Saturday, November 29, 2014

Aladdin (the TV series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 14: "Garden of Evil" (9/14/94)

Owing to active, fluid animation that's both graceful and quirky, striking background art that is more lush, ethereal, dense, and intricate than that of virtually any other episode, and a tight, lazer-focused, rolling, expedited plot, "Garden of Evil" is in terms of story craft and aesthetics one of the most outstanding episodes of Aladdin. Unfortunately, it plays as thought it's actually too aware of how exceptional its sensitivity and preciousness is, and got enough of a swelled head to believe that it could encapsulate and relate a deep, profound, enlightening eternal truth concerning peace, love, openness, and understanding ... but ends up making no sense and being self-contradictory, ending by overtly stressing a moral that hasn't been justified, and in fact does a disservice to the audience by mis-characterizing the story that had just been told to them.

Out of the 13 preceding episodes, I think of "Garden"'s closest kin as being "Raiders of the Lost Shark", for both have a harsher than usual tone and a greater sense of one plot event spurring the next, making the episode seem exceptionally singular and momentous. Also, both have fantastical settings that are both beautiful and eerie, and a part-realistic (think: a shark, a plant), part-supernatural (or "magical", to use the series' parlance) menace ... actually, perhaps it's more apt to liken Arbutus to Murk than to the shark, for both are cold, stern, and dictatorial. Although Murk ostensibly allies with Aladdin and the gang in seeking the shark, he ultimately proves himself foe, not friend, when he leaves Jasmine for dead in the remote desert with the shark nearby; if anything, the shark is a plot device, while Murk is the villain proper.

The Sultan-centric flashback that opens the episode is not just an action-heavy, visually arresting "hook" to capture the viewer, but is also an efficient, concise way of relaying all the needed exposition. It starts out using a light, soft palette when introducing the young Sultan riding across the desert by moonlight. The striking wide-shot reveal of the exterior of Arbutus' garden is lush, warm, magnificent, beautiful, and inviting. (I guess it's not his beard still having its color as it is the upright posture that makes him more noble and dashing. It's nice to see an adventurous, self-sufficient, youthful Sultan, and it's too bad that the story arc post-flashback doesn't have much to do with him, mostly just keeping him along for the ride.) When he enters the gates and we see different segments of the interior, a similar lushness and brightness characterizes much of the plants and general scenery, but it is now shrouded in shadows ... but with a more mystic and even heavenly quality, rather than an ominous one. 

The mood decidedly changes, though, right at that fateful moment at which Sultan picks that flower -- the glowing ray from somewhere above that had literally spotlighted it, drawing him to it in the first place, obviously signifying a switch in tone, in a matter of seconds becomes more and more narrow until it disappears, the shadows become blacker and more oppressive, tumult and chaos wage as the earth quakes and a giant, gnarled root breaks through the ground and winds up toward Arbutus' "skylight" (I actually see a resemblance to the animated exterior shots of Scrooge's money bin transforming into Merlock's citadel!), and Arbutus makes his entrance. Looming imposingly above the Sultan, we only see him in part, his face never being revealed in full -- in particular, we only see it up to his nose -- to us, building up a sense of mystery around him and leaving the impression that he's so powerful as to be in accessible.

The flashback is over in but two minutes, and so when we join the main cast in the series' "present" -- finding Sultan lamenting that the day upon which Arbutus had promised he'd come to collect his due -- having at long last arrived, the audience is fully informed on the deal, all of the story's suspense and tension has been implemented, and so things are already a-moving: immediately, plans are made for Al and the boys to stay up all night guarding the treasure room (as after all, Arbutus is coming for Sultan's "greatest treasure"). We cut to them doing just that, each in custom-fit (courtesy of Genie, I imagine) versions of the uniform worn by Razoul and his men. An eerie calm hangs over this scene, much like in "Raiders of the Lost Shark", as the characters awaited the first appearance of Murk's obsessively sought "beast". Things intensify as the audience is shown something that none of the characters are aware is happening (you know, that old trick): while the boys fight to stay awake, in her chamber, as she sleeps, Jasmine is set upon by a bunch of creeping, writhing vines. The suspense finally breaks as Jasmine's screams draw Aladdin and his pals running to her aid while simultaneously, Sultan awakes from a nightmare that replays the opening scene but that for some reason makes him realize what Arbutus' intention is (and so he awakes crying her name). Action ensues as Arbutus fights off their attempts to stop him from abducting her, and though the dust is settling as the first act ends, Aladdin, once he uncovers himself from the rubble, resolves to immediately begin pursuit, ensuring that the plot continues to move forward.

