a greater sense of one plot event spurring the next, making the episode seem exceptionally singular and momentous. Also, both have fantastical settings that are both beautiful and eerie, and a part-realistic (think: a shark, a plant), part-supernatural (or "magical", to use the series' parlance) menace ... actually, perhaps it's more apt to liken Arbutus to Murk than to the shark, for both are cold, stern, and dictatorial. Although Murk ostensibly allies with Aladdin and the gang in seeking the shark, he ultimately proves himself foe, not friend, when he leaves Jasmine for dead in the remote desert with the shark nearby; if anything, the shark is a plot device, while Murk is the villain proper.

The Sultan-centric flashback that opens the episode is not just an action-heavy, visually arresting "hook" to capture the viewer, but is also an efficient, concise way of relaying all the needed exposition. It starts out using a light, soft palette when introducing the young Sultan riding across the desert by moonlight. The striking wide-shot reveal of the exterior of Arbutus' garden is lush, warm, magnificent, beautiful, and inviting. (I guess it's not his beard still having its color as it is the upright posture that makes him more noble and dashing. It's nice to see an adventurous, self-sufficient, youthful Sultan, and it's too bad that the story arc post-flashback doesn't have much to do with him, mostly just keeping him along for the ride.) When he enters the gates and we see different segments of the interior, a similar lushness and brightness characterizes much of the plants and general scenery, but it is now shrouded in shadows ... but with a more mystic and even heavenly quality, rather than an ominous one. 







The mood decidedly changes, though, right at that fateful moment at which Sultan picks that flower -- the glowing ray from somewhere above that had literally spotlighted it, drawing him to it in the first place, obviously signifying a switch in tone, in a matter of seconds becomes more and more narrow until it disappears, the shadows become blacker and more oppressive, tumult and chaos wage as the earth quakes and a giant, gnarled root breaks through the ground and winds up toward Arbutus' "skylight" (I actually see a resemblance to the animated exterior shots of Scrooge's money bin transforming into Merlock's citadel!), and Arbutus makes his entrance. Looming imposingly above the Sultan, we only see him in part, his face never being revealed in full -- in particular, we only see it up to his nose -- to us, building up a sense of mystery around him and leaving the impression that he's so powerful as to be in accessible.








The flashback is over in but two minutes, and so when we join the main cast in the series' "present" -- finding Sultan lamenting that the day upon which Arbutus had promised he'd come to collect his due -- having at long last arrived, the audience is fully informed on the deal, all of the story's suspense and tension has been implemented, and so things are already a-moving: immediately, plans are made for Al and the boys to stay up all night guarding the treasure room (as after all, Arbutus is coming for Sultan's "greatest treasure"). We cut to them doing just that, each in custom-fit (courtesy of Genie, I imagine) versions of the uniform worn by Razoul and his men. An eerie calm hangs over this scene, much like in "Raiders of the Lost Shark", as the characters awaited the first appearance of Murk's obsessively sought "beast". Things intensify as the audience is shown something that none of the characters are aware is happening (you know, that old trick): while the boys fight to stay awake, in her chamber, as she sleeps, Jasmine is set upon by a bunch of creeping, writhing vines. The suspense finally breaks as Jasmine's screams draw Aladdin and his pals running to her aid while simultaneously, Sultan awakes from a nightmare that replays the opening scene but that for some reason makes him realize what Arbutus' intention is (and so he awakes crying her name). Action ensues as Arbutus fights off their attempts to stop him from abducting her, and though the dust is settling as the first act ends, Aladdin, once he uncovers himself from the rubble, resolves to immediately begin pursuit, ensuring that the plot continues to move forward.










Whereas in the wake of their first battle with "Raiders"' shark and its subsequent retreat, there followed a cycle of more waiting, counterattacks, and strategic retreats. However, the search/chase stuff isn't integral to "Garden"'s narrative, and so we don't see Aladdin and the rest until they arrive at Arbutus' front gate.  (Ultimately, the gang did have to set out to rescue Jasmine from the monster, but that was a complication that came late in the game. They would never be pursuing Arbutus if he had just left them alone in the first place. But with the shark, they had concluded that the shark was a menace to society as a whole and so they were obligated to render it inoperative.) In the meantime, what occurs is dialogue-heavy exchange in Arbutus' lair between him and Jasmine. Though this sequence constitutes a lull in action and a slowing of pace, by cutting away from Aladdin's pursuit and holding off the inevitable rescue and battle, all of the suspense and tension built up right through the end of the first act is maintained at a slow boil -- as it becomes more and more apparent how warped Arbutus is and what a precarious situation Jasmine is in -- until Aladdin's arrival and the final showdown commences.





It's what occurs between Jasmine and Arbutus that for me is where the episode loses its way. For one thing, it feels like a date on which she's falling for his phony "See, I'm a sensitive artist with a gentle soul, and no one understands me" and not realizing that he's a total creep. Arbutus knew -- he even tacitly admitted by railing against humanity's ignorance -- that Sultan meant no harm by picking the flower. Arbutus could've explained to him, "I know that you were not aware of this, but that flower meant as much as your own child would to you", and Sultan would've been like, "Oh, dear, I feel just terrible! I am ever so sorry! I will instruct my subjects to treat your kind as equals, and from this day forward, there will be peace and cooperation between our two kingdoms!" Instead, Arbutus craftily makes but one simple threat, and then sits back for the next 20 years (all he had to was plant the seed, pun intended) while Sultan is psychologically terrorized ... more and more so as the deadline nears. Thus, when Arbutus at last brings Sultan's worst nightmare to life (literally, given the dream that Sultan awakes from just as Arbutus is sinking his stems into Jasmine), the plant-man knows EXACTLY what he's doing -- it's out of vengeance and malice, which was not the case with Sultan. Aladdin can't be blamed for coming to rescue her more so than he can any other time he's rescued her or any of their friends from some villain. Even urging him to stop fighting the roots makes no sense, as they are the ones attacking him! As dramatized and as starkly shown as Arbutus might be, it doesn't really merit the "can't we all just get along?" message or the gang feeling that they had somehow wronged him by reacting to Jasmine's abduction and had "attacked" him without cause. They've never before killed one of their opponents, and I can't think of any other on-screen death in the series, and so I think it's appropriate that they at least lament that it had come to that. (And at that Aladdin's immediate reaction to Arbutus' death -- victoriously exclaiming, "Yes!" as he does that thing where you make a fist and hold it up near your chest, jutting your elbow down a couple inches -- is unsettling.) But it's not as though Arbutus was some saint who had never meant them any harm and had only misunderstood his deeds and words as threats and aggression. But that's what the episode seems to want us to think.







