Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Keep your table clear of any and all vegetables this Thanksgiving...

...and save your family from Arbutus' wrath. (Because vegetables are plants.)

But hopefully, we'll see a lot of him on this blog in the near future.

-- Ryan

Monday, November 17, 2014

Aladdin (the TV series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 13: "The Vapor Chase" (9/13/94)

A recurring criticism that I have made, or flirted with making,  of several episodes has been that they revolve around a fantastical spectacle expected to linchpin the episode, holding together -- while "professionally" and in some aspects cleverly written -- a contrived plot and characterizations and character arcs that are, to  varying degrees, noticeably ill-fitting.

"Do the Rat Thing" was an episode that I thought should've eschewed all its spectacle (a silly and annoying type of spectacle quite unlike the "epic" visual spectacles of "The Vapor Chase" or its "big monster" predecessors, but spectacle nonetheless) and gone the route of being a pure character piece. Episodes like "Fowl Weather" and "Bad Mood Rising" found a balance between fantastical premises and character-driven narratives (though the latter may not have been perfect each case), actually coming off kind of like thoughtful, somewhat subtle fables (or in the case "Fowl Weather", an ancient myth of a god of one of the elements spurned by a mortal lover...hmm, that angle never occurred to me until juts now now...) Then there have been the "heavier" episodes: "Raiders of the Lost Shark" was actually a near-seamless integration of plot, character, and big-scope fantastical premise and spectacle. "The Prophet Motive", on the other hand, went all out with its generally ominous, foreboding tone, amplified sense of terror and danger, doomsaying from an enigmatic, deep-voiced, domineering and deep-voiced elderly prophet/wizard fully in the Gandalf mode, skeletons rotting in castles, and a cloud-bound ancient fortress housing an ancient splendorous treasure and ancient primordial evil in the form of the inevitable giant monster. There weren't really any "personalized" character arcs to speak of -- the prophecies of Fasir that loomed over Aladdin and Jasmine over the episode were situational in every respect, and had nothing to do with "who they are as people". In that case, I praised the episode for laying on thick the sword-and-sorcery and apocalyptic inclinations, noting that the main cast was drawn into the proceedings only incidentally but that I didn't consider that a big deal, as the episode did what it did well. 

In fact, I wish that the writers had more often felt free to use that episode as a mode, just facilitating the characters being drawn into into the plot and letting it takes it course, and not feeling obligated to work in one of the regular cast overcoming some sort of personal issue and learning a lesson about themselves. The writers may felt they needed to justify the series being Aladdin [& the Rest of the Gang from the Movie], but I, for one, always bought into that the series was going to chronicle their many adventures, and that the adventures themselves should therefore be good enough. It's okay to have some episodes based around a character idea and others around an event idea; you don't always necessarily have to do both.

"The Vapor Chase" is a case in point. (In fact, comparing it to "The Prophet Motive" is very apt, as its largely comprised of Abis Mal waging a scheme that eventually brings a giant monster into the picture.) What's the plot? Abis Mal acquires a load of black powder (Haroud did the leg work in carrying the heavy sack of the stuff to their lair, of course, much to his chagrin). They discover that if they burn the powder, the resulting smoke takes the form of little smoke demons that can speak and are autonomous, but they promise Abis Mal that they "can steal stuff for" him, and are only too glad to follow his orders. (Haroud is naturally the one to try to warn that something seems fishy, but he can't get this point to be received on the inside of Abis Mal's thick skull ... hmm, although the writers seemed to struggle with the main cast some, they seem to have NO problem with their OWN characters ... hence why I must be using phrases like "of course" and "naturally" when recounting their performance, as if they actually exist aren't being written, or at least couldn't be written any other way). Eventually, when the various wispy, roughly Abu-sized smoke demons have accumulated enough gold coins, jewels, etc., they are able to join together to form the reincarnated Sootinai -- a giant, wrathful, malevolent, power-made smoke demon who talks like a WWE wrestler and visually is a hammer-to-the-head allusion to the demon of Fantasia's Nightmare on Bald Mountain. (It's inferred that Sootinai had once before existed and terrorized the world, and for some reason, had been trapped inoperative in the form of the powder that found its way into Abis Mal's clutches, and that somehow, the mini-smoke demons -- him subdivided and dilluted, I guess -- hording stolen riches in Abis Mal's lair enables them/him to reform into his maximal vestige; "Your greed was but a tool to release my power", he contemptuously informs Abis Mal.)

