Sunday, March 30, 2014

Aladdin (the series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 2: "Mudder's Day" (2/13/94)

A giant monster holds the heroes captive and threatens to eat them. After much persistence, they escape and thwart the giant monster. Essentially, that's what this episode boils down to. Sounds like an absolute cliché? Well, sort of, but the fantastical visuals are just imaginative and lovely enough, and the monster is characterized just uniquely and humorously enough, to make a fulfilling, absorbing viewing.

We open on the usual gang, accompanied by Razoul and a few of the other guards, traveling on camelback in a caravan across the desert. Through some dialogue exposition, it's established that they're making a delivery for the Sultan, and the trek has been so long and the sun so hot that they're parched. As rife with fantasy as the series is, it had a particular flare for realism in scenes such as this one. Despite the infamous edited version of part of the first verse of "Arabian Nights "Where the heat is immense and the sand is immense; it's barbaric, but hey, it's home!" (which, of course, was rewritten yet again for the series' version), the movie never conveyed the sense of the middle of the desert's harshness and remoteness as well as this establishing scene does. It's the depiction and emphasis of a utilitarian, drudging undertaking – bearing the elements with a heavy physical burden and next to no protection against the elements – that imparts this dynamic so effectively. Being engaging, it's easy to identify with, if vicariously – you can imagine what it feels like to be there with them – unlike the physical impossibilities of, say, Genie's musical number in the movie. And in the latter, the desert was just window dressing.

I like that when they do come upon the oasis, there's only a passing sense of relief. Aladdin cautions that they should first determine if the water's safe or not, maintaining and even intensifying the sense that the odds that the characters are facing are continuous. This endangers Aladdin's vigilance and assertiveness – it comes off as a military operation, with Aladdin taking command. It is greatly to the creators' credit that they were able to take the characters and general world of the movie and apply new dynamics to them that are so different tonally and operate on a more literal level. As the water does in fact lead to an antagonizing beast of sorts, the architecture of the scene, with the grittiness of the raw elements and the long-tried band of adventurers, and the trepidation with which they approach the water and the ominousness of the Al-muddy's presence (which the viewers are given a glimpse of before the characters), Tolkien's description of Frodo and the Fellowship's treading lightly along the edge of the lake at the West Gate of Moria comes to mind.  The Al-muddy's cartoonishness, the comic relief from the sidekicks, and the sunniness (if you consider the desert sun in a different aspect) make the proceedings considerably lighter than Tolkien's, obviously. But the air of toiling exertion and an unseen menace is there, without mistake.

What ensues is the by-the-numbers capture-by-giant monster described above. The heroes being held in a cage on the giant's kitchen table, with everything being to scale with the giant, is the oldest one in the book. When their freed, he even swats at them as Genie and Carpet [?] dart through the air around him, annoying and distracting him. Nonetheless, the episode is still fun and exciting even to an aging guy like me. The visuals are rich, the action is busy, and the Al-muddy is just arrogant and aggravating enough to make you root for the good guys to put him in his place.

Yes, the monster has a personality. Tad Stones has related that he'd wanted to avoid the monster tropes – and ideally, monsters at all, a trope in and of themselves – for the series, but there was a need "to feed the machine". So, what do you do when you have a giant monster but want to make it-ungiant monster like? You make him intelligent and snobby, of course. With his deep, drawling voice, with its dry British accent and varying inflections of scorn and intolerance, his cushy, pampered lifestyle, and his refined, picky taste, it almost seems as if they went the most obvious non-roaring, storming monster route they could. (It's actually surprising that they went ahead with a giant monster episode so early, but they clearly went out of their way to make it as unique as they could.) That's not to say that the character isn't entertaining. This persona does give the episode flare and variety.

It also seems that they went out of their way to do something "a little different" with not just the monster itself, but with the monster's locale. The lavish background paintings of the underground world, and of the outside of t Al-muddy Sultan's tower are more illustrative and storybook-like than the series typically is. The 15-feet high pillowy, multi-colored mushrooms that align the floor of the large cavern in which the tower is built, and the differently multi-colored tower's non-angular, soft but imposing, remotely Persian or Turkish, elysian design. The Al-muddy Sultan's cozy but elegant living quarters near the top of the tower, which also has vaguely Persian or Turkish features, brings to mind a wizard's study or observatory – you know, the kind have hexagonal or octagonal windows with glass frames embedded with cross-stitch patterns. The creative team's work on this "set" isn't as exquisite and intricate as a Brian Froud painting, but that reference might give you an idea of the "genre" Stones and co. are flirting with.