It's as if Arbutus is supposed to be Edward Scissorhands -- an outcast who in appearance is scary to "normals" but actually is harmless, sweet, and kind ... and is a gifted artist, creating elaborate garden sculptures in private that astound the rare visitor. The music composed for this episode recalls the traditional "epic" Hollywood score, but incorporating more "special" elements that are both whimsical and haunting -- in a quiet moment, as Jasmine sleeps and the vines/stems/whatever begin creeping into her chamber, the mood is set by what resembles music box tones. ("This is creepy, but it's magical and wondrous" seems to be the cue...) Now, does this description bring any particular celebrated Hollywood composer to mind? Like, say, Danny Elfman? You know, the guy who scored Edward Scissorhands? While Edward was actually a nice guy, given the qualities of the score, and the "misunderstood misfit" theme (as inappropriate as it is for "Garden", and the garden sculpture angle), the influence of one of Tim Burton, Danny Elfman, and Johnny's Depp's early films -- one that was career-defining for all three --  is at least




And I know that's odd to say, given that the shy, clammy Edward couldn't be further from the commanding, egotistic Arbutus. As unsympathetic as I am to Arbutus and as uncalled for as I find the sentiment of the ending, I do enjoy his portrayal. In fact, with his angular, wizened features; tall, stout, imposing stature; his "refined" Eastern-ish red robe with yellow trim and spiked (with what are thorns, I would presume) collar (also, he wears what appear to be a turban and a skirt, but as there are two or three shades of green between them, I think they are actually part of him); his sinewy, resounding voice and his almost musical (though more Wagnerian than nursery rhyme) patterns of speech, he shares the qualities -- gaunt; quaint in voice and diction; mannered and formal; intelligent and articulate -- that appealed to me in Batman: The Animated Series' version of Ra's Al Ghul. As Ra's decidedly stood apart from the various thugs and psychos that made up that series' Rogues Gallery, Arbutus' lankiness and professorial disposition is a refreshing change of pace from Sootinai's muscle-flexing and WWF-like bellowings. Ron Perlman's performance as Arbutus is outstanding, but David Warner's Al Ghul voice (the same voice he used for Gargoyles' Archmage, by the way) would've been equally suiting.

Actually, I can think of another comparison: Arbutus' emaciated physique, occult-ish "shaman"-like garb, deep voice (but dial it down a bit, and add a nervous quiver), erudite way of speaking, and bratty self-absorption foreshadows a recurring series villain to-be...


Genie Watch: In this episode, he tends to favor more "generic" impersonations (rather than specific celebrities and contemporary references): when Aladdin first summons him from the lamp (WHY does he still live in that thing?!), he emerges in a nightgown and nightcap, in the midst of brushing with an electric toothbrush, his eyes barely opened. Once Al urgently explains to him the situation with Arbutus' expected arrival, Genie transforms into an overly fired-up "jarhead" soldier shouting in a Southern accent, "Ah am read to serve!!!", which in itself, made me laugh out loud ... but he's forgotten to transform the toothbrush into a sword, as he'd intended (are his powers really THAT flunky!), and when he realizes the mistake, he makes a remark about "fighting tooth decay first". So things get fouled up by him once again being a klutz, and then by making a coy, "punchy" remark that's the kind of flamboyant, self-infatuated thing that Robin Williams did that I wish the show hadn't tried to tap into so much.  Later, he splits himself into a trio of beatniks -- not the most original gag, but not the most annoying, either.








Over the course of the clashes with Arbutus, Genie transforms into a couple of things that are appropriate, and in some cases, actually HELP: a caterpillar munching away at the plants that have entrapped Jasmine in the abduction scene -- fitting, but staying true to his current form, he (at least acts as though he) has no reaction time, and just keeps munching away as Arbutus makes off with Jasmine; way too late, caterpillar-Genie does try to chase after them ... but remains in the caterpillar form, waddling across the bedroom, getting trapped by some sort of plant with multiple large leaves that snap shut around him. It's actually somewhat funny -- in a sort of "face-to-palm" "WHAT?!" kind of way -- when he bursts through the leaves in the form an overly cute butterfly (the plant trap was the caterpillar's cocoon, get it?), gushing in falsetto about how he's "so pretty". Later, in the garden, he dons a classic red-and-white checkered bib (at least, these seem to be classic, going by old cartoons and comics) and assumes a larger-than-usual size so that he's able eat the attacking vines as if they're spaghetti; this is head-scratching yet logical enough to be appreciated just for the absurdity and incongruity if it. In the final battle, he annoys Arbutus by taking the form of a gopher (in the form of Gopher of Winnie the Pooh, but blue) and then a woodpecker. As I always say, if he only uses his powers through impersonations and parodies, the best we can ask for is that he does ones that make sense.








-- Ryan