Saturday, August 30, 2014

Aladdin (the series) 20th anniversary - Episode 9: "Raiders of the Lost Shark" (5/1/94)

This is a minor (very minor, when you consider how many episodes I have to go) milestone for this blog: "Raiders" is the last episode of the nine to have been "previewed" on The Disney Channel between February and May of `94. It has a second distinction: a few months later, on Sept. 17th, it would be the first episode that be aired on CBS. If you don't count the Disney Channel airings as ever happened, then the episode premiered on CBS. But in that case, it wouldn't be any sort of series premiere episode, as that would make it the 11th episode, following the first full two weeks of the show's Disney Afternoon broadcasts. 

Immediately following “Never Say Nefir”, this episode’s animation is disappointing. As is sadly more typical of the series, a lot of what ended up on the screen comes off as rushed and sloppy. Poses are off-model to the point of ugliness, and a lot of the timing is stilted and awkward. A lot of the “shots” are staged in a functional way and if they seem to have a particular perspective and composition in mind, it seems under-realized; you think that you know what they’re going for, but it’s not really quite there. I’ll point out examples as I go along.

Despite the average animation, there are yet other visual aspects – mostly design-related – of the episode that should be commended. It is more sensitive to atmosphere and mood  than the typical episode. Specific blends of tone and texture, and some “special effects”, are used to create separate, distinct visual themes, one for each of the episode’s three acts (although the third act’s motif is more an evolution of the second’s). These touches effectively give us one of the series’ most eerie, ethereal, mysterious episodes.

The narrative arc – which is only aided and complemented by the evolving succession of visual themes – is one of the most substantive, involved, properly balanced, and fully-realized that we’ve seen yet. Say what you want about it being a riff on Moby Dick with some Jaws thrown in, but there really are no missed beats, lulls, excess baggage, poor or neglected characterization, or unrealized ideas. It is also certainly one of the most non-comedic, heavy-handed, high-stakes, larger-than-life, harsh-toned episodes that we’ve seen yet; in other words, the kind of episodes that to Tad Stones’ surprise – and mine – CBS had preferred.

We open with an establishing/foreshadowing scene that follows a similar template as early parts of "My Fair Aladdin": a group of nomads there, a lone merchant here encounters a menacing monster; reports of this incident and general rumors about this fantastic threat reach the palace, who has to figure out what to do about the problem. In that case, the intrigue was never really delivered on. It was immediately sidetracked by the mundane threat to Aladdin's ego by a phony snob, and the episode was too cobbled together to maintain any continued suspense. It's almost as if the show had learned its lesson and was now poised to set things right. After the opening scene, things are immediately turned up, with the shark raging through Agrabah's marketplace, causing destruction, chaos and havoc. And then the shark comes blazing through the palace floor, literally bringing the threat home. Cut to a gaggle of angry merchants at the palace demanding action, and the viewer is left with no question about the facts of the conflict that's been established and a sense of impending crisis and what the characters' immediate priorities have become and what's going to spur their next actions.

In neither the eight episodes I've reviewed so far nor to my episode in any other episode (all of which I'll eventually review) have I seen anything like the blend of purplish, blueish, and pinkish hues that make up the sky throughout this palace scene (which starts out with the angry mob, and culminates in Merc's arrival). Also, the skin tone of all the characters is quite noticeably darkened. This isn't a case of the animators' mistakenly using the wrong paint; its meant to have -- along with the opaque lavender sky -- the effect of dusk time. If this were an English paper, I'd have to argue -- convincing even myself -- that this represents the dark, harrowing night that is the journey and battle with the shark that the gang is about to be overtaken by. Since it's not, I'll just say that it has a really cool, ominous effect.