The Al-muddy Sultan is consistently well-animated. In fact, of the various monsters yet to come from the series, he possibly has the most full-realized, flawless design. Care and complexity went into his anatomy and poses that are more typical of theatrical animation. The "up shot" of first the mud Sultan as he emerges from beneath the desert, and then the similar composed "shot" of him attempting to slam his fast down on Aladdin, only to begin drying out from the sun and "cracking up" are pure squash-and-stretch eye candy with a particularly -- and appropriately -- bloated and gelatinous bent. Sort of the visual equivalent of those "bouncy houses" you got to go in as a kid at birthday parties, carnivals, and such. The jagged cracks that spread throughout his dried up form are a good contrast with his pudding-like former mud form.

It's appropriate that Aladdin was acting – or trying to act – as commander in the first oasis scene (as discussed above), because a character arc that actually "organically" extends from the characters as we know them is built into this episode. Assigned by the Sultan (Jasmine's father, not the Al-muddy Sultan) to lead the caravan, Aladdin is worriedly preoccupied with not letting the Sultan down, and beset by Razoul's resent and harassment. As you'd expect, Razoul's mind is changed at the end of the episode by Aladdin's victory. It's an A to B character arc, after all. Razoul's change of heart is incredibly sudden and met without any resistance on his part, and his apology awfully wholesale and supplicating, as if he's aware there's half a minute left to the episode. Still, Aladdin and Razoul's rivalry is one of the more fiery character dynamics of the series, and it only spices up the episode.

Now, the way that Razoul and his men are conveniently left out, and the grudge between Aladdin and Razoul, are completely forgotten when the "core" cast is sucked underground, and then are suddnely brought back into play at the very end, when the gang re-emerges, is sloppiness that I can't excuse. Imagine if it'd just been Aladdin and Razoul to be sucked ungerground, and spent the episode forced to cooperate but constantly a breath away from being at each other's throat? Then, there'd actually be a PROCESS leading up to Razoul's coming around! Imagine THAT!

Genie watch: WOW, is he STUPID here. And only the second episode aired? That didn't take long at all. *grits teeth* Seemingly unable to think for himself and completely dull-witted and imperceptive, he frequently doesn't react until Aladdin asks him to do something. To keep Genie from saving the day prematurely, the writers came up with some inane idea (totally unprecedented by the movie) that if Aladdin tells him what they need, he can't think of the most effective answer to that request. So, when Aladdin asks for "something that flies", Genie turns into his an ostrich. How his synapses and neurons arrived at "ostrich" from processing the input "something that flies". I mean, WTF?Several variations of this occur throughout the episode. To my revulsion, when the gang is first pulled into the underworld, Genie appears to completely forget that he can fly. Worse yet, when he changes into something not helpful, he just STAYS IN THAT FORM for a good while afterwards, not bothering to amend his mistake. He just remains in ostrich form as they're swept along the underground river and through the rapids. ARGH!!!! Genie jumped the shark here. How the creative team let Genie slip so fast but held the rest of the show together for its entire run, I'll never understand.

-- Ryan 

Aladdin (the series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 1: "Getting the Bugs Out" (2/6/94)

If Wikipedia's episode list is correct, this was the first episode of the series aired … by The Disney Channel on February 6th, 1994. Like Rescue Rangers and Darkwing Duck before it, Disney's premium cable channel aired several episodes as a "preview" in the spring immediately preceding the series' Disney Afternoon debut (and in some cases, as with Aladdin, its co-debut on network Saturday mornings). For this blog series, I'm going go by broadcast order, including Disney Channel's "preview" airdates.

Following Abis Mal's introduction in Return of Jafar (well, technically, Disney Channel premiered this episode BEFORE Return's release … but I'm cheating a little here in my ordering system), here we meet the series' second recurring villain, Mechanicles. Like Abis Mal, Mechanicles isn't a powerful sorcerer or supernatural entity of any type; he's a mere human being, and, used for comic relief, a very bumbling one. However, rather than being pure comic relief, Mechanicles' machines are a legitimate menace. Mal's villainy stems from his scheming nature, which oft results in a clusterfuck that our heroes are inevitably pulled into … whether deliberate or not.

Mehcanicles. (Not from "Getting the Bugs Out".)

A genius – at least in a highly specialized aspect – Mechanicles may be, but that is offset by his eccentric aloofness and obsessive compulsiveness. The latter trait is a clear attempt on the writers' part to give Mechanicles' a distinctive quirk or twist. It does come off as forced and unimaginative, but Charlie Adler's vocal performance (shrill and grainy as it may be), the gaunt features of his character design, and the jumpy tension in the animators' better poses work in conjunction to convey the character's high-strung irritability and misanthropic disdain. The result is consistently entertaining and, as uncongenial as the ancient tinkerer may be, endearing … at least to me; perhaps it's an acquired taste.

