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 

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