And such an atmosphere is fitting for what happens next: Merc's ship sails into Agrabah. The ambience that's been sustained by this atypical use of color, tone, and psuedo-"lighting" (or shading, I guess you would say) is fitting for the otherworldly, surreal, fantastical sight this is supposed to be. In fact, it's what really is responsible for the whole thing being pulled off. The ceremonial wide shots of its arrival on the horizon and those shots of it shadow steadily creeping over a silenced, awed citizenry (by using angled-up shots at it and giving us a perspective of it from the citizens' perspective, we get the sense of how imposing and invasive it seems) play a part, for sure. But imagine if Agrabah had appeared with it usual blue-sky and fast food-cartoon tan-colored architecture, Merc's coming into port would seem a whole lot more casual.

After several episodes of Jasmine being poorly used or not used at all, she puts in a first-rate performance here. Take her reaction to the riled up merchants petitioning Sultan for a redress of grievances: she stands at one of the palace's outer railing things, resting her chin on the palm of her hand, appearing to be irritated and disdainful. What I take away from this exhibition is that she thinks that in all the commotion, everyone's acting foolish and unreasonable, and is somehow missing the big picture. Maybe it's that this is a completely unusual, unforeseeable situation, and that the merchants are being ridiculous by being mad at her father for not instantly, magically fixing everything. I don't think it's that she's put off by all of the rabble offending her with their inferior presence and all their meaningless jibbering; that would be out of character, and she's not written as out of character in any of the rest of the episode. While we're not told what she's thinking -- really, this is a fine example of "show, don't tell" -- what we can definitively say of this scene is that she is standing apart from everyone else -- her father, the guards, and the merchants alike. It may be not just that she thinks everyone is acting hysterical, but that even if she had a solution, no one would listen to a silly little girl -- in fact, that's perfectly in keeping with what's going to happen between her and Merc throughout the rest of the episode. One way or the other, I'd argue that the clear intent is to establish Jasmine as being alienated from the discussion, and by her being the first to notice the ship, she is perceptive and ahead-of-the-curve; she does have a lot of value to contribute to the proceedings, despite her being a "mere" girl. (And, yes, she just happened to be in a position to see the ship while the others were preoccupied otherwise, but I think the idea that she sees what everyone else is oblivious to is innate to the scene.)

It's not a mistake that Merc's vessel hovers above even the royal family, just as it had moments ago to Agrabah's peasants. Part of its imposition is its inaccessibility. Merc's immediate hostility and severe sternness only tightens the tension; not only is this killer shark running rampant, but this is decidedly not some shining, friendly, affable white knight whose come to save the day. His "This is no job for a woman" slight at Jasmine and her immediate resent and determination to prove him wrong obviously marks the beginning of their antagonism and what's going to take place between them over the course of the rest of the episode (which certainly earns Merc less than any sympathy).

With the prevailing visual theme, it's as if a switch has been set to "dim", shifting Agrabah into some sort of purgatory-like alternate plane of existence; they're now in Merc's world, run by Merc's rules. That the desert he takes them to doesn't look like the desert of any other episode seems to virtually bear this out. 

I like Jasmine donning a cloak for the journey. I don’t know why she did so – was she expecting it to be cold – but it contributes to the episode’s “feel”; she’s prepared to face harsh conditions. Or she might just want to be cozy being crammed in on a tiny ship for who knows how long.

And I also like how the second act opens with our heroes now underway on their quest, showing Genie and Abu caricaturized as shipmates; Genie swabbing the deck, Abu lazily playing an accordion. These little touches us put us “there” with them, giving the sense of an extended lull; all they can do for now is wait.

A very interesting touch: the clouds seen throughout the journey have a form distinctly unlike that seen in any other episode; they’re not all the same shape, but if they were characters in a Microsoft Word document, they’d all be of the same font. I’m not sure what the significance of this design is, but it does contribute to the surreal feel of the journey; like I said, the gang has ventured out into the desert well beyond Agrabah in plenty of episodes, but this doesn’t look like the same desert it at all.  And I haven’t even mentioned that the crux of the whole scenario is a flying ship pursuing a “sand shark” that treats the desert as if it’s the ocean. That’s pretty fantastical, whimsical, and surreal, I’d say.