With little added in Return of Jafar to the environs of the original theatrical movie other than Abis Mal's lair, this is our first taste of Stones and his crew's -- I suppose in this case, writer Steve Roberts' -- world-building.The peasant village located at the bottom of a cliff that suffers Mechanicles' repeated terrorism is a modest, but by all means suiting, addition. Mechanicles himself is an acute, well-considered expansion of the series' universe: the "base" setting, Agrabah, is ambiguously Arabian in terms of time and place. So it's logical and feels natural that somewhere across the desert, there co-exists a caricaturized ancient Greece or ancient Greece-esque domain, with a least one Athenian-like elitist inhabiting it. (We never see any of Mechanicles other' people; they probably couldn't stand him as much as he couldn't stand them.)

Of course, we shouldn't overlook the very crux of Mechanicles' function as a villain: his creations. As these constructions represent technology found in whatever era the series is set in, I'm considering them a component of the world-building, even though said technology was exclusive to the villain that would literally be nothing (except a selfish, irate, somewhat autistic Poindexter) without them. The show's creators were right on the mark in designing Mechanicles' individual and various squadrons of contraptions in a fashion that look like they COULD be a product of the Ionian Enlightenment, yet are just fantastical enough to be a part of the series' amorphous reimagining of the ancient world.  

Now, where the hoity-toity one's Greek temple-patterned workshop -- being set on a hill covered with a flourishing of grass that's beneath a spring day-like blue sky – actually is in relation to the desert on which Agrabah is built is unclear, but he and the heroes seem to get back and forth between it and the peasant village – which is implied during Aladdin's crew's search for the source of the deadly toy mechanical bug to be on the outskirts of Agrabah -- with ease and rapidity. Such vague geography is curious, but I'm not gonna let it get to me. (Perhaps Mechanicles' headquarters shares a temporal wormhole with Magica De Spell's rock mountain carved in a giant-sized likeness of her head.)

Opening the episode with Jasmine exploring the marketplace "disguised" under cloak and hood is an appreciable gesture of continuity with the original movie. The same can be said for the Sultan's fascination with toys, but it's even more impressive and effective that they used that character trait to set up the plot. The mechanical toy bug carrying out its Trojan horse programming and going into predator mode makes for a whammy of a shift in tone. This revelation of its true nature facilitates a mystery as to its origins, functioning as a decided plot hook.  

On the other hand, Jasmine's disgust with Aladdin's arrogance and Aladdin learning through the course of the episode that he's nothing "without a little help from [his] friends" is a forced, trite, and overly preacher attempt at a character arc. Worse yet, it rings as out of character – I don't remember Aladdin as ever being nearly this smug or conceited in the movie. He was confident and crafty in his acts of mischief and flaunting authority, but never an outright jerk. Tad Stones has said that the most difficult thing about the series was its star already having in the movie already gone through his major character arc. This episode certainly shows that Stones and crew were struggling to figure out what to do with said character. I would contend: why was a character arc so necessary to this episode? We already KNOW who the characters are. Isn't the plot enough? The real motivation here is Aladdin and the crew being compelled to track down the source of the mechanical bug. (By the way, did have Sultan HAVE to say, "If there's more, others could be in danger!"? Did it have to be spelled out? It made it feel as though our heroes are supposed to be the Super Friends.) Why does Aladdin need to be chastised for a trait he really never exhibited before now?

The big climax, the battle with Mechanicles' biggest machine yet, is well-done in terms of action and visuals. The animation of the turning gears, acting as a gauntlet that Aladdin has to run, inside the rampant robot, is especially good. Toby Shelton's directing here is top-notch. Why does a damper have to be put on all the fun immediately afterwards, when Aladdin "wakes up" and "accepts" that he couldn't have done it without the rest of his team coordinating their efforts? Couldn't they just do that anyway, like they do in every other episode?!

Iago spends most of the episode griping over how he doesn't want to be a part of this situation – a standard performance for him, nothing more, nothing less. He'll really hit his stride in future episodes.

One point of contention: It seems to me that it'd be easy enough to just have the damaged bug 'bot that limps and sputters its way into Mechanicles' workshop BE ENOUGH to alert him that he should go to the village to find out what happened? Did we REALLY have to have the bug draw a vivid picture of Aladdin and co. fending off the fleet of 'bots?!  So, it can SEE?! And somehow store electronic memories of visual information?! Stones said that he hadn't wanted the bugs to be sentient, but it was too "complicated" to have to explain their engineering to the audience. But in this case, there was nothing that NEEDED explaining!

