Sunday, April 27, 2014

Aladdin (the series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 4: "The Prophet Motive" (2/27/94)

To my regret, I no longer have a copy of the issue of Animation Magazine -- that I figure would have been released at some point in the summer of '94 -- that had a news item on the Aladdin series' upcoming joint Disney Afternoon-CBS launch. Tad Stones was quoted as saying that he had "designed" (in so many words) more cookie-cutter episodes "with Saturday morning in mind", but CBS opted for episodes with "more of an edge" (or something to that effect). That single quote gives insight into the series' production, and how which episodes ended up where in the fall of '94. The inference that CBS had first dibs on whatever episodes they wanted is very interesting.

Although "The Prophet Motive" was the third episode to air on CBS, I'd argue that it was the one that set the template for the episodes they chose. As it was one of the episodes to have been "previewed" (as far as I'm concerned, to have premiered) on The Disney Channel in early '94, it's easy to imagine, given Stones' account of CBS' selection process, the network people saying, "We like that one! We want it! And more like it!"

What exactly distinguishes the CBS episodes? They tend to have a darker, thicker tone; the magic, the monsters, and the ancient temples, objects of power, and prophecies were more primordial, menacing, and potentially devastating. The action was more highly charged and the set pieces were more imposing. If -- n the most general sense -- the syndication episodes were pop-rock, the CBS episodes were heavy metal.

That is not to say that there weren't syndication episodes of a nature comparable to the CBS ones. I want to be very careful in stressing that the syndicated and network episodes were NOT two separate series. (And while I'm at it, despite what Wikipedia and other online episodes lists will tell you, the fall '94 CBS episodes were NOT "season two". They were part of season one.) The fact that CBS picked episodes that Stones didn't expect them to indicates that at least the earliest CBS episodes were produced as any other episode would be. If CBS hadn't been a part of the picture, most if not at all of the 13 fall '94 CBS episodes would've been produced anyway, and instead would've just first showed up on The Disney Afternoon instead.

Those stipulations out of the way, let's get down to the meat of this episode itself, and what specifically distinguishes it besides just tone and narrative style. The opening is visually made up of a series of stills designed to look like ancient paintings depicting the day's epic myths of apocalyptic, furious battles between (what could be) gods and beasts. These images are accompanied by an eerie score and a voiceover narrative delivered in ominous, deep tones with almost a hushed reverence. This is nothing like anything seen in the three early `94 Disney Channel "preview premieres" that had preceded it.

The opening narrator turns out to be, of course, Phasir, who makes his debut here. (Well, that's arguable. I am very happy that this episode technically aired before "Do the Rat Thing", which premiered in syndication before CBS' first airing of "The Prophet Motive". I suppose it doesn't matter, as in "Rat Thing", Phasir only appears briefly before Jasmine and Iago, and Jasmine didn't meet Phasir in "Prophet" and Iago doesn't give any clear indication in either if he recognizes Phasir or not. But still, this means that -- again, this is a technicality, because by and large, the Disney Channel airings don't seem to be considered as having "counted" -- no Aladdin episodes premiered out-of-order continuity-wise, as was the case with Darking Duck. Er, obsessive much, Ryan?) Episodes in which Phasir is tied into the plot -- rather than just giving a prophecy or overseeing events to confirm that they "happened as they were meant to" -- together form what at least I consider the closest Aladdin ever got to having a series mythology. One could say that Mozenrath has his own mythology unto himself, but he never really transcended the function of recurring villain. By the same token, what we know of Phasir's backstory -- his relationship with his brother Fashoom and his connection to Mirage -- are his own business (if you get what I mean), in all of his appearances, some to greater extent, there was the implication that he had particular cause to be concerned with our heroes' destiny. In some cases, there were cryptic suggestions that he knew something them that they didn't. Nothing ever came of this and his few appearances are only loosely tied together, but the semblance of some sort of series "mytharc" (to use an X-Files fandom term) was for me exciting enough and always one of the most interesting aspects of the series.