Well, once we’ve established our “long lull/waiting period”, the episode doesn’t beat around the bush:  the inevitable first shark attack occurs, and, basically, it’s all the spectacle, action, terror, and thrills that you’d expect. Mere seconds before the shark makes his appearance, we’re watching Aladdin and Jasmine have a conversation, and the sky fades to blackness behind them. No, we don’t see gargoyles turning to stone, but this does support my “descent into a darkest night of dark darkness” theory.

In Jaws fashion, we have the shark attacking, the heroes driving him off, and then some tense waiting for him to reappear, a few times over. After his first retreat, Merc makes an ultimate dick move and tosses Abu, without discussing it with him beforehand and with no lifeline or anything of the sort, to the desert floor below. I don’t know why the gang just didn’t tell Merc to screw off and leave him to carry on his merry way as they all flew back home on Carpet. But I guess they felt obligated to try to solve the shark problem, and felt that his ship and gear were good resources to have.

Abu is rescued (by Genie – see below). The ship enters rocky waters – er, a part of the desert with these strange, tall rock formations. In keeping with the episode’s established inclinations, these formations are very surreal don’t look like any part of any landscape shown in any other episode, reinforcing the feel that we’re a strange, unearthly realm. The ship becomes wedged on some rocks, but Genie frees it(!)(again, see below), only to be swallowed up by the shark. He turns up fine just a few moments later (I kind of thought that he wasn’t able to die in the first place), but in the interim, Merc’s callous indifference is pretty appalling.

But that’s nothing, compared to what he does next: it’s at last time for his and Jasmine’s dislike for each other to come to a head. Merc decides to abduct her from her chamber on board the ship while she sleeps (really nice “candlelight” effect in the scene inside her room, btw), lower her on a wooden plank by rope to the desert floor, and abandon her.

I would expect that an episode in which the only thing that the writers could think of to do with Jasmine is have her prove her worth “in spite” of her gender would be a failure, but Merc’s thick-headedness is a completely logical foil for her in this regard. And SHE, for one, never has any self-doubts, and is completely mentally and physically impressive throughout, so she performs completely impressively, as she SHOULD, because she does so while being completely in-character.

I’m giving this blow-by-blow to demonstrate what an airtight dramatic narrative through-line this episode has. As I said, at the beginning of the second act, the character’s circumstances is clearly defined, in a “homey” way so that – at least for those of us captivated by the episode – we’re mentally “with” them, identifying with the protagonists, as should be the case with any well-told story. And we’re kept there with them – the narrative is never side-tracked or hits any ruts. The situation escalates without a hitch, one event leading directly to the next – never a dull moment, as the cliché goes.

When Aladdin and the gang wake up and discover her missing, we’ve of course passed from nighttime back to day time – the hues of the sky has gone through several phases, but now a violent storm has overtaken the desert, and the wind is represented with these swirly, cluster-like white-colored formations that kind of resemble aerial tumbleweeds. (I don’t know if the white coloring was made using the same kind of paint they use on all the cels. It seems to be some sort of effect applied separately from the “regular” animation. The rock Jasmine takes refuge on is the most bizarre and ghastly in design yet (it kind of reminds me of the exterior of Merlock’s citadel in DuckTales: The Movie, actually – an outcrop at its base looks like a gnarled claw.) Taking all of this together, we are given the sense that this takes place in (you know this song by now) a strange, unearthly realm.

And I haven’t even touched upon the appearance of the desert sand all throughout the journey. It’s grey in most scenes and blue-ish in the moonlit scenes. It actually doesn’t seem to be the desert at all – when Abu and Jasmine are each in turn forced overboard, it’s as if they’re being subjected to completely alien terrain, and not the desert that they’ve lived upon for their entire lives … or, well – and obviously, this is the intent -- like they’re stranded in deep, dark waters swarming with deadly predators. I’m almost surprised that they’re able to stand up and don’t fall right through the sand upon first making contact with it.

Jasmine’s rescue dovetails with the final faceoff with the shark. Like the earlier action scenes, this one has perfect form. It’s the big, slam-bang, tumultuous climax you’d expect. It’s just what it should be, and is not anything that it shouldn’t be. What more can I say?

