What's remarkable about "Air Feather Friends" is that quite unlike each of the nine episodes we've already reviewed, there is little to distinguish it in the way of original, singular characters and settings. The exception, of course (may as well get this out of the way, so it doesn’t look like my argument hasn’t accounted for this, would be the Rocs), but their screen time is minimal (though impressive), their character designs are basic, their function canned, and they are given no context beyond the bare minimum in terms of their part in Abis Mal’s scheme, with background info on them being non-existent. With the Rocs’ restricted use in mind, you couldn't ask for a more standard episode. However, if that sounds banal, far from it; the animation is well above-par (I think it’s the same studio that did “Never Say Nefir”), more care is put into the direction than usual, and the plot momentum and action are high-charged; the production team was really on their A-game for this one. Thus, I contend that this was quite deliberately presented – and maybe even produced – to launch the series' Disney Afternoon run. (It's real run, frankly.) It plays like a showcase presentation calibrated to define the series for the audience and even to sell it to them. It’s kind of like when you go overboard in cleaning the house when you're expecting company.
In this respect, it's comparable to Gargoyles' second-season premiere (and the launch of that series' expansion to a Monday-Thursday schedule), "Leader of the Pack". That episode's plot was literally: the Pack breaks out of prison, the gargoyles find them, and a near-episode-long fight scene ensues. It was completely unsatisfying story-wise, but it had above-average animation and other production factors. The whole purpose was to open with a bang, as they say.
Fortunately, "Air Feather Friends" has a bit more going for it, plot-wise. Rather than something like, "Oh, the bad guys are on the loose, we better stop them, because, you know, they're the bad guys and we're the good guys", the plot is driven by the menace and mystery of the "wind demons", and then by the characters' necessity and efforts' to stop Abis Mal. As I mentioned, due to the Rocs, this episode isn't completely lacking in unique concepts. By extension, in their capitalizing on the Roc feathers' capacity to imbue humans with the super power of "tornado" has the bad guys – Abis Mal and his goons – are doing something that they don't do in any other episode. So unlike the case with "Leader of the Pack", Aladdin's writers decided that the fact that bad guys are the bad guys wasn't enough to get things moving.
Now, you might be thinking, "Ryan, how can you seriously be trying to say that this episode is largely comprised of completely standard elements for the series, and doesn't have anything wildly singular like a flying ship chasing a sand shark or a giant dancing pink rhinoceros? Giant Rocs and human tornadoes sound pretty over-the-top and like they'd really stand out!" Well, I have to concede, my argument seems shaky when faced with the facts. However, I would contend that the above mentioned examples are incredibly outlandish, fantastical, and flamboyant. Here, we just see Mal and his gang holding simple feathers, and then turning into a spinning blur of ink lines and pale hues of brown and tan. And remember, these aren't giant twisters -- none are taller than the height of, well, by necessity, Abis Mal's tallest thug. This makes for a relatively modest spectacle in comparison to a giant mechanical centipede or a talking ostrich-sized green bird who controls the world's weather. (Birds and weather – themes common to two very different episodes!) And the Rocs, as mighty and formidable as they are – and the staging of the arrival of the Roc parents at the episode's climax is truly epic – are designed realistically, and don't really detract from the episode's "standard" flavor. I remember this strictly episode as an “Aladdin and co. versus Abis Mal” episode Abis Mal being the series’ standard villain, at least for another 35 episodes, hint hint, wink wink) episode, set in Agrabah and the part of the desert that’s in its immediate proximity (the series' most standard settings), not as "the Rocs episode".
Few other episodes set that open in Agrabah (and that’s a lot of them) open on Agrabah in such a cinematic manner. The sweeping, elaborate panning-in-from-above-Agrabah-and-down-into-the-marketplace sequence seems unnecessary and excessive if you’re thinking of this as just another episode; hence why I suspect that this was intended to be the "first" (even though nine others aired before it – we've been over this) – presenting to the audience the series' primary setting (or its home base, if you will) and drawing them into it, it can be taken as an establishing shot for the entire series.
Or, rather than drawing the audience into Agrabah, it seems to be drawing them back into it. While those who saw the movie would recognize the palace, it's a given that it will be part of the picture if you're going to show Agrabah to us. What I find telling is that as the "camera" descends down to street level, we settle in the marketplace (or a marketplace – the city probably has more than just one, right?). While I haven’t spotted in the opening scene any scenery duplicated from the original movie (and I thought that the archway that we pass during the pan-in was a recreation of some sort, but skimming the movie, I haven’t come up with a match), this scene returns the movie’s audience to familiar ground in spirit if not literally. It’s telling that what ensues is Aladdin and Abu having a run-in with the guards over Abu stealing food from a vendor. This is exactly how they make their entrance in the movie. I doubt this is a mistake or coincidence; that earlier, almost parallel scene is deliberately being evoked so as to convince the audience that these are the same characters and that this is the same world. Yes, the audience’s lack of trust was something that the series’ creators still had to overcome, not just despite but even especially because of Return of Jafar. That direct-to-video feature was met by critics and the public with skepticism and a tepid reception. Additionally, that release and the series were never promoted as related, despite Return having begun production as part of the series. The advent of the series was promoted as a follow-up to the movie, with nary a mention of the more-recent “sequel”. Thee production team thus had good reason to feel that it was necessary to sell the series as faithful to the movie that the public in theory had loved (or at least Disney’s hype was always telling them that they’d loved it, as it also was always reminding them of all the awards and critical acclaim it’d gotten).
