Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Aladdin (the series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 8: "Never Say Nefir" (4/2/94)

When I posted yesterday's notice that I planned to do this review last night, I had yet to hear the news of Robin Williams' passing. Of course, he is relevant to Aladdin, because the character of Genie was birthed for the original film in a unique collaboration between Williams and the Disney studio animators. It so happens that "Never Say Nefir" prominently features Genie and gives him a legitimate character arc. Moreover, it's a rare episode in that the blue guy actually comes off respectably, resembling his original incarnation. And so, though I was going to review this episode anyway, drawing attention to it honors Williams in that it does his character justice.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not much of a fan of the original movie to begin with, but even then, unlike seemingly the rest of the world, I was never that enthralled by Williams' performance in it. I found his shenanigans self-indulgent and extraneous. It was fine to use the genie as comic relief, but the producers allowed Williams to go way out of bounds, resulting in Genie creating a big hullabaloo that was a textbook showstopper. Thus, I've never felt the series is lacking because of William's absence. Rather, it was that the character was all too often written as incompetent and buffoonish, when in the original, he had been quick-witted, perceptive, proactive, and generally had his crap together. Genie's bumbling and fumbling in the series wasn't Dan Castelleneta's fault.

Given Genie's prominence in this episode, this review in itself will largely account for today's installment of Genie Watch. I'm pleased to report that none of the Genie-based gags -- whether impersonating a heavily armed, jingoistic military commander, or "hooking up" Iago with the tools he needs for cheating at the tables -- are actually smart, well-executed, and even somewhat funny. Better yet, none of them culminate in him looking like an idiot. And besides these numerous asides, he has real story functions: his longstanding issue with imps causing him to want to one-up them, as well as stop Hamir once and for all and thus stop the Imps' profiteering; and his desire to not fail Aladdin, who unwittingly walked into being expected to save Getzistan, by solving the Hamir problem himself.

The only really questionable Genie moment that I have is how trusting he was when Nefir tipped him off about Hamir's sleeping place. But I suppose his being overeager to come through for Al made him put his guard down without realizing it. I had been planning on writing something like, "Why do the Imps' taunts and insults make Genie so insecure, when he had such a low opinion of them from the get-go?" But then I realized that, although he's incredibly wary of them (and rightfully so, as we'll see), their exchanges resemble the resent and antagonism between fans of rival sports team. I'm intrigued by the concept of their being a sordid history between these two "magical entity" species. The impression is given that even natural enemies like genies and imps have a shared culture and history that mortals aren't privy to. Sometimes, I wish that the series had expanded on and more fully defined its world and certain facets of it like this, but really, the ideas in this episode come across just fine with little back story.

This may seem like a personal quirk, but part of why I think Genie comes off well here is that his ability to shift his size from the original movie, largely forgotten throughout the series, is exhibited. Seeing him towering above the city reminds us that he's not pathetic or useless -- not because "bigger is better", but because we're reminded of how much energy, life, and exceeding brightness he projected in the movie. Interestingly, this is one of the few episodes that mentions more than once Genie's downgrade to "semi-phenomenal, nearly cosmic" powers. (Again, what is their parameters in comparison to what they were before? DECIDE ON IT, writers!) He seems a bit embarrassed about it when it's brought up, and it even seems to be (though I'm a little iffy on this) part of why he wants to prove his worth to the Imps (even though he hates them) and not mess up saving the city. Hmm, why did he seem to forget his many positive attributes in so many subsequent episodes?

Much like the scene in "My Fair Aladdin" where he went seeking the reported "monster" (actually Mechanicles' giant mechanical centipede), it's nice to see Genie proactive and taking initiative on his own by venturing into Hamir's cave. (One might ask, why does Genie walk in on foot, as if he can fly and pop up out of thin air in different places? I have a theory that the conditions of  a Genie being free is that they can use such powers for comical purposes, but not for long-distance instantaneous transportation -- at least when they NEED to get somewhere. The show is somewhat -- but not by perfectly -- consistent with this idea, leading me to consider that Stones and Co. actually had something along those lines in mind. If there were any rules, I wish they'd TOLD us what they were.) And the cut from Genie reacting by sweating in fear to Hamir waking up to Genie and Hamir having tea together and having an in-depth conversation about their personal lives is GOLD. It's a moment that's exemplary of this episode's wit and whimsy ... and I know that I've already used "wit" earlier, and that I'm going to run into a snag where I want to reuse "whimsy" or its variations further on, so let me take this opportunity to say that I feel that those adjectives sum up this episode's general qualities, but since I'm going to be citing multiple examples, I'll find different terms to use. So, hmm, how do I describe this "confidences over tea" scene? Hmm ... it's very British in its sense of humor. Does that work? That seems like a cheap shorcut; as if I could actually explain how it's so "British". ...oh, I know. It's Python-esque. Yeah, that works!

