Friday, October 31, 2014

Aladdin (the TV series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 12: "Do the Rat Thing" (9/8/94)

Disney Afternoon series (and daytime/"children's" animated TV series in general) tend to not do episodes that are purely character-oriented. It seems to be an unwritten rule that there has to be a hook: something visually and conceptually at least semi-sensational or fantastical. The logic, I think, is that kids would be bored by if their favorite show turned into a melodrama or soap opera.

So far, I've liked and even celebrated the larger-than-life premises of specific Aladdin episodes that we've covered, ranging from the high-stakes action-adventure of "Mudder's Day", "The Prophet Motive", and "Raiders of the Lost Shark" to the farcical whimsy of "To Cure a Thief" and "Never Say Nefir". In those episodes, the premise -- not the characterizations of any of the main cast -- were the real show, while said characterizations have in many cases been forced and obligatory. However, "Do the Rat Thing" is a unique episode where the character conflict seems to really be what's driving the episode, while the fantastical elements serve to embellish it. With "Raiders of the Lost Shark", we remember the flying ship, Murk's domineering presence, and the giant "sand shark" with its jewel-encrusted belly. That episode's foremost character arc (Jasmine's desire to prove herself, aggravated by Murk's objection to her presence and his consequential hostility towards her) is secondary, and not as memory as all the spectacular visuals and concepts. "Rat Thing" is closer in nature to "To Cure a Thief", where a dejected Abu running away from home truly and wholly drove the story, a seemingly natural catalyst for all of the ensuing events, including what fantastical elements there were. By comparison, the characterization in "Lost Shark" seems an afterthought to a "Big Idea" that the writers had had.

Unfortunately, where I liked Amin Damoola as a comic villain and the "magical" proceedings had an inspired, zesty flare to them, the fantastical "hook" that comes into play here is one that I shirk at. To be frank, I don't like Jasmine and Iago being turned into a rat and a lizard, respectively. Characters being changed into some grotesque (by comparison to their "normal selves) form is just a lazy plot device. Worse yet, due to the size of the beings that Jasmine and Iago are transformed into, what we're given resembles a "shrinking" episode. It's an uninteresting, irritating conceit, and sitting through it, I just want it to get over with.

Much like I thought that Aladdin in "My Fair Aladdin" feeling ashamed of not being "cultured" and from an upper-class background was redundant and even a step backwards, Aladdin chiding Jasmine for her lack of, er, street cred and her consequential resent and determination to show Aladdin otherwise and thus prove him wrong rings as out-of-character and a bizarre dialing things back. I mean, didn't she already do the whole "putting on a cloak and trying to pass for a peasant" thing in the original movie? Did Aladdin suddenly suffer amnesia and forget all of their shared experiences? In all of the adventures they've been on together thus far, and just in that "the princess goes undercover and blends in amongst the masses" sequence in the movie alone, hasn't she more than proven that she's just as rugged, athletic, quick-witted, and worldly as he is? I've always thought of them as equals in various respects, and I was under the impression that they'd pretty much first hit upon that and arrived at an unspoken understanding about it in the movie.

However, for the episode to work for me at all, I have to some to some degree buy the premise ... especially when I've made the assessment that the characterizations are all that the story has going for it. And luckily, there is a way to justify Aladdin's behavior and Jasmine taking it to heart: they're human, and thus they are petty. Their inevitable being an old, bitter, bickering-prone married couple is being foreshadowed. Aladdin's taking advantage of a sore spot to get under her skin, basically.

Regardless, I'm really not sure if the Prince Wazu character was necessary. He's not used as an actual threat to Aladdin and Jasmine's relationship, and Jasmine's royal background didn't need any new exposition.

Interestingly, the animation appears to be by the studio that I like (thanks, Internet, for not having the end credits), but, interestingly, the episode always struck me as being visually off for the series ... and I've finally pinpointed what the problem is. Both rats -- the real one that Rajah is seen chasing and the one that's actually Jasmine -- are drawn in a realistic but overly cute way that is incongruous with the series' look as a whole. What actually would have worked for me is to do an It's a Wonderful Life-type deal, with no one having any memory of Jasmine and taking her for a stranger, forcing her to actually temporarily lead a pauper's life. But that wouldn't involve anything visually fanciful...and they may have figured that It's a Wonderful Life takeoffs have been done to death...but changing Iago into "frilly lizard thing" isn't exactly my idea of a good alternative. It's not funny, and  a unique opportunity to have Jasmine and Iago working together without the others -- a scenario that had the potential for humorous disharmony in the tradition of the classic comedy team of Oil and Water -- is wasted on what should've been a fleeting sight gag.

The episode actually at times has a dark tone (the settings are noticeably dimmed; this isn't the sun-baked desert locale we're accustomed to from so many other episodes). Thus, I believe all the more that a devastated Jasmine facing her loved ones not recognizing her would've worked much better than the cuteness and slapstick that unfortunately accounts for most of this episode. Oddly, the darkest moment is Fasir's (sorry, I like that spelling more than "Phasir", and DisneyWiki now infers that we have the option of using either) brief appearance, in which he portends that, basically, Jasmine is about to get what she wished for, and she ain't gonna like it. Fasir is actually much more sinister and even sadistic (he seems to enjoy making Jasmine feel threatened), which leads me to believe that this was the first episode in which he appeared in any capacity to have been produced. It would explain why he's so noticeably meaner than the wise, caring, and noble, but deeply sad, old prophet that we'll come to know. Which begs the question: if this one were first, at what point did they know they wanted him to be a recurring character? Might there have even been a point in which they had intended to use him more, as some sort of spiritual mentor/guide to Aladdin and the gang and to set up plots? Most of his other episodes are Fasir-centric, with him somehow having a personal connection to the plot (whether it's his history with Mirage or his relation to Fashoom). I don't know if it was the intention, but this could have set the precedent for using him in a more generic way, pretty much as a plot device.

Genie Watch: The blue guy with Homer Simpson's voice actually comes off pretty good here. He isn't misused as an inept klutz, but instead, he earns his keep with several impersonations that, while they aren't laugh-out-loud funny, bring to mind a quick-witted stage vaudeville or classic Hollywood comedian whose act relies on impersonations and costume changes. (Respectively, he puts in turns as a '30's-type private eye, a nature show host, and a crazed, trigger-happy game hunter. The latter is more demented than his typical antics.) But far more interestingly, his magic is actually key to the episode's resolution...he musters up enough of his remaining "semi-phenomenal, nearly-cosmic powers" to transform Jasmine and Iago back...and it works. While it's nice to see him actually legitimately uses his magic to resolve a story's primary conflict, this rare success actually raises serious questions about why he idly stands by through near-death peril after near-death peril in...well, in virtually every other episode. But then, that's the whole problem this regular subsection of these reviews exists to address, isn't it?

-- Ryan


  1. One thing comes to mind when I recall this ep: the scene in which Jasmine-rat and... Iago, I think it was... smash violently into the melon, leaving critter shaped holes behind in the rind. I remember thinking at the time that this was kind of a violent pratfall to befall Jasmine, whether in her natural form or otherwise.

  2. Chris,

    Right, because she was never used for comic relief with a resistance to squash-and-stretch brutality like the sidekicks are. Shades of the sight gags Merlock endured in bug form...

    -- Ryan