Sunday, July 27, 2014

Aladdin (the series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 7: "To Cure a Thief" (4/17/94)

Perhaps I'm alone in this, but when I first saw "Scare Necessities" (I actually saw that much later episode before I ever caught this one), Amin Damoola immediately struck me as a reincarnation of Dijon, and I've never been able to shake that impression. That's not to say that I am unaware of their fundamental differences: Dijon is sweet and childlike, while Damoola is surly, vindictive, and sleazy; and, as much as Amin would resent the fact, Dijon is actually a deft and talented pickpocket -- it's easy to imagine that for that reason, so as to make up for his own defincies, Damoola would try to sucker Dijon into an alliance, just as he tries to do here with Abu due to the monkey's proclivities. Nonetheless, I see enough of a resemblance -- two Middle-Eastern bottom-feeding street thieves who are lanky and quick-moving if not graceful in their sneaking; and each is played as an idiot with no handle on life outside of his chosen, er profession (and a certain one of them doesn't even have a handle on that) and as an ingrate lackey perpetually at the bottom of whatever pecking order -- that I can't help but wonder if the Aladdin team had Dijon in mind when they created Damoola.

With the plot springing from a character trait of Abu's that's actually an established, integral component of his character, this episode makes up for "Much Abu About Something" ten-fold. The whole ordeal with Aladdin and Abu's falling out -- which leads to Abu going down "the wrong path" and a guilt-ridden Aladdin desperately trying to locate, apologize to, and "save" his friend, culminating in the inevitable reunion -- uses cliché after cliché, if it's using a tired character arc that's one big cliché unto itself. When Abu, well along the way into aiding Damoola in his scheme to rob the palace treasury room, overhears Aladdin saying something that Abu mistakes to mean that he doesn't want to be friends anymore (while the viewer knows that Aladdin's feelings are actually the complete opposite), I had an, "Oh, come on, really?!" moment ... not just because I knew it was an unfortunate misunderstanding, but because I knew the writers were just following the playbook. I would question Aladdin's complete lack of sympathy for Abu's propensity for surreptitiously taking acquisition of things that don't belong to him, considering their shared "street rat" background ... but considering that I made a big stink in my last review about how Aladdin was shown as not being over things that I thought he'd gotten over n the original movie, I guess I should be happy in this case, eh?

Furthermore, the whole Aladdin-Abu arc isn't what frames the episode but not what truly carries or enlivens it; that honor belongs to the Abu-Iago -- and then Abu-Iago-Amin -- interplay, the portrayal of the low-IQ but volatile (er, second-tier) underworld at the Skull and Dagger, and Amin's attaining the power of the "Five Fingers of Dys-Count". Out of the episodes we've covered so far, I would actually say that the closest this one has to a kindred spirit is "Mudder's Day", due to the combination of inspired, relatively original fantasy concepts with comedic elements. The cultured, refined Al Muddy Sultan went against type by being cultured, refined in taste, and articulately spoken. Amin, in his low-rent nature and conniving, skulking, rat-like ways, and the other, more "jock"-like (I use that personification for the sake of illustrating the contrast due to Iago referring to Amin as the resident "geek" thief) crude, brutish thug patrons of the Skull and Dagger, on the other hand, play to type. It's easy to imagine them as, instead of a den of thieves, the crew of a pirate ship -- none of them exactly strike me as the leader type. They're a bunch of filthy, frothing, illiterate, ill-tempered, inarticulate, teeth-missing louts played frankly as goofballs. If Don Karnage or Duke Igthorn came in looking to hire a new crew and convincing them that they'd get their due compensation, they'd jump at the chance to be led.

Why, then, liken them to the Al Muddy sultan, who's an intelligent, independent leader with lackeys of his own? Because -- much as I can with Abis Mal, Iago if he were a human, and to an extent, Mechanicles -- picture them being played by character actors -- if the respective episodes were made as live-action feature films in the 30's through '50's. Why then, and not now? Because Hollywood comedy was clean in those days, and the comic performers used more slapstick and relied on exaggeration in mannerisms and in how they delivered their dialogue. It's not a far cry from a gaggle of 30's gangster led by "the boss" to the den of thieves found in the Skull and Dagger, is it?

And whereas I thought that the mountaintop village and tyrannosaurus rex (supposed) menace in "Much Abu About Something" were bland and generic, the golden, bejeweled "Five Fingers of Dys-Count" (re: its name, you can't say the writers weren't mindful of the "thieves" theme, eh?)  gauntlet (Amin Damoola is no Thanos or Mozenrath, as much as he desires power and ignominy) and Amin's performance once he dons it show a relative degree of imagination, inspiration, and cleverness, especially for a mere MacGuffin. The action is stylized, brisk, lively, and fun.

I especially like the exaggerated, jerky giant hand of coins that Genie arm-wrestles with (a bit more on this below), bringing to mind those shots of the Al Muddy Sultan's giant fist that I liked so much.

Also commendable is the succession of booby traps set off whenever someone touches the gauntlet while on its pedestal, which happens three times, each successive trap seen from three different perspectives. (But why, by the way, are no guards stationed at the treasure room? Not only that, why is it never locked?!)

On the subject of the traps, Amin and Iago, upon first meeting, discovering that separately, on the first two of these occasions, the same trap had given them "a little off the top" is a nice bit of setup and eventual payoff.

The depressed, shiftless Abu making it through the obstacle course of lethal traps without even trying is another quirky, slightly "edgy" bit ... but, what, is he supposed to be Gladstone Gander?! He's supposed to get away his many thefts because of skill, not luck! 

And, of course, I love Iago, having been sent to keep an eye on Abu by Aladdin and "keep him from stealing things" (WHAT was Al thinking?!), immediately encouraging Abu to steal them some desserts and praising him for it. This bit is a great tone-setting lead-in to Abu and Iago getting mixed up with Amin and his "seedy underworld". I'm not sure if Iago really deserves the blame he gets at the episode's end for Abu being "led" astray by the gang, but the writer's seem to want to keep Iago as the sponge for any instance of the main cast doing something morally ambiguous (or even amoral).

Genie watch: Genie’s “Educational film” at first hits the right note, but his "What is stealing? 1. [Recites definition]. 2. DON'T DO IT!!!!” seems forced -- it reminds me of something Tiny Toon Adventures would've done thinking that they were being hip.

But at least he has an ostensible purpose in this scene, and is shown as relatively intelligent and competent. Same goes for when he tries to cheer up and encourage Al … but his, "Ooo, that's bad!" reaction to Iago barging in and announcing Abu's predicament has that Tiny Toons feel, too. To my satisfaction, though -- as mentioned earlier -- he makes a very good show pitting his powers against those of the glove, and when he's thwarted, it’s very acceptable, because it’s magic vs. magic. If only the series had employed this principle more consistently.

-- Ryan

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