Sunday, March 30, 2014

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

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