 When beginning this revisiting of the series that I'm doing here, I thought that I would always prefer "hardcore", Big Event, high-stakes, huge-threat, sword-and-sorcery, fantasy-adventure episodes like "The Prophet Motive". However, of the several episodes I've covered so far, this one has the most going for it. In "Much Abu About Something", when a foreign community expected one of our heroes to save them from destruction, they gave us a plain ol' big monster ... and it was a Tyrannosaurus rex, to boot, which I think was to somehow make the episode "different", but without any context and using it in the most generic big, mean monster role possible, it was a dud. Here, they came up with something actually different: a giant pink hippo ballerina dancer. Now, on paper, that sounds like the kind of thing that, when I watch Darkwing Duck as an adult, makes me want to say, "They think they're being SO funny, but they're really not." Or, for instance, there was an episode of Dangermouse about a giant chicken stomping London Godzilla-style, and I was like, "Uh, guys, making the giant monster a chicken really isn't that funny. What's so funny about chickens?" Or the Howard the Duck comic that's a Frankenstein parody where the mad scientist's creation is an animated giant gingerbread man. What's so funny about a gingerbread man? get the idea. So what makes the giant pink ballerina hippo work? Really, I think it's in the execution. This is the most well-animated episode yet, across the board. The characters are stylized and have a slightly more "edgy" look than usual, but their poses and expressions are carefully rendered, and never look sloppy or rushed. The movement is fluid, smooth, and fuller than in the average episode. The timing is never awkward or rushed. Hmm, did I say almost the exact same thing about portions of another episode? I'm having deja vu here. Well, I might as well use the same analogy I'm pretty sure I used then: it's kind of like Daan Jippes or Daniel Branca as compared to the Whitman-era artists. (I haven't actually figured out if these factors are more dependent on the episode's director or which animation unit worked on it. And though Aladdin Central provided me with the name of the writer and director, the fact that whoever uploaded the widely-circulated online versions of the episode omitted not just the title sequence but the end credits, I can't track which studios worked on what. But judging by my observations of other series, I might hazard a guess that this is the work of ... Walt Disney Animation Japan? I really am not confident in being right about that, though.)

The episode's climax: as Aladdin's band competes with 
Nefir's band, playing faster and faster, Genie and 
Hamir get hot feet and grow exhausted.

Hamir's dancing, including his duet with Genie, is a bizarre, almost ingenious orchestration of physical comedy. When Genie and Hamir are performing their dance duet, there's a bit that lasts a mere few seconds: Genie swings Hamir to one side, and Hamir's nose, pointed upward, nearly touches Carpet the hovering Carpet, carrying Aladdin, Abu, and Iago. In his deep, booming, but smoky voice, he lets out a friendly, childlike "Hi!" This happens while we see his head from the side, taking up about half of the screen, while Aladdin and the crew are taking up a small portion of the upper left-hand corner. The framing, timing, poses, expressions, and voicing work in confluence to have caused me to laugh out loud giddily. It wouldn't have worked with more banal animation. And the "dance-off" is certainly a more original, creative way of bringing the story to a climax than the usual action fare.

The Imps remind me of Gummi Bears' trolls -- short, gnarled thieves with an angry, abusive, conniving leader and a few imbecilic sidekicks. The premise of the Imps' profiteering off of the destruction that they're actual machinating is ... I don't, Swiftian? Like something in The Little Prince? Worthy of Pogo or Krazy Kat? More Python-esque stuff? I don't know, but for this series, that's satire that has some FIRE to it! I think "the man" got off to easy by having the sultan just be an oblivious buffoon, but, hey, I'm not expecting Ayn Rand from a Disney Afternoon show.

Having just arrived in Getzistan, Carpet and Abu 
are distraught to find it in ruins.

Nefir orders his crew to work, and the 
gang is wowed by the speed with 
which they rebuild the city.

An Imp rebuilds steps as 
Getzistan's sultan ascends them.

Oh, and the idea of the city being destroyed and rebuilt DAILY: that's some Alice in Wonderland shit right there. Or is it The Little Prince, again? Or maybe even Little Nemo? I don't know, it's just...just...just WHIMSICAL, okay?! Isn't that description good enough for you?!

Using Iago having talked the guys into a trip to the gambling city of Getzistan as the story's setup works without a hitch. The closing gag, seeing him completely plucked from the neck down and covering himself with a barrel is yet another unexpected bit of delightful bizarre-ness; the final feather in the episode's cap, if you will. (Not pun intended. Yuck.) Er, it's the episode cap, but metaphorically, it's the episode's cap (that it's wearing on its head). Wow, talk about mixed metaphors.

Aladdin is in his usual "straight man" role here. His reluctantly-expressed objections to Getzistan's sultan appointing him the city's savior is actually a pretty nice way of having him pretty much go through the dashing hero motions that he does in many an episode, but acknowledge that he never really asked to be a hero to all, 24/7. And his uncertainty awaiting Hamir's arrival on the gang's first night in the city isn't uncharacteristic cowardice or meekness, but a normal reaction, given the situation. So, I have no complaints about his character being spoiled, like in "My Fair Aladdin" or "To Cure a Thief". Abu (I overlook him in a lot of these reviews, don't I? Hmm, maybe the writer of "Much Abu About Something" had a point...) is pretty much just along for the ride, supplying little moments of comic relief in reaction shots featuring him or in shaking his fist at Iago. But these moments are certainly well-rendered and animated.

Okay, that's enough! ;)

-- Ryan

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