Sunday, December 14, 2014

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

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 

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