Where do the goods guys fit into all this? Of course, when the mysterious overnight robberies first start occurring all over Agrabah, our ever-dependable, valiant heroes are on the case, trying to find some clues to solve the mystery. They're resourceful and Abis Mal is sloppy, so of course the trail leads to him -- but too late to stop the resurrection of Sootinai. In turn, as soon as he's waging Godzilla-style destruction upon Agrabah,they're there trying to stop him -- which, by the time the few minutes of the now-underway third-and-final act (signified by Sootina's big entrance), they've done, utilizing -- in a commendable case of planting-a key-plot-point-early-on-and-bringing-it-back-into-play-later-at-just-the-needed-moment) -- an underground repository that Aladdin and the boys had mentioned finding at the beginning of the episode. And what more do you expect or want? The good are, plain and simple, there to oppose and defeat the bad guys; that's TV Action-Adventure Cartoons 101.

So what's this whole thing with Jasmine being jealous of resenting Aladdin's water discovery getting more attention that her "economical heating fuel" discovery? Is it necessary? No. Does it do anything? No. Does it actually taint Jasmine's character? Yes. Could we still have Aladdin discovering the water so that it would come in handy at the story's climax, and still have good-hearted Jasmine wanting to distribute the "powder" to all of Agrabah's impoverished citizens but without the whole jealous rivalry angle, and not have it be detrimental to the plot at all? Yes.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not crazy about Sootinai. At least he has a slick, stark appearance in both outline and color, and the "special effects" he's flanked by, in terms of psuedo-"lighting" and "shading" and color texture, is similar in style and production value to the lightning storms in "Bad Mood Rising"...but man, that testosterone-overloaded pro-wrestler voice.  (Did the production crew just figure, "Oh, if we're gonna go big monster, let's go FULL big monster?)  But still, that's all it is, is a flashy (actually, bombastic and even violent) visual production, without much substance to it.  When the "Hey, remember that water we found?" play occurs, it's nice to be reminded that the writers hadn't forgotten about plot. The episode does have more going for it in other respects, though: a nice, mysterious ambiance (largely due to the visual palette, which is heavy on deep shadows partially dispersed by firelight) is maintained throughout the opening scene in Haroud's lair and the scene representing the first night of the min-smoke demon's stealthily robbing a sleeping Agrabah. Also, in general, the animation and character poses are quite good.

And, in a sense, this is a prime example of the series' first few weeks in the fall of '94, when Abis Mal and Haroud were the most commonly recurring villains. The sweeping opening shot of a disgruntled Haroud crossing the desert, lugging the "powder"-filled sack over his shoulder, is striking, and their interplay is the perhaps the most high-charged, fully-realized yet.  It's their typical schtick: Abis Mal is consistenlty irritated with and derisive toward Haroud, who in turn is unendingly exasperated with Malsie's obliviousness. But the dramatic opening shot, imparting the harsh conditions of the long trek Haroud has made immediately being offset by Abis Mal's irate, thankless, undercutting reaction really enhances the dynamic. And the reprise -- with variation -- of this scene at the episode's end is an atypical, outside-the-box device for the series that I daresay approaches brilliant.

Genie Watch: He's incredibly obnoxious in this episode ... he's REALLY eager to tell everyone of how he "turned into a dousing rod" and found that underground well. He comes off really needy, desperate, and needling. His impersonation of Sootinai, which serves as the closing gag, does make up for it, though -- after a terrified Abis Mal and Haroud have headed for the hills, Genie lets the audience in on his little ruse. The gradated metamorphosis to his well-form is well-executed, and the wry, proud smile he gives the audience (and that we iris-out on) really sells it. If only we had gotten this Genie -- smart and in control -- throughout the rest of the episode, and not the boob who is more than once humiliated by being the object of some Looney Tunes-type cartoon violence.