Besides the more "hardcore" approach of "The Prophet Motive", what makes it typical of CBS is Phasir himself. Although he appeared in two episodes that premiered in syndication ("Do the Rat Thing" and "The Sands of Fate"), all of the "mytharc"-leaning Phasir episodes ("The Prophet Motive", "Eye of the Beholder", and season two's "While the City Snoozes") seemed to be the purview of CBS. His aforementioned syndication appearances affirm that we're talking one and only one TV series here, but I can't really get around that Phasir-plus-the "heavy metal" approach is a formula I associate with the CBS episodes. Notably, the voiceover-and-mythological ancient paintings intro motif was reused a couple of more times for I believe only CBS episodes.

In truth, there isn't much to this episode's plot -- it's a very straightforward, even bare-bones narrative dressed up in a bombastic, explosive package.It boils down to: Abis Mal and Haroud abduct Carpet to use him to get to the location of a long-lost treasure. Aladdin and the king pursue the villains to rescue their friend, are captured, have all escaped by the time they arrive at the treasure's location, where a giant monster statue comes to life, threatening the heroes and the villains, but the heroes get away and the bad guys get their comeuppance by not acquiring the treasure. This really could've been done without Phasir and the prophecy he delivers to Aladdin at the beginning of the episode and that hangs over the gang's head throughout the adventure. But the mystical, esoteric nature of Phasir and the way that the prophecy facilitates a stronger tension and sense of imminent mortal danger throughout the episode are really what give the episode more of that edge and fieriness that bring it to the soaring heights of your typical CBS episode. For instance, without the prophecy, we wouldn't have that (literally) edgy little Act One cliffhanger where Al and Jas almost get impaled on jagged rocks. And the literal skeleton key is more typical of the Saturday morning episodes; they were more grisly, by children's TV standards. I dunno, I just like the episode.  It's cool, you know? The flying ship, the exterior of Fashoom's cloud-borne palace, and the treasure room inside are particularly striking.

The only thing I really dislike about the episode is Fashoom's character design, which I find goofy and just kind of ugly. You may argue, "But a giant brute should be ugly", but I guess it's that they erred on the goofy side. 

This is technically Abis Mal and Haroud's first appearance (although something about "Air Feathered Friends", the first Disney Afternoon episode, gives it a "pilot" vibe and feels like it was intended to establish their part in the series). It's interesting to see such mundane villains brought into these larger-than-life affairs. Although they do get involved with magic and other big-stage things in many of their other episodes, those tend to be as a whole more comedic outings. The interplay between the two is as funny as ever, with some downright classic asides from Haroud when obeying Mal's orders to sew Carpet to the mast.

(Abis Mal discovering that he does not have that certain special touch that Scrooge McDuck does.)

Iago's cynical, "everyone has some sort of angle, since I always do!" reaction to Phasir ("I smell a RIPOFF!!!") is a great character moment. And unlike last time in "Fowl Weather", Jasmine isn't just sort of along for the ride and kind of naggy -- here, she's just as alert, on top of things, quick-witted, athletic, brave, and capable as Aladdin, if not more so. They play off of each other much better when they're presented as of the same "type".

The episode is what it is -- the Aladdin episode equivalent of a big-screen Star Wars-type popcorn flick. It works for me.

Genie Watch: The G-man obliviously remaining in buoy form and for a good while after he, Aladdin, and Jasmine have been "netted", not taking any initiative to free them, is excruciating to witness. It definitely recalls when he stayed in ostrich form just for the hell of it in "Mudder's Day" while he and the rest of the gang were swept down the raging current of the underground river that brought them to the realm of the Al Muddy, another Genie-chosen course of action that spurred much *facepalming*.

-- Ryan

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Aladdin (the series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 3: "Fowl Weather" (2/20/94)

Overall, "Fowl Weather" is a nice showcase for Iago, even if the character arcs do have some faults, and yet another example (as are the majority of episodes, really -- I suspect this will be be an aspect of most of my future reviews) -- of the series' flair for world-building ... or, more appropriately, world expansion. 

Some episodes, or at least certain elements of such, have a historical basis (as we saw in "Getting the Bugs Out" with the Greek aesthetic of Mechanicles' home base and garb), while others indulge in pure fantasy (as did "Mudder's Day"). The premise of a tropical valley from whence all of the planet's rain originates that is the domain of an avian goddess who directs and controls said rain has a decided mythic bent. As such, this is a more whimsical and -- despite the furious Thundra's assault on Agrabah -- light-in-tone episode. The "phantasmagoric" mud beings and their colorful realm in "Mudder's Day" certainly exhibited their share of whimsy, but with the heroes' captivity in the Al Muddi Sultan's palace and his attempted Godzilla-like rampage on the surface, that episode had a more perilous, sword-and-sorcery, heroic quest angle.