Genie watch: At a couple of points, when a particular dilemma arises, Aladdin effectively orders, in more or less words, "Carpet and Genie, get on it!" A couple of times, they follow through by COMPETENTLY working together, going off of some sort of strategized game plan utilizing each one's particular skills. It'd be nice if the two magic entities on the good guys' team continued to coordinate their efforts like this throughout the series, but alas, the writers decided the easiest way to handle Genie and his powers was to make him an idiot. Here, he remains distracted and oblivious as a way of holding off on the heroes' victory, but at least while being wrapped up in something else, he doesn't do anything particular dumb or incompetent. (Ryan, you have to double-check this – I think I vaguely remember an extended bit where he juts did nothing in particular.) 

 -- Ryan

Aladdin (the series) 20th anniversary -- prelude: The Return of Jafar (released 5/20/94)

If the original plan had been adhered to, “The Return of Jafar” would have been part of the Aladdin TV series, serialized into either two or three installments. (I have reason to believe that the intention could’ve been one or the other, as I’ll explain below.) It would’ve aired in whole, though in an abridged form (is that a contradiction, or what?) during the weekend immediately preceding the beginning of its run on The Disney Afternoon by all of the stations across the U.S. that carried the lineup. This would’ve continued the tradition that had started with DuckTales and been upheld by every Disney Afternoon series since, excepting that what were once five-part serials eventually got whittle down to two parts.

In keeping with the rest of the series of which it was a part, it probably would’ve been devoid of any musical numbers. As the version that was ultimately produced includes several musical numbers which take up nearly a third of it (and are contrived both in and of themselves and in their interjection into the movie), it’s possible that it was intended to only be a two-parter. Starting with Darkwing Duck, that became the standard for each successive fall’s premiere, but I can’t be sure.

What changed? According to producer Tad Stones, at some point during production, he “realized [they] were making Aladdin II”, and for some reason inquired with Walt Disney Home Video as to if they would be willing to release it as such to Wal-Mart (as it was officially designated as at that point) and such. I’m not sure why the home video department was the first place he thought to go to, rather than Buena Vista’s movie theater distribution department or, say, Michael Eisner himself, but that’s the way Stones tells it. Anyway, as his story goes, at first they snubbed it, but when the first sales reports for the VHS release of the original came in, they changed their tune.

So, the result is a direct-to-video release that apes the format of the first movie in the style of its title and end credits sequences and the intermittent Broadway-esque over-baked melodic divergences, but has all of the production methods and characteristics that were the norm up to that point for Walt Disney Television Animation. Officially, it’s not part of the TV series, but its origins are interlocked with and bound to it, despite the way Disney originally promoted it and has continued to promote it on the occasion of any upgraded release. In sharing the series’ production team and the production means, and by establishing a relationship integral to the series as well as introducing one of the series’ major villains, it is far, far more closely related to the series than it is to the original movie.

As I discussed in my previous post, as an adventure-oriented series, Aladdin was a return to form (and in such terms, a last hurrah) for The Disney Afternoon. Over the preceding couple of years, not only had the premieres been shortened, but their boundless scope and vigor had been dialed down. The domestic sitcom that was Goof Troop and the lifeless urban detective trappings of Bonkers paled to the awe and might of DuckTales’ “Treasure of the Golden Suns” and TaleSpin’s “Plunder and Lightning”. Unfortunately, as much as Return of Jafar aspires to be an opus of high adventure, deadly peril, and explosive, towering, unearthly spectacle, it comes off as ho-hum and on autopilot. Visually, in strictly technical terms, it reaches the heights it aspires to when the Sultan’s abducted by Jafar’s winged horses of death and with the climactic battle with Jafar, in giant-sized genie form, and the opening of the earth into a boiling pit of lava. But to back up all of the bombast, little is offered to win the viewer’s investment and make a singular, lasting impression.

The real problem is glaring: Jafar. Once it’s a given that he’s come back and that he remains bound to a genie’s existence but still craves revenge, it’s like, “Okay, that’s logical. He was so uber-archetypal in the original, there’s no real opening to write him as having done some self-reflection and, if not be repentant, have arrived at a new set goals and motivation.” So, yeah, he wanted to take over Agrabah and had ill will toward all of the good guys, and he still wants to take over Agrabah and still has ill will toward all of the good guys. There’s no rule that if he were to show up again, he would’ve changed. Nonetheless … WHY DID he have to show up again?! The original left no loose strings or unfinished business concerning Jafar. So now, he just comes off like a quarterback whose team lost the championship during his senior year but keeps calling for a rematch. Stones himself has lamented that he's "embarrassed" by Return for these very reasons. I'm not sure what role his co-writers Mark McCorkle and Robert Schooley played, but once this had been bumped up from TV special to major home video release, Stones probably felt that he needed stand backup to help ensure the ball wouldn't be dropped. Really, given that they were locked into the Jafar-oriented plot, the film flows smoothly and is just about the absolute best it could be. 