-- Ryan

Sunday, November 16, 2014

You really don't have to "chase" me down for it -- new review should be up tomorrow!

I started work on my review of "The Vapor Chase" earlier tonight, and made progress significant enough where I can confidently say that I should have it up after work tomorrow evening, barring unforeseen circumstances.

But at least Sootinai's not on my case about it ... I got enough of his WWE wrestler-type voice enough inthe episode itself.

See you here tomorrow!

-- Ryan

Friday, October 31, 2014

Aladdin (the TV series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 12: "Do the Rat Thing" (9/8/94)

Disney Afternoon series (and daytime/"children's" animated TV series in general) tend to not do episodes that are purely character-oriented. It seems to be an unwritten rule that there has to be a hook: something visually and conceptually at least semi-sensational or fantastical. The logic, I think, is that kids would be bored by if their favorite show turned into a melodrama or soap opera.

So far, I've liked and even celebrated the larger-than-life premises of specific Aladdin episodes that we've covered, ranging from the high-stakes action-adventure of "Mudder's Day", "The Prophet Motive", and "Raiders of the Lost Shark" to the farcical whimsy of "To Cure a Thief" and "Never Say Nefir". In those episodes, the premise -- not the characterizations of any of the main cast -- were the real show, while said characterizations have in many cases been forced and obligatory. However, "Do the Rat Thing" is a unique episode where the character conflict seems to really be what's driving the episode, while the fantastical elements serve to embellish it. With "Raiders of the Lost Shark", we remember the flying ship, Murk's domineering presence, and the giant "sand shark" with its jewel-encrusted belly. That episode's foremost character arc (Jasmine's desire to prove herself, aggravated by Murk's objection to her presence and his consequential hostility towards her) is secondary, and not as memory as all the spectacular visuals and concepts. "Rat Thing" is closer in nature to "To Cure a Thief", where a dejected Abu running away from home truly and wholly drove the story, a seemingly natural catalyst for all of the ensuing events, including what fantastical elements there were. By comparison, the characterization in "Lost Shark" seems an afterthought to a "Big Idea" that the writers had had.

Unfortunately, where I liked Amin Damoola as a comic villain and the "magical" proceedings had an inspired, zesty flare to them, the fantastical "hook" that comes into play here is one that I shirk at. To be frank, I don't like Jasmine and Iago being turned into a rat and a lizard, respectively. Characters being changed into some grotesque (by comparison to their "normal selves) form is just a lazy plot device. Worse yet, due to the size of the beings that Jasmine and Iago are transformed into, what we're given resembles a "shrinking" episode. It's an uninteresting, irritating conceit, and sitting through it, I just want it to get over with.

Much like I thought that Aladdin in "My Fair Aladdin" feeling ashamed of not being "cultured" and from an upper-class background was redundant and even a step backwards, Aladdin chiding Jasmine for her lack of, er, street cred and her consequential resent and determination to show Aladdin otherwise and thus prove him wrong rings as out-of-character and a bizarre dialing things back. I mean, didn't she already do the whole "putting on a cloak and trying to pass for a peasant" thing in the original movie? Did Aladdin suddenly suffer amnesia and forget all of their shared experiences? In all of the adventures they've been on together thus far, and just in that "the princess goes undercover and blends in amongst the masses" sequence in the movie alone, hasn't she more than proven that she's just as rugged, athletic, quick-witted, and worldly as he is? I've always thought of them as equals in various respects, and I was under the impression that they'd pretty much first hit upon that and arrived at an unspoken understanding about it in the movie.

However, for the episode to work for me at all, I have to some to some degree buy the premise ... especially when I've made the assessment that the characterizations are all that the story has going for it. And luckily, there is a way to justify Aladdin's behavior and Jasmine taking it to heart: they're human, and thus they are petty. Their inevitable being an old, bitter, bickering-prone married couple is being foreshadowed. Aladdin's taking advantage of a sore spot to get under her skin, basically.

