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, 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 (√† la Fozzie Bear). 

-- Ryan

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- Ryan 

Monday, September 15, 2014

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

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

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

-- Ryan

Saturday, August 30, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- Ryan