According to Bob Miller’s column in Comics Scene, Stones had asserted that Return “takes place a few hours after” the original!!! Don’t the characters just want to go to bed?! And to the viewer, Jafar’s return is a put-off. “Okay, yeah, here he is, he’s back, now they gotta stop him, you know, just like they stopped him last time…” It’s anti-climactic  and laborious, as if you’ve mastered a skill and are ready to move on, but are forced to continue doing the kind of tasks you can now do in your sleep. 

Now, if far later in the series, Jafar appeared in an unexpected and shocking type of way, that might’ve worked. Say, kind of like the Batman storyline “Hush”, there’d been an ongoing conspiracy against our heroes, and (figuratively) during sweeps weeks or as the cliffhanger of a season finale, the mastermind is revealed as Jafar. That would’ve been exciting. The reality of Jafar’s comeback is a stubborn, lackluster repeat performance.

Say that, at the point where Return of the Jedi ends, it kept going, doubling its length. Luke’s settling in for the night and trying to get some rest. Meanwhile, Darth Vader rebounds, and starts right up again at the exact same thing that he’d just failed miserably at. Luke would be like, “Aw, man, I gotta shut down this creep AGAIN?!” That’s pretty much what Return comes down to.

Still, when most of the gang is imprisoned while Aladdin is nearly beheaded (which Razoul has NO qualms about being tasked with executing, no pun intended … it’s a wonder that he was never characterized as an outright villain!), there is a greater – and I’d dare say a more realistic -- sense of grave danger and precarious mortality than when the original went through much the same motions, perhaps because the respective scenes had been preceded by so much frivolous, bright and shiny spectacle and musical numbers. The well-designed cloaked “Riders of Death” on winged black horses that Jafar takes the form give the movie an aesthetic distinction from the original, sharpen the relating of Jafar’s evil, and are one of the first signs of the creative team’s talent -- that they’ll exhibit time and time again on the series -- at creating their own adventure-fantasy concepts to populate the world surrounding Agrabah.

 (And Hans Solo would be like, “Aw, you gotta be kidding me! I was just about to bang Leia…”  It’s tempting to say that here, Aladdin’s saying the same thing about Jasmine, except that he seems completely preoccupied with earning her father’s favor, even though he’d already done that. Going by her hasty, unconcerned assurances to her beau that he has nothing to worry about, one could infer that her thinking is closer to Solo’s. When she blew up at Aladdin for bringing Iago back into their midst, rather than Iago’s affiliation with Jafar, what she’s REALLY upset about is that Al has been content to hang out with the guys and make new friends. Hence why she so stubbornly and heatedly insists to Iago that she and Aladdin are through, only the next minute to be throwing herself at Aladdin with little coaxing. But, I digress.)

In the past, each Disney Afternoon’s premiere was a slam-bang doozy of an establishing of the characters and the premise. One important function of “Plunder and Lightning” was to bring Kit and Rebecca into Baloo’s life and establish their relationships. But these things happened as an integral part of an original and exciting plot.  Return of Jafar is but a retread and a shadow of Jafar’s arc in the original. The series used the original movie’s conclusion to define the characters’ orientation for the duration of the series. With one major exception, that’s where we already find them at the outset of Return of Jafar, and that’s where it leaves them. It wasn’t needed for anything, and sadly, what it mostly does is serve as a placeholder.

The aforementioned major exception is Iago’s conversion. In fact, that’s the only thing that the plot really has going for it. Not only is it important in that it establishes Iago’s role in the series, but at least when I think of Return of Jafar, that lovably short-fused, selfish parrot’s “switching teams” is THE ENTIRETY of what distinguishes it for me. The retread of Jafar’s conquest and defeat is just a means of getting Iago where he’s going. Like when your  car’s in the shop and you get a rental, and you don’t really care if you wash it or put gas it in, because you’re just using it to drive to work along the same route that you do by reflex every day. The car doesn’t matter to you. What does matter is that you are at work when you’re supposed to be.

That is not say that the movie (I suppose that we have nothing better to call it...) has nothing to else to be said for it beyond Iago’s self-journey. I know it’s due to my Disney Afternoon/WDTVA bias, but I actually prefer it to the original. Still, some of the factors that I can point out as to why this is so only vindicate my bias!

