Monday, November 17, 2014

Aladdin (the TV series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 13: "The Vapor Chase" (9/13/94)

A recurring criticism that I have made, or flirted with making,  of several episodes has been that they revolve around a fantastical spectacle expected to linchpin the episode, holding together -- while "professionally" and in some aspects cleverly written -- a contrived plot and characterizations and character arcs that are, to  varying degrees, noticeably ill-fitting.

"Do the Rat Thing" was an episode that I thought should've eschewed all its spectacle (a silly and annoying type of spectacle quite unlike the "epic" visual spectacles of "The Vapor Chase" or its "big monster" predecessors, but spectacle nonetheless) and gone the route of being a pure character piece. Episodes like "Fowl Weather" and "Bad Mood Rising" found a balance between fantastical premises and character-driven narratives (though the latter may not have been perfect each case), actually coming off kind of like thoughtful, somewhat subtle fables (or in the case "Fowl Weather", an ancient myth of a god of one of the elements spurned by a mortal lover...hmm, that angle never occurred to me until juts now now...) Then there have been the "heavier" episodes: "Raiders of the Lost Shark" was actually a near-seamless integration of plot, character, and big-scope fantastical premise and spectacle. "The Prophet Motive", on the other hand, went all out with its generally ominous, foreboding tone, amplified sense of terror and danger, doomsaying from an enigmatic, deep-voiced, domineering and deep-voiced elderly prophet/wizard fully in the Gandalf mode, skeletons rotting in castles, and a cloud-bound ancient fortress housing an ancient splendorous treasure and ancient primordial evil in the form of the inevitable giant monster. There weren't really any "personalized" character arcs to speak of -- the prophecies of Fasir that loomed over Aladdin and Jasmine over the episode were situational in every respect, and had nothing to do with "who they are as people". In that case, I praised the episode for laying on thick the sword-and-sorcery and apocalyptic inclinations, noting that the main cast was drawn into the proceedings only incidentally but that I didn't consider that a big deal, as the episode did what it did well. 

In fact, I wish that the writers had more often felt free to use that episode as a mode, just facilitating the characters being drawn into into the plot and letting it takes it course, and not feeling obligated to work in one of the regular cast overcoming some sort of personal issue and learning a lesson about themselves. The writers may felt they needed to justify the series being Aladdin [& the Rest of the Gang from the Movie], but I, for one, always bought into that the series was going to chronicle their many adventures, and that the adventures themselves should therefore be good enough. It's okay to have some episodes based around a character idea and others around an event idea; you don't always necessarily have to do both.

"The Vapor Chase" is a case in point. (In fact, comparing it to "The Prophet Motive" is very apt, as its largely comprised of Abis Mal waging a scheme that eventually brings a giant monster into the picture.) What's the plot? Abis Mal acquires a load of black powder (Haroud did the leg work in carrying the heavy sack of the stuff to their lair, of course, much to his chagrin). They discover that if they burn the powder, the resulting smoke takes the form of little smoke demons that can speak and are autonomous, but they promise Abis Mal that they "can steal stuff for" him, and are only too glad to follow his orders. (Haroud is naturally the one to try to warn that something seems fishy, but he can't get this point to be received on the inside of Abis Mal's thick skull ... hmm, although the writers seemed to struggle with the main cast some, they seem to have NO problem with their OWN characters ... hence why I must be using phrases like "of course" and "naturally" when recounting their performance, as if they actually exist aren't being written, or at least couldn't be written any other way). Eventually, when the various wispy, roughly Abu-sized smoke demons have accumulated enough gold coins, jewels, etc., they are able to join together to form the reincarnated Sootinai -- a giant, wrathful, malevolent, power-made smoke demon who talks like a WWE wrestler and visually is a hammer-to-the-head allusion to the demon of Fantasia's Nightmare on Bald Mountain. (It's inferred that Sootinai had once before existed and terrorized the world, and for some reason, had been trapped inoperative in the form of the powder that found its way into Abis Mal's clutches, and that somehow, the mini-smoke demons -- him subdivided and dilluted, I guess -- hording stolen riches in Abis Mal's lair enables them/him to reform into his maximal vestige; "Your greed was but a tool to release my power", he contemptuously informs Abis Mal.)

