Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Aladdin (the series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 6: "My Fair Aladdin" (4/3/94)

To my delight and relief, the apprehension that I felt toward reviewing this episode, indicated at the end of my previous post, was baseless – the episode I was actually thinking was “Moonlight Madness”, which I remember as an absolutely lifeless, banal “Aladdin and Jasmine’s romance”-oriented episode. “My Fair Aladdin” is in fact a Mechanicles episode, an episode in which Iago is well-characterized and Genie is decently-characterized (at least at certain points), and an episode with just a smidgen of social satire – it’s all of these things, all of which are good. That said, it’s not by any means a perfect episode … but for me, what’s likable about it wins out over its flaws.

First off, with Aladdin’s “street rat” background, it’s logical that a culture clash would unfold when playing him off against some refined, mannered, hoity-toity types, and its fair game to exploit such a scenario to get an episode out of it. However, much like I thought that Abu was mis-characterized in a less-than-flattering way in “Much Abu About Something”, Aladdin’s lack of confidence here doesn’t sit well. What happened to the quick-witted, smooth-talking Aladdin from original feature film? Also, by the time the end credits of the latter had begun rolling, hadn’t he largely broken through the class barrier? True, that doesn’t mean he has the education or lifelong grooming in propriety that those in the royal echelon would, but he’d been getting along fine in the episodes we’ve seen so far, so this seems like an abrupt step back. Steve Roberts’ script would have come off better had it emphasized that Daru Tavelevil’s arrival on the scene had reminded him of his supposed cultural deficiencies.

Daru Tavelevil, who in this episode, a misled 
Aladdin sees as his doppelganger.

Perhaps the reason that I’m willing to overlook this awkward characterization is because by the end of the first act, the episode largely lets it go by the wayside. Besides Aladdin remaining in his fancy duds (the same as his “Prince Ali” get-up, which I actually had totally missed until Disney Wiki pointed it out to me), most of the episode is standard Aladdin-and-the-gang-take-on-Mechanicles-and-his-latest-scheme-and-contraptions fare. There’s really no through-line from Daru subplot through most of the Mechanicles scenes. Once Jasmine points out that Genie has taken a long time in returning from his investigation, Aladdin is initially reluctant to even pursue the matter – after all, traipsing off and getting his hands dirty on some rough-and-tumble adventure isn't for NPR listeners like him and Daru. Aladdin stubbornly avowing this change in disposition is exactly what I would’ve expected, but once Jasmine forces him onto Carpet, it’s pretty much dropped – from thereon out, Aladdin does the standard hero thing, without any hesitation or protest. After all, once the episode was moving, it had to go through its paces and wrap itself up in 22 minutes – feeding the machine, as Tad Stones put it (and I seem to reference in virtually every post that's part of this ongoing project).

Apparently, Aladdin has forgotten the lesson he learned from
going through that whole big musical number in the movie.

The Daru subplot does wrap up with the rest of the episode, but practically as an afterthought – it comes out that his elitism was a farce (isn’t it always?), and that he in fact was the source of the material Mechanicles used to build his giant mechanical centipede, a deal which Daru saw through with little to no ethical qualms. The “Daru wasn’t all he was cracked up to be”/“Aladdin’s a real, genuine, person, and Daru was just a big faker” lesson was inevitable, but what’s surprising is that it plays out with Daru completely off-screen. As his transaction with Mechanicles is past-tense, I don’t know how a “caught in the act” moment would’ve worked, but it certainly seems like it would’ve been more dramatically effective. And Aladdin’s self-realization would’ve had more gravitas if Daru had been present for the whole ordeal with the centipede, with the two psychological rivals somehow competing. Of course, Daru would never see fit to soil his dainty little hands with such boorish undertakings, and if he were at hand, his cowardice and his likely lacking physical prowess would be readily apparent, so how he would’ve been able to continue making Aladdin look inferior would’ve been a trick … and that’s probably why Roberts had him stay behind at the palace in the first place. Still, the revelation that he’s a fraud and a dirty dealer barely registers when he hasn’t been in play since the end of the first act. The way that this crammed-in game-changer information is very succinctly (to the point where it’s no more than a blip) imparted only through dialogue, and we only see Daru again in a hurried, closing gag depicting his punishment, feels much like the accelerated endings to many Silver Age comic book stories, the type that would occur when the writer and/or artist realized that they were quickly running down their allotted page count.

More of a plot device than even an incidental character (especially given his lasting invisibility), where the episode comes up short in using him as a foil for Aladdin, he is used wonderfully to facilitate Iago’s role in the episode. The endearingly surly parrot’s “Awww, don’t sweat it, kid, this stuff is all about FAKING it!” approach to coaching Aladdin’s in the ways of the aristocracy is a very fitting, sharp bit of characterization. I extend my kudos to Roberts for glomming onto and running with this take on the character, and to Gottfried for bringing Iago’s lines to life with such, er, zest. (Iago/Gottfried detractors might call it something else…) To anyone from a working class background who went into their 20’s thinking that hipsters, academia, and Northampton, MA-area earthy-crunchy types just had to be the bee’s knees, only to later come out of their 20’s utterly disillusioned with such parties, Iago’s observations are aglow with more than just an ember of truth. (Iago’s flippant response to Jasmine’s horror at learning of Daru’s betrayal, “Yeah, but think of all those jobs he created!”, is far and away my favorite line of the episode. While he meant it facetiously, it reminds me of how the demographics alluded to above see “their” politicians as squeaky-clean, when they’re in reality just as corrupt and dirty-dealing as their supposed foes. Harry Reid’s fake moral outrage at the Koch Brothers, and how his na├»ve supporters believe he means it, is the kind of thing that I have in mind here…) (I know, I know, per the laws of time and space, that can’t possibly be what Roberts had in mind; just some free association on my part…)

"Stick with me, kid, and you'll have 'em 
eatin'outta your hand!"