Whereas in the wake of their first battle with "Raiders"' shark and its subsequent retreat, there followed a cycle of more waiting, counterattacks, and strategic retreats. However, the search/chase stuff isn't integral to "Garden"'s narrative, and so we don't see Aladdin and the rest until they arrive at Arbutus' front gate.  (Ultimately, the gang did have to set out to rescue Jasmine from the monster, but that was a complication that came late in the game. They would never be pursuing Arbutus if he had just left them alone in the first place. But with the shark, they had concluded that the shark was a menace to society as a whole and so they were obligated to render it inoperative.) In the meantime, what occurs is dialogue-heavy exchange in Arbutus' lair between him and Jasmine. Though this sequence constitutes a lull in action and a slowing of pace, by cutting away from Aladdin's pursuit and holding off the inevitable rescue and battle, all of the suspense and tension built up right through the end of the first act is maintained at a slow boil -- as it becomes more and more apparent how warped Arbutus is and what a precarious situation Jasmine is in -- until Aladdin's arrival and the final showdown commences.

It's what occurs between Jasmine and Arbutus that for me is where the episode loses its way. For one thing, it feels like a date on which she's falling for his phony "See, I'm a sensitive artist with a gentle soul, and no one understands me" and not realizing that he's a total creep. Arbutus knew -- he even tacitly admitted by railing against humanity's ignorance -- that Sultan meant no harm by picking the flower. Arbutus could've explained to him, "I know that you were not aware of this, but that flower meant as much as your own child would to you", and Sultan would've been like, "Oh, dear, I feel just terrible! I am ever so sorry! I will instruct my subjects to treat your kind as equals, and from this day forward, there will be peace and cooperation between our two kingdoms!" Instead, Arbutus craftily makes but one simple threat, and then sits back for the next 20 years (all he had to was plant the seed, pun intended) while Sultan is psychologically terrorized ... more and more so as the deadline nears. Thus, when Arbutus at last brings Sultan's worst nightmare to life (literally, given the dream that Sultan awakes from just as Arbutus is sinking his stems into Jasmine), the plant-man knows EXACTLY what he's doing -- it's out of vengeance and malice, which was not the case with Sultan. Aladdin can't be blamed for coming to rescue her more so than he can any other time he's rescued her or any of their friends from some villain. Even urging him to stop fighting the roots makes no sense, as they are the ones attacking him! As dramatized and as starkly shown as Arbutus might be, it doesn't really merit the "can't we all just get along?" message or the gang feeling that they had somehow wronged him by reacting to Jasmine's abduction and had "attacked" him without cause. They've never before killed one of their opponents, and I can't think of any other on-screen death in the series, and so I think it's appropriate that they at least lament that it had come to that. (And at that Aladdin's immediate reaction to Arbutus' death -- victoriously exclaiming, "Yes!" as he does that thing where you make a fist and hold it up near your chest, jutting your elbow down a couple inches -- is unsettling.) But it's not as though Arbutus was some saint who had never meant them any harm and had only misunderstood his deeds and words as threats and aggression. But that's what the episode seems to want us to think.

It's as if Arbutus is supposed to be Edward Scissorhands -- an outcast who in appearance is scary to "normals" but actually is harmless, sweet, and kind ... and is a gifted artist, creating elaborate garden sculptures in private that astound the rare visitor. The music composed for this episode recalls the traditional "epic" Hollywood score, but incorporating more "special" elements that are both whimsical and haunting -- in a quiet moment, as Jasmine sleeps and the vines/stems/whatever begin creeping into her chamber, the mood is set by what resembles music box tones. ("This is creepy, but it's magical and wondrous" seems to be the cue...) Now, does this description bring any particular celebrated Hollywood composer to mind? Like, say, Danny Elfman? You know, the guy who scored Edward Scissorhands? While Edward was actually a nice guy, given the qualities of the score, and the "misunderstood misfit" theme (as inappropriate as it is for "Garden", and the garden sculpture angle), the influence of one of Tim Burton, Danny Elfman, and Johnny's Depp's early films -- one that was career-defining for all three --  is at least