Where do the goods guys fit into all this? Of course, when the mysterious overnight robberies first start occurring all over Agrabah, our ever-dependable, valiant heroes are on the case, trying to find some clues to solve the mystery. They're resourceful and Abis Mal is sloppy, so of course the trail leads to him -- but too late to stop the resurrection of Sootinai. In turn, as soon as he's waging Godzilla-style destruction upon Agrabah,they're there trying to stop him -- which, by the time the few minutes of the now-underway third-and-final act (signified by Sootina's big entrance), they've done, utilizing -- in a commendable case of planting-a key-plot-point-early-on-and-bringing-it-back-into-play-later-at-just-the-needed-moment) -- an underground repository that Aladdin and the boys had mentioned finding at the beginning of the episode. And what more do you expect or want? The good are, plain and simple, there to oppose and defeat the bad guys; that's TV Action-Adventure Cartoons 101.

So what's this whole thing with Jasmine being jealous of resenting Aladdin's water discovery getting more attention that her "economical heating fuel" discovery? Is it necessary? No. Does it do anything? No. Does it actually taint Jasmine's character? Yes. Could we still have Aladdin discovering the water so that it would come in handy at the story's climax, and still have good-hearted Jasmine wanting to distribute the "powder" to all of Agrabah's impoverished citizens but without the whole jealous rivalry angle, and not have it be detrimental to the plot at all? Yes.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not crazy about Sootinai. At least he has a slick, stark appearance in both outline and color, and the "special effects" he's flanked by, in terms of psuedo-"lighting" and "shading" and color texture, is similar in style and production value to the lightning storms in "Bad Mood Rising"...but man, that testosterone-overloaded pro-wrestler voice.  (Did the production crew just figure, "Oh, if we're gonna go big monster, let's go FULL big monster?)  But still, that's all it is, is a flashy (actually, bombastic and even violent) visual production, without much substance to it.  When the "Hey, remember that water we found?" play occurs, it's nice to be reminded that the writers hadn't forgotten about plot. The episode does have more going for it in other respects, though: a nice, mysterious ambiance (largely due to the visual palette, which is heavy on deep shadows partially dispersed by firelight) is maintained throughout the opening scene in Haroud's lair and the scene representing the first night of the min-smoke demon's stealthily robbing a sleeping Agrabah. Also, in general, the animation and character poses are quite good.

And, in a sense, this is a prime example of the series' first few weeks in the fall of '94, when Abis Mal and Haroud were the most commonly recurring villains. The sweeping opening shot of a disgruntled Haroud crossing the desert, lugging the "powder"-filled sack over his shoulder, is striking, and their interplay is the perhaps the most high-charged, fully-realized yet.  It's their typical schtick: Abis Mal is consistenlty irritated with and derisive toward Haroud, who in turn is unendingly exasperated with Malsie's obliviousness. But the dramatic opening shot, imparting the harsh conditions of the long trek Haroud has made immediately being offset by Abis Mal's irate, thankless, undercutting reaction really enhances the dynamic. And the reprise -- with variation -- of this scene at the episode's end is an atypical, outside-the-box device for the series that I daresay approaches brilliant.

Genie Watch: He's incredibly obnoxious in this episode ... he's REALLY eager to tell everyone of how he "turned into a dousing rod" and found that underground well. He comes off really needy, desperate, and needling. His impersonation of Sootinai, which serves as the closing gag, does make up for it, though -- after a terrified Abis Mal and Haroud have headed for the hills, Genie lets the audience in on his little ruse. The gradated metamorphosis to his well-form is well-executed, and the wry, proud smile he gives the audience (and that we iris-out on) really sells it. If only we had gotten this Genie -- smart and in control -- throughout the rest of the episode, and not the boob who is more than once humiliated by being the object of some Looney Tunes-type cartoon violence.

-- Ryan

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