Anyone with a cursory knowledge of history knows that many ancient civilizations and cultures had a pantheon of specialty gods. Many of these did indeed include a rain deity, although some fleeting Googling hasn't turned up any of an ornithological orientation. Thus, as far as I know, Thundra is a fairly original -- and conceptually well-defined -- creation. True, her snobbishness, temper, and her reactionary hostility toward her visitors are one-dimensional and prima facie, but it gets the job done in regards to carrying out the plot. Her Romani/gypsy accent (complementing the garments she's adorned herself with) is a bit over-the-top, but at least it exemplifies the creative team's continued dedication to locales and cultures of the real ancient world, even as part of such a fanciful palette. Or, it could just be the creative team falling back on a stock caricature type.

Unwittingly finding himself the object of Thundra's passion, this isn't so much a character-defining or character-building episode for Iago as it is just an episode in which something happens to him in particular and he reacts to it. In fact, the whole reason Thundra's a bird may just be for the purpose of "something happening" between her and Iago! He's his irate, recalcitrant, grumbling self throughout, and I, for one, enjoy the angle he adds, as I always do. His revulsion toward Thundra and protests against her advances are highlights, and ring true to character and are sympathetic, given how overbearing Thundra is. But I don't buy his softening toward her when she descends upon the palace -- it seems like a forced way to bring about a resolution and to vindicate and not contradict all of Jasmine's "it's wrong to mess with a woman's heart" admonishing. On the other hand, Thundra's "a rain bird's work is never done!" declaration is a clean out in terms of the writers getting her out of the picture and keeping Iago at home for the rest of the series.

Jasmine's aforementioned objection to the boys' encouraging Iago to lead Thundra on so that they can make off with a storm cloud while she's distracted is not only forced and preachy in delivery, but it's a fairly transparent case of the writers finding a role for the one of the main cast members who otherwise would just be along for the (carpet) ride. Still, it's a necessary one, and for the deceit not to be addressed and to have been maintained through to the episode's close would've made for a sour note. While there's a certain logic to Jasmine identifying and sympathizing with Thundra, was it really so necessary to play it up as a gender-dividing matter, as if it's a "guy thing" to play others for suckers and a "girl thing" to object to such? 

The production values are notably lesser than the preceding two episodes and the OVA before it. The backgrounds are stark and blunt. Even the animated storm clouds and the thunder bolts that they generate are minimal and underwhelming. This is even the case throughout Thundra's vengefully turning her wrath on the palace, which should be a cataclysmic spectacle, but comes off nondescript and even casual. In fact, upon further consideration, the rudimentary visuals, along with the sunniness of most scenes, may account for the episode's light-heartedness more than anything.

Don't think that (quite) all is fun and games, though; the peasant boy seen at the very beginning and tail end and the gang's efforts to aid him during the drought are an exception. They bring a down-to-earth realism and sense of palpable need to the episode, much like the villagers in "Getting the Bugs Out" and the character interplay in "Mudder's Day".

Genie watch: Overall, he comes off better than usual. He has some extended impersonation bits -- a TV weatherman and a door-to-door vacuum sales cleaner -- that find him reveling in the role and function for which he's best-suited. He even is helpful at more than one turn, being the one to inform the gang of Thundra's valley and propose it as a solution to their drought woes, and later using his powers to eavesdrop long-distance on Iago and Thundra, to monitor if Iago's keeping the ruse going. However, they could've found a gag to carry his failure to hit water when in the form of a drill bit, hoping to help the little boy, without making it look like a result of his incompetence and making him look so undignified -- after all, it WASN'T his fault. His one true "dumb" moment of derailing the gang's efforts and taking an unnecessary amount of time to recovering, though, is when he crashes into the rain forest while attempting to rocket-propel Carpet over the valley. Oh, and he's not particularly helpful when the palace is flooding and the roof is caving in, but at least he's not shown actually TRYING to do, and thus not botching, anything.

-- Ryan