Aladdin, Abu, and Iago are already on board in this first scene. Genie and the oft-overlooked Carpet are added in the next scene, completed roll call for the episode’s main cast. For a “first” episode”, it’s odd that a major main cast member like Jasmine is so much as even mentioned. I actually didn’t realize for a while into the series’ run that Abu, Genie, Carpet, and Iago were living with Aladdin in his hovel; I’d assumed that the royal family wouldn’t have stood such a thing, and would’ve given them quarters in the palace. (Aladdin and Jasmine would have separate rooms until their wedding, of course.) Apparently, Disney didn’t want to suggest that Aladdin and Jasmine were living in sin … even though throughout the series, Aladdin and his sidekicks seemed to be spending half their time or more at the palace anyway (and it’s not like the Sultan had GPS trackers locked around his daughter and her beau’s necks). Despite the confusion (or at least my confusion) about Aladdin’s residence, the opening scene makes it clear that he and Abu haven’t shaken their “street rat” nature. Abu’s compulsive thieving gives truth to the expression “You can’t take the street rat out of the monkey”, while their post-movie “palace connections” are indicated by Aladdin’s “Oh, Abu, here you go again!”-type reaction. His sympathy and knowing amusement at his friend’s antics is the attitude I’d expect, quite unlike his intolerance of Abu’s “addiction” in “To Cure a Thief”. Iago is actually the one here exasperated by Abu’s habits – because he gets caught up in the ensuing trouble, of course. (The sequence in which Aladdin sneaks some coins behind his back to Abu while blustering to the bloodthirsty guards that “Abu was getting it for me, and I was gonna pay for it!” is particularly well-directed, animated, and timed.)
In “Getting the Bugs Out”, “Fowl Weather”, “My Fair Aladdin”, and “Raiders of the Lost Shark”, Aladdin, leading “the gang”, seems to be functioning in the series as the city’s official “protector” or “hero”. In keeping with the mind the writer’s seem to be paying to the scrappy, survivalist “street rat” conception of Aladdin, his motivation here for investigating the mystery of the “sand demons” is to prove to Razoul that said demons have been stealing valuables. Using the longstanding grudge between Aladdin and Razoul is a good call on the writers’ part. That the guards want the wager to be over Abu plays up their cruelty and how they really still – very sadistically – have it in for Aladdin. That Aladdin, after some waffling, accepts the bet – and then of course tries to talk Abu into believing him that he’s sure he’ll win; Abu’s various pantomime displays of his anger at Aladdin are well-animated and in keeping with his performance in the original movie – shows that his ego won’t let Razoul think he’s gotten the best of him, and that he’s used to “street rat” conniving and double-dealing. Also, although Aladdin’s engagement to the princess is never mentioned, the writers seemed to be fully cognizant of it; when the guards first catch up with Abu, Aladdin stands up to them knowing that he now has the upper-hand over them; in not laying a hand on him (or just throwing him to the ground and throwing him into the dungeon on a skimpy charge), we can infer that they’re aware of this; it actually makes their resent, spite, and yearning to one-up Aladdin all the more palpable.
It’s actually fitting that Jasmine isn’t this episode; it seems that the writers knew what to do with Aladdin in consideration of his engagement to Jasmine, while keeping him in “his old life”; as we’ve seen, they didn’t always know what to do with Aladdin and Jasmine when they actually put them together!
Much like we opened on Agrabah with a dramatic shot of an especially detailed and lavish background painting of the city, the scenes in Abis Mal’s lair feature some gorgeous, elaborate background paintings (some of which may be resused from Return of Jafar?) Although Abis Mal would later be turned into comic relief more than anything, here, he actually seems to have an edge and be an actual menace; his threats to put more than he already has of his men to death and his gleeful rants about wishing violence upon Aladdin and Agrabah are unusually twisted. Of course, on several instances, Haroud quietly shows his “master” up, although Mal of course won’t acknowledge it, and somehow always contrives a way to take credit for whatever Haroud said or did.
Most of the rest of the episode is (again, very well-animated) action scenes: the rescue of the baby Roc and the flight from Abis Mal’s lair, clashing with Abis Mal’s men; a few skirmishes with Mal and his men in tornado form, and the final defeat of bad guys at the gates of Agrabah – when, as was predictable, Genie shows up with the baby Rocs’ parents. In many episodes, giant monsters and the like didn’t always come up as larger than life as they did; but the wide shot of their shadows falling over the embattled men and the up-shots of their blocking out the sun really do make one feel pretty miniscule.
Genie Watch: Some pretty good moments (becoming a monkey Mafia don behooving Aladdin to “show respect to the simian family), and his growing a rocket-tail and pushing Carpet at rapid speed in pursuit of the wind demons. (Wait, there goes my theory about how he can’t use his powers for unnaturally fast transportation.) Of course, the episode is so well-animated that even his bad moments – like when the wind demons render him inoperable – aren’t sloppy. Heck, even when he first pops out of the lamp – much as he does in many other an episode, doing nothing special besides arriving on screen – has enough flare and acuteness to it to be a treat to the eyes.