The (almost-)closing scene, showing the captured beast on display, rigged up on some wooden apparatus, is one unique for the series – the faux-lighting from the glow of the jewels in its stomach (which never glowed that bright at any point earlier) creates an atmosphere of a big celebration, almost like the whole city has gathered for a grand fireworks today. The wide shot of this gathering, the aforementioned faux-lighting, and the audio ambience of the excited din of crowd chatter gives this the feel of a jubilant big crowd scene at the end of a classic Hollywood epic.

The turnabout (the real closing scene), showing Razoul, on patrol the next morning, discovering that “The beast has escaped!” (I always liked the way that line resonated – a sense of Agrabah’s community was carried over from the previous scene, and I really get the feeling that he’s urgently calling this out for ALL his still-awakening neighbors to hear) is also a highlight. The discovery of Merc’s seeming betrayal and Aladdin’s closing words of wisdom (“I think he finally discovered that there is more than treasure”) might some strike as hamfisted, sappy, and (especially given that we really have no reason to suddenly feel sympathy for Merc, after he completely deliberately seriously endangered Abu and Jasmine!), but I always got some fleeting chills and an elating feeling of inspiration from it, so that’s something. And in high school, when I showed it to a friend, that line made him nod appreciatively, so there you go. I like to think of it as the show having its own little Don Rosa’s Uncle Scrooge moment.

This episode suffers from a paradox that much of the series does: the whole gang is along for the ride because they’re the main cast. Aladdin is, of course, fulfilling the “hero” archetype – the cockiness with which he accepts (without having really even been offered) from the Sultan being “assigned” to the mission is certainly preferable to his lack of confidence in “My Fair Aladdin” – and more in keeping with the guy who sang “One Jump Ahead” in the original movie. In being psychologically dominated by Merc over the course of the journey, and not knowing what to expect or what to do at each unexpected, a good balance is struck in not making him Superman but also not moralizing about how his ego is overinflated. Abu being used as “bait” doesn’t “offend” me in making him look feeble in the way that “Much Abu About Something” did, because that was Merc’s deal, not Abu’s. And Iago, of course, is preoccupied the whole way through with the treasure embedded in the beast’s belly. In other words, nailed it, writers.

Genie watch: Seeing as Merc’s such an insufferable dick, Genie could’ve at any point turned himself into the gang’s own flying ship. But considering, none of his impersonations or transformations in this episode are especially annoying (in fact, they’re wildly appropriate: a mop to swab the deck, a fisherman to “catch” Abu from the “sand” ocean and save him from the shark; a jack to raise the ship off of the rocks its stuck on) or culminate in him having some sort of “epic fail” moment … in fact, as mentioned earlier, there’s two moments where he completely comes through: as juts mentioned, saving Abu and freeing the ships from the rocks. All considered, by comparison to many others, this is a great Genie episode!

-- Ryan


  1. Excellent job, as always, Ryan. Interesting contrast between the care that a lot of ALADDIN episodes took with setting and the occasionally sloppy work they did with characters. It was more noticeable in this show than in earlier ones because some attempts were being made to provide a semi-realistic setting.

  2. Thanks, Chris! Having now taken a really close look at several episodes, I can now really see what Tad Stones meant about how one difficulty with the show as that the main characters had already gone through their major personal arcs in the original movie.

    The show does seem to have a lot more original settings than the earlier series. Some were better-realized than others. I actually think the series was inconsistent on all levels, each to a varying degree, but that's what happens when you're producing 76 episodes for single season, I guess. The show still had a lot going for it, which I intend to highlight as much as I can with this series.

    I think the series' realism was about the equivalent of Gummi Bears. Both series could even take place in the same world, one in Europe (I think Dunwyn would be the equivalent of medieval Britain), and the other in the Middle East (I think Agrabah would be the equivalent of the capital of the Ottoman Empire). There could even be a clan of Gummis in hiding somewhere in Agrabah!

    -- Ryan