The two most cited reasons for this movie’s inferiority to the original are the animation quality and the absence of Robin Williams. Regarding the first, I’ll contend that on average, the animation completely holds up to that of the original. The key distinction is that at this point, the theatrical animation department was using some sort of cinematographic technique that gives an illusion of 3D. I don’t have the requisite experience to be able to put my finger on it, but I’m discerning to see that a sequence showing Aladdin making a running leap in the original is any less skillfully animated in Return than is a sequence from the original of the same character engaged in comparable activity. And even if there’s fewer cels per second in the sequel, it’s obvious that the TV animators can draw Aladdin just as well as the movie ones can and that they’re masters of anatomy of the very same caliber.

At certain points in Return of Jafar, I believe the cel count-per-second was upped past the TV standard. During Jasmine’s duet with Iago in the second half of “Forget About That Guy” (or whatever it’s called), she’s does some prancing and twirling about that looks downright rotoscoped, if not a frame-by-frame imitation-by-eye of a live-action reel.

Furthermore, I’ll vouch that there’s no sign that the sequel’s background artists would be unable to do anything that the presumed varsity squad of the theatrical unit could.

It’s a process of deduction. The skill applied to both the animation and the background art in the sequel is absolutely on par with the original. But there’s still that distinction that makes the original look like a “real” Disney movie that everyone took their kids to, had a best-selling soundtrack, and got a bunch of Academy Awards, and the sequel look like all of its contemporary made-for-TV cartoons. I will be the first to attest that, as superbly animated as I think that some of Return of Jafar’s focal scenes and moments are, there are fleeting intermediary bits that are rushed and choppy. While it’s a matter of sheer reality that such instances are due not to a lack of skill, talent, or care but to budget and scheduling, someone can still argue that the fact of the matter is that such compromises make for an inferior production. I would counter that it’s not an inferior production but a result of inferior circumstances … but I wouldn’t want to get hung up on it. I know what’s what and why I like what I do.

Bottom line: the KEY distinction between the original’s overall look and the sequel’s does NOT lie in the skill and talent that went into the animation and the backgrounds. Other factors, largely technical, account for the discrepancy. As I argued in my review of Richard Williams’ Raggedy Ann, what made the “cel” animation in Disney’s `90’s theatrical films so dazzling was that it actually WASN’T pure cel animation, but involved lots of digital effects.

I actually find Return’s overall aesthetic more tasteful. Far less gaudy, the backgrounds have a more subtle, understated, almost earthier quality.  They’re also a notch above the backgrounds in an average episode of the series, more refined and precise.

Finally, besides Iago’s adjustments, there’s one other aspect of Return that makes it integral as a lead-in to the series: the introduction of Abis Mal. Though second banana and dupe to Jafar (though how different is that REALLY from his role in the series, where he was only in his own mind ever a master of anything), he still steals his scenes. Jason Alexander’s performance – which calls for a lot exertion, whether screaming or trembling with fear and/or panic – is already in full flight. More than anything, it’s Alexander’s voice work that defines Mal’s erratic and fraught traits. Here, already having the character down pat, he already has the myopic, nervous, high-strung, cowardly, greedy, scheming, inept, vain lout that we – or at least I – love in all of his appearances during the series. If anything, Mal seems more competent and formidable here than he ever would again, even though the movie closes on him in a position that gives him little dignity.

-- Ryan 

Aladdin (the series) 20th anniversary: introduction

As I associate the Aladdin animated TV series with the waning of my childhood and the advent of high school and my teenage years – I was starting seventh grade when its original run on The Disney Afternoon and CBS began – it’s a bit unnerving to consider that this year marks its 20th anniversary. In contrast, DuckTales premiered when I was VERY young (five years old), so having had it turn 20 while I was in my 20’s seemed natural. Aladdin, on the other hand, came into my life at a time when I was, 1), already involved in fandom (WTFB, represent!), 2), learning pre-algebra and how to write a history paper with a bibliography and citations, and, 3), not only knew what sex was, but was thinking about it a (a LOT). I've long accepted that even my undergrad years are long past, but 20 years feels like it's only been 10.

Serendipity saw fit to align Aladdin’s (and simultaneously, Gargoyles’ – not counting Goliath Chronicles) two-season run with my last two years of “middle school” (5th-8th grade) so that my childhood would go out with a bang. Yet, it wasn't just that I'd outgrown cartoons (or thought that I was supposed to ... obviously, that didn't stick) -- after that point, Walt Disney Television Animation would never again produce the kind of show that I'd liked since kindergarten, and still like today! Within a couple of years, adventure series with comedic elements were completely abandoned in favor of teen sitcom-oriented, Nicktoons-influenced approach. That considered, I'm going to make a controversial claim:  Aladdin was the last true, proper Disney Afternoon series. Unfortunately, for innate reasons, it's barely remembered as a Disney Afternoon series at all. Let me put it this way: once the Darkwing Duck comic book revival was a hit, amid the clamor of cries for TaleSpin and Rescue Rangers, I never made out one for an Aladdin comic.