Iago letting it slip that Aladdin isn’t the first ill-mannered boor that he’d gifted with the Scroll of Witty Quotations, but that he’d also exposed Daru to it is one of those “Man, Iago really can be a bastard” moments. His redemptive moment – dropping the rock on the only remaining and functioning part of Mechanicles’ centipede, its head – is both ham-fisted and (like so much else in the final act) rushed and under-developed. (Would that one little pebble REALLY put that formidable, iron-wrought machine on the fritz? Well, I guess, from what’s shown – the rock strikes the head’s protruding “stickler”, throwing it off balance, jamming it stickler-first into the ground [seems to be a running theme…], forcing Mechanicles to push some sort of “eject” button, sending the off-axis contraption careening off into the sunset … but it all happens so fast,  before a close re-viewing, I was under the impression that the rock basically “took out” the whole kit and caboodle…) 


Presumably, Iago’s off-screen backstory encounter with Daru took place even before the original feature film (because of the wording, I actually didn’t even at first realize that he meant he’d given Daru the scroll before the events of this episode), so can’t we write it off as having happened before Iago had reformed anyway?

A prime Iago-Abu moment transpires at the episode’s climax, right after Iago rescues Abu, and the former quickly sees fit to renounce the relief he’d expressed a moment earlier, as the latter in kind renounces his corresponding gratitude. 

"I'd rather not have been saved at all 
than be saved by YOU!"

Let us not forget that this is a Mechanicles episode. Obsessed with turning the desert to glass so that it's surface is smooth, much like he can't stand wrinkles in his clothing, Mechanicles is more unbalanced and volatile in his obsessive-compulsive neuroses than he was in "Getting the Bugs Out".

 I do wish that there were more intricacy and finesse in the design and animation of the centipede. Those stubby little legs and their stunted walk don’t do justice to what’s supposed to be Mechanicles’ ingenuity or to the aesthetic I believe that the production team is going for. But, I suppose we can’t expect full-on Hayao Miyazaki-type visual splendor in a `90’s weekday American TV cartoon.

(One of the episode's better rendering's of the 
giant mechanical centipede, IMHO.)

 (Yuck, those legs. Must've been a bitch to animate.)

The opening scene, set at a sand dune under the desert moon, where two nomads have a run-in with the centipede, is rich with that mystic, ancient-desert-of-legend ambience that the series has knack for imparting. Most of what follows isn’t so as atmospheric, alternately concerned with mundane situations and standard good guys-versus-bad guys kidvid fare. 

However, there are traces of an effort to build a sense of mystery and intrigue: Razoul and the other guards are put to nice use in the very fleeting scene in which they follow up on the reports of “glass sand”, only to quickly be sent by the mechanical centipede hightailing it back to Agrabah. I like the idea of them as a defense squad on a reconnaissance mission to determine the existence and viability of a supposed external, possibly encroaching threat. They’re played as buffoons for comic relief here (in sharp contrast with how bloodthirsty Razoul was in Return of Jafar and, to a lesser extent, in “Mudder’s Day”), and so the opportunity to pile on the sense of a looming unseen menace is largely squandered. But I do approve of this conception of how the kingdom is run, even if it’s only suggested here.

(Note the similarity in the guards' first reaction shot -- the wide shot, not the 
half-shot that follows -- and that of the nomads, further up. 
Not sure if the parallel was intentional, or if it was just laziness, 
falling back on what's known to work.)

Genie watch: He has his down moments here, for sure, but this is may just be his best performance in any of the episodes we’ve seen so far. In his first scene, he actually plays it straight for a couple lines, trying to console, reassure, and pep-talk Aladdin; we see far too little of their friendship in the series.

His subsequent earnest assuming of the role of butler to the newly-debonair Aladdin’s butler is both funny and charming … mainly because it stems from Genie’s affection for his friend, rather than being just another generic impression.

"HOLD IT!!! My master knows which 
forks are for what now!!!:

Later, as expected, he indulges in the kinds of impressions and “costumes”/alternate forms that he’s prone to, but on not just one but several occasions, he actually uses them circumstantially in trying to achieve something that’s actually logical, and a few times, actually succeeds! He even gets a “solo” scene, tasked with investigating the mystery of the-sand-that’s-turned-to-glass. Donning the guise of first a weather-tracking helicopter, then a traffic cop, and finally, a TV news reporter are actual intelligent and purposeful choices. 

His intermittent moments of incompetence throughout the very same bit – diving headfirst from a cliff and getting lodged head-first in the sand, getting burnt to a crisp in classic Looney Tunes/Tex Avery-fashion by the fire-blaster in the centipede’s mouth, and being duped into the glass bottle – are painful to behold … and the former two are completely unnecessary, as there already is sufficient humor in Genie’s more typical antics; and Roberts could have actually had it be difficult to trick Genie into the bottle.

But Genie in good form, as he is in the aforementioned “good” examples, is so rare in this series, that I’m practically ready to celebrate this sequence.

It seems to be a rule of the series that any Genie can be trapped in any bottle or oil lamp, but I do wish they’d have spelled this out at the get-go. At least in having Genie’s disappearance be what spurs the rest of the gang to go look into matters for themselves, he’s actually for once a character that the others care about, and not just a walking provider of gags. 

Finally, he is absolutely on his A-game (in more ways than one), when at the episode’s climax he takes on the visage of a basketball player and takes out the centipede’s now-separated segments by slam-dunking rounded rocks into their, er, smokestacks with complete competence, grace, and success. 

If only he were to have more frequently been written using his shape-shifting/impersonation powers as competently and effectively as he does here.

-- Ryan

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