And I know that's odd to say, given that the shy, clammy Edward couldn't be further from the commanding, egotistic Arbutus. As unsympathetic as I am to Arbutus and as uncalled for as I find the sentiment of the ending, I do enjoy his portrayal. In fact, with his angular, wizened features; tall, stout, imposing stature; his "refined" Eastern-ish red robe with yellow trim and spiked (with what are thorns, I would presume) collar (also, he wears what appear to be a turban and a skirt, but as there are two or three shades of green between them, I think they are actually part of him); his sinewy, resounding voice and his almost musical (though more Wagnerian than nursery rhyme) patterns of speech, he shares the qualities -- gaunt; quaint in voice and diction; mannered and formal; intelligent and articulate -- that appealed to me in Batman: The Animated Series' version of Ra's Al Ghul. As Ra's decidedly stood apart from the various thugs and psychos that made up that series' Rogues Gallery, Arbutus' lankiness and professorial disposition is a refreshing change of pace from Sootinai's muscle-flexing and WWF-like bellowings. Ron Perlman's performance as Arbutus is outstanding, but David Warner's Al Ghul voice (the same voice he used for Gargoyles' Archmage, by the way) would've been equally suiting.

Actually, I can think of another comparison: Arbutus' emaciated physique, occult-ish "shaman"-like garb, deep voice (but dial it down a bit, and add a nervous quiver), erudite way of speaking, and bratty self-absorption foreshadows a recurring series villain to-be...

Genie Watch: In this episode, he tends to favor more "generic" impersonations (rather than specific celebrities and contemporary references): when Aladdin first summons him from the lamp (WHY does he still live in that thing?!), he emerges in a nightgown and nightcap, in the midst of brushing with an electric toothbrush, his eyes barely opened. Once Al urgently explains to him the situation with Arbutus' expected arrival, Genie transforms into an overly fired-up "jarhead" soldier shouting in a Southern accent, "Ah am read to serve!!!", which in itself, made me laugh out loud ... but he's forgotten to transform the toothbrush into a sword, as he'd intended (are his powers really THAT flunky!), and when he realizes the mistake, he makes a remark about "fighting tooth decay first". So things get fouled up by him once again being a klutz, and then by making a coy, "punchy" remark that's the kind of flamboyant, self-infatuated thing that Robin Williams did that I wish the show hadn't tried to tap into so much.  Later, he splits himself into a trio of beatniks -- not the most original gag, but not the most annoying, either.

Over the course of the clashes with Arbutus, Genie transforms into a couple of things that are appropriate, and in some cases, actually HELP: a caterpillar munching away at the plants that have entrapped Jasmine in the abduction scene -- fitting, but staying true to his current form, he (at least acts as though he) has no reaction time, and just keeps munching away as Arbutus makes off with Jasmine; way too late, caterpillar-Genie does try to chase after them ... but remains in the caterpillar form, waddling across the bedroom, getting trapped by some sort of plant with multiple large leaves that snap shut around him. It's actually somewhat funny -- in a sort of "face-to-palm" "WHAT?!" kind of way -- when he bursts through the leaves in the form an overly cute butterfly (the plant trap was the caterpillar's cocoon, get it?), gushing in falsetto about how he's "so pretty". Later, in the garden, he dons a classic red-and-white checkered bib (at least, these seem to be classic, going by old cartoons and comics) and assumes a larger-than-usual size so that he's able eat the attacking vines as if they're spaghetti; this is head-scratching yet logical enough to be appreciated just for the absurdity and incongruity if it. In the final battle, he annoys Arbutus by taking the form of a gopher (in the form of Gopher of Winnie the Pooh, but blue) and then a woodpecker. As I always say, if he only uses his powers through impersonations and parodies, the best we can ask for is that he does ones that make sense.

-- Ryan 

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