The series was born cursed, the very idea of it alienating two important demographics: 1. As a direct spin-off from the movie, it would always be seen by the general public and fans -- whether they be old-school "traditionalist" animation snobs or little girls -- who preferred Disney's animated fairy tale feature films as a tacky cash grab and of inferior quality. 2. All of the “classic” Disney Afternoon series starred “funny animal” character, not the strapping, athletic young adult human leads in the Aladdin feature film, of the type typical of the Disney "Princess" features (as they were later retroactively branded). DuckTales, Rescue Rangers, TaleSpin, and Darkwing Duck. Thus, Aladdin looked and, on the surface, felt nothing like its furry and feathered predecessors. From my experience, the generation that grow up with the aforementioned series doesn't associate Aladdin with them. I will concede, though surely the perception of Aladdin first and foremost as a movie with a song sung by Robin Williams is a factor, that this rift is in part due to Aladdin having tailed the last of those four series, Darkwing, by two years; I wasn't the only one getting older.

Since I haven’t been derisive enough toward the little girl demographic and those of the parents-with-bad-taste-in-comedy persuasion (wink), I’ll take this opportunity to state that I belong to neither. And knowing who my readers are knowing that they know me, I don’t need to establish the fact that I’m a Disney Afternoon “traditionalist”.  Some of you know that I’ve long resented how the Disney Afternoon series (and the duck and mouse comics) are regarded by Disney, the corporation, as belonging to the lowest possible social class. So, yo might think that it stuck in my craw when one of the hoity-toity, “celebrated” animated feature film musicals first encroached on “our” territory. You might even think that I held something of a grudge over it to this day.

It’d follow, then, that you’d be surprised (in fact, I’m kinda surprised, now that I’m thinking about it) that throughout its run, the series hit just the rights notes for me on a very consistent basis. In fact, I welcomed the very idea of the series in late `93, when I first read announcements in trade magazines like Comics Scene of it being in production. I actually thought, “Hey, that’s a great idea, I bet it’s gonna be really good, and I’m excited about it!” In the run-up to its debut, I never lost faith in what I considered its promise.  In some ways, it more than lived up to my expectations, and I’ve maintained a soft spot for it to this very day.

Aladdin, the series, is the rare – if not the only – instance in which a spinoff or reboot, or whatever, of an existing property was done exactly the way that I would want it done and that I’d envisioned when I first heard news of it. (Sadly, I don’t think that the recently-announced Rescue Rangers CGI theatrical reboot will buck the trend any.) I consider it not a byproduct of the original movie that is remembered only as a blight on the legacy of the latter and of the Disney animated feature film in general, but a proper Disney Afternoon  comedy-adventure series just as good as any of its predecessors. With this series of episode reviews, inspired by Chris Barat’s ongoing DuckTales 25th anniversary project, I hope to do the series justice and give a perspective largely absent from the Internet.

-- Ryan

Monday, March 24, 2014

What I've been watching: Richard Williams' Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure

I couldn't be considered an animation fan to any degree if I didn't know of Richard Williams' The Thief and the Cobbler, which he spent decades trying to get produced, persisting in the face of endless setbacks, but, sadly, he passed away before he could see it to completion.

However, until last year, when I was talking about Dell's Raggedy Ann and Andy issues of Four Color, I'd had no idea that a full-length animated Raggedy feature film had been produced in the `70's, nor that Williams had directed it. Intrigued, I tracked down a used VHS copy, as it has never been released on DVD.

Coincidentally, I finally got around to watching it the other weekend ... the same weekend in which I finally got around to watching Wizards. Coincidentally, they were both released during 1977, which I hadn't realized when pulling them from the shelf.

A children's film about toys that come to life is the farthest thing from a post-apocalyptic anti-fascist saga starring an elderly burnt out hippie a and his near-naked, overly curvaceous tart, right? You'd be surprised! (...or not, as I'm sure most of us realize that even cartoons that appear to be for children aren't necessarily strictly so). In the piggish Captain Contagious' abduction of the prissy French doll Babette, the Captain's lust is explicit. When he manages to capture her and take her away on his ship, one doesn't get the idea that it's to lock her in a tower where she'll wait for her knight in shining armor. 