Regardless, I'm really not sure if the Prince Wazu character was necessary. He's not used as an actual threat to Aladdin and Jasmine's relationship, and Jasmine's royal background didn't need any new exposition.

Interestingly, the animation appears to be by the studio that I like (thanks, Internet, for not having the end credits), but, interestingly, the episode always struck me as being visually off for the series ... and I've finally pinpointed what the problem is. Both rats -- the real one that Rajah is seen chasing and the one that's actually Jasmine -- are drawn in a realistic but overly cute way that is incongruous with the series' look as a whole. What actually would have worked for me is to do an It's a Wonderful Life-type deal, with no one having any memory of Jasmine and taking her for a stranger, forcing her to actually temporarily lead a pauper's life. But that wouldn't involve anything visually fanciful...and they may have figured that It's a Wonderful Life takeoffs have been done to death...but changing Iago into "frilly lizard thing" isn't exactly my idea of a good alternative. It's not funny, and  a unique opportunity to have Jasmine and Iago working together without the others -- a scenario that had the potential for humorous disharmony in the tradition of the classic comedy team of Oil and Water -- is wasted on what should've been a fleeting sight gag.

The episode actually at times has a dark tone (the settings are noticeably dimmed; this isn't the sun-baked desert locale we're accustomed to from so many other episodes). Thus, I believe all the more that a devastated Jasmine facing her loved ones not recognizing her would've worked much better than the cuteness and slapstick that unfortunately accounts for most of this episode. Oddly, the darkest moment is Fasir's (sorry, I like that spelling more than "Phasir", and DisneyWiki now infers that we have the option of using either) brief appearance, in which he portends that, basically, Jasmine is about to get what she wished for, and she ain't gonna like it. Fasir is actually much more sinister and even sadistic (he seems to enjoy making Jasmine feel threatened), which leads me to believe that this was the first episode in which he appeared in any capacity to have been produced. It would explain why he's so noticeably meaner than the wise, caring, and noble, but deeply sad, old prophet that we'll come to know. Which begs the question: if this one were first, at what point did they know they wanted him to be a recurring character? Might there have even been a point in which they had intended to use him more, as some sort of spiritual mentor/guide to Aladdin and the gang and to set up plots? Most of his other episodes are Fasir-centric, with him somehow having a personal connection to the plot (whether it's his history with Mirage or his relation to Fashoom). I don't know if it was the intention, but this could have set the precedent for using him in a more generic way, pretty much as a plot device.

Genie Watch: The blue guy with Homer Simpson's voice actually comes off pretty good here. He isn't misused as an inept klutz, but instead, he earns his keep with several impersonations that, while they aren't laugh-out-loud funny, bring to mind a quick-witted stage vaudeville or classic Hollywood comedian whose act relies on impersonations and costume changes. (Respectively, he puts in turns as a '30's-type private eye, a nature show host, and a crazed, trigger-happy game hunter. The latter is more demented than his typical antics.) But far more interestingly, his magic is actually key to the episode's resolution...he musters up enough of his remaining "semi-phenomenal, nearly-cosmic powers" to transform Jasmine and Iago back...and it works. While it's nice to see him actually legitimately uses his magic to resolve a story's primary conflict, this rare success actually raises serious questions about why he idly stands by through near-death peril after near-death peril in...well, in virtually every other episode. But then, that's the whole problem this regular subsection of these reviews exists to address, isn't it?

-- Ryan

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Sometimes, when you're sick, it's hard to the rat...er, right thing...

Genie, Private Eye, is checking into where I and the promised "Do the Rat Thing" review have been!

On Sunday, I came down with a fever and other bothersome symptoms. I did get a good way through a draft of the review that day, but because I was feeling out of sorts, I felt it wasn't up to snuff. I'm still recovering, but the post is still gonna happen...eventually. Looks like October has been a light month for this blog. Here's to a good, blog-wise, two final months of 2014.

-- Ryan

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 (à la Fozzie Bear). 

-- Ryan

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