The animation is absolutely exquisite, as you would expect of a master and perfectionist like Williams. Either heavy rotoscoping or heavy frame-by-frame "still-lifing" of live-action reels of performers executing the characters action. The effect is Fleischer-esque (which should be a no-brainer, as the Fleischers invented the rotoscope technique). (Interestingly, the Fleischers actually produced three Raggedy Ann and Andy shorts in the early `40's, which I also hadn't realized.) Most inventive and unorthodox of all is the stuffed Camel, who appears to have been modeled by two people under a sheet (and possibly with the front person operating a puppet for the camel's head) creating a frequent, very humorous lack of coordination between the Camel's back and front legs. I kept thinking, "When are they gonna take off the suit?!", and then would have to remind myself that in the world of the movie, no one's supposed to be under the suit -- that's juts how the Camel is! Similarly mesmerizing to the eyes, and I imagine was complicated in execution, is the constantly churning, convulsing, morphing in shape Greedy, a gelatinous, amorphous blob-like monster cursed with endless hunger. 

Those who are especially attentive to detail have noticed that I compared both this film and Wizards' animation to that of the Fleischers. As both appear to have been rotoscoped or modeled, I believe the comparison is valid. Raggedy is consistently as fully animated as anything ever done, while Bakshi's work is only fully animated in certain parts. Compared to the Disney features of the `90's, these `70's films will appear less sophisticated to the layman's eye, due to the excessive gloss and digital faux-three-dimensional effects that were the norm for the former. But such elements were just that: effects, and not really an inherent part of the animation itself.

Also like Wizards, the middle of Raggedy has little to do with the overarching plot. And in both cases, the heroes are tangled up in an isolated world with odd customs. The Looney Land and aforementioned Greedy episodes are delightfully, both visually and in terms of the canny, uncooperative, taunting Lewis Carroll-like humor. (Poor rag dolls, being the object of such games.) 

The live-action framing sequences, featuring the little girl to whom the toys belong (who I believe is played by Williams' daughter or perhaps niece, given the shared last name) are modest and appropriately limited, allowing nearly the entirety of the film to take place in the animated world/the toys' world, as it should be.

Here's to a DVD release, so that this somewhat forgotten film may earn new exposure and appreciation.


ALERT!!! Coming soon to this blog: Something NEW!!! Something BIG!!!

-- Ryan

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

What I've been watching: Ralph Bakshi's Wizards

As a (pleasant) result of my decision to go without Internet service in my new apartment [see previous post], I've been able to catch up on some VHS tapes that I've bought used (and in some cases, very cheap) during the past few years, only to gather dust.

Though Wizards could be seen as Bakshi's test run for Lord of the Rings, being Bakshi's own creation, it has a more unbridled, inspired flair to it. It's uneven -- a lot of momentum is lost in the middle of the film, which is absorbed by a subplot involving fairies that doesn't seem to bear much relation to the overarching plot. The war-versus-peace, tyranny-versus-freedom, love-versus-hate theme isn't explored with much depth, and the use of (via live-action archival footage) of Nazi imagery is a lazy, obvious way of representing fascism. Nazism WAS fascism, of course; it's just not a very imaginative reference. I think that the idea was to shock the senses with some unexpected harsh reality and cause the audience to reflect on the horrors of modern history. But when the movie is ALREADY depicting a tyrannical force, the live-action footage seems extraneous and inappropriate.

Still, the integration of said live-action footage is technically innovative, even if the "dream machine" conceit is meant to excite drug-addled burnt-out hippies. The, er, buxom Elinore being scantily clad for the entirety of the film is pure Bakshi degeneracy, of the lineage of his "adult" films of the early `70's. Avatar's cigar-chomping, gruff smoker's voice, and lewd sleaziness may seem incongruent for a post-apocalyptic sword-and-sorcery palette, but unlike Elinore, he's not without his charms.

The animation is generally very fluid, with some spotty moments; though many a random isolated cel could be mistaken for an animated TV series like Thundarr the Barbarian or He-Man. This isn't a criticism so much as it an observation that the line between "full" theatrical animation and "limited" TV animation of decades past isn't as distinct as the animation community once acted as though it was. The sketchy, stylized backgrounds are appropriate for the wasteland settings. The character designs range from realistic human figures to cartoonish characters that are somewhere between Fleischer and Dr. Seuss (much like Bakshi's later Christmas for Tattertown). The still artwork used with the voiceover narration that introduces the film and recurs in interspersed "bridging" sequences are some of the most impressive, resplendent visuals in the film, blending both lush illustrations and especially careful, full renderings of the Fleischer/Seuss-esque characters.

-- Ryan

Transmission from Internet exile...

...well, partial Internet exile. Two weeks ago, I moved to a new apartment ... and I had Internet and cable service installation with Charter scheduled ... but I ended up cancelling the appointment, because, believe it or not, I realized that I was less distracted and more productive!

This hasty, overdue update is being posted at work. My plan is to update my blog(s) from the library right down the street from my apartment. I might be able to write and post a (relatively) proper post as early as tonight. *fingers crossed*

-- Ryan