Wednesday, December 24, 2014

(Assorted) Christmas tidings.

A break from the Aladdin reviews (it's been months of nothing else -- I fear I may have lost some readers!) to acknowledge that I am actually aware of the calendar that the rest of the world follows and wish my regular readers (all of the ones whom I know of I consider my friends) a merry Christmas!


Last Sunday, I attended a special screening at Amherst Cinema.

Hard to believe that it's 22 Christmases since, at the age of 11, I saw it at the theater during its original release with my parents and sister. Being that my earliest memories are of watching reruns of The Muppet Show in syndication and that it was the first show that I was crazy about, it was very, very considerate, kind, and generous of my parents to take us. (And my sister was a good sport in coming along. But it made me very happy when, during the opening scene, she recognized Doc's companion from Fraggle Rock and whispered to me from her seat, "Ryan, Sprocket!" 

The first Muppet feature film to be produced without Jim, when seeing it for the first time in 1992, I was very moved when the film began rolling and the dedication below appeared on the screen. It was a powerful, solemn moment. (This time, I applauded.)

In the post-Jim Henson world, until 2012's The Muppets (which not only was clearly a dream project for Jason Segel, but he had a deft understanding of what makes the Muppets tick), I was almost convinced that I would ever again see a new Muppet production that I didn't find heartless and to be trying too hard. For some reason, though, Christmas Carol, hit upon a certain magic. I don't know if Jim's spirit was still lingering, or if it was the raw emotion from the Muppet team having been dealt such a massive emotional blow -- especially director Brian Henson, Jim's son. Or maybe it's just that Brian had a "special touch" similar to his father's -- however much of it is Brian, it's worth noting that its lacking in all the subsequent projects that he hasn't been involved in.

Whatever the case, Christmas Carol's "magic" is an earnest romanticism and its vivid, detailed (liberty-taking) period piece approach. In part, these qualities and can be attributed to the essential trappings and sentiment of the source material. Dickens' classic story (I'm not saying that because I think that it's the thing to say; I consider it a classic) is so good, it's hard to do wrong, and so all of the good things about it would inevitably carry out, right? As if, when chosen to be told, it comes to life and tells itself, more or less? Think again: consider Hanna-Barbera's bland, uninspired 1994 animated TV movie A Flintstones Christmas Carol.) 

So, let's think in terms of practicality, and try to get a handle on what this movie has going for it and why it works:

1. The rich sets. costumes, lighting, and cinematography (from the drab stuffiness of young Scrooge's classroom to "Fozziwig's" bright, joyful, mirthful party to the warm, gilded glow of the Ghost of Christmas Present's "spread" that Scrooge finds in the room adjoining his sleeping chamber). These aesthetics bring intto realization a romanticized only slightly surreal and fantastical vision of Dickens' 19th century London-in-December. 

2. Paul Williams' incredibly tasteful score and songs, with their minor key melodies and string-and-brass-heavy arrangements. Though clearly following the traditions of 20th century showtunes, they still are very fitting to, and greatly enhance, the movie ambience of the movie's "reimagined" fantasy Victorian setting. 

(The following year, a certain other Christmas movie that featured puppetry of a different sort went REALLY overboard on the outlandishness in its sets and music. [Christmas Carol only becomes truly ghastly and distorted in the Christmas Yet-to-Come scene.] The latter film's visual and aural elements alike have since become deeply embedded, iconic -- albeit niche -- pieces of pop culture. While a part of me may resent that by comparison, Muppet Christmas Carol hasn't gotten its due, I can take solace in that least half of every topic isn't devoted to merchandise based on it.) 

3. The casting ... of the Muppets. They seem to have not made it a priority to give all of the "major" characters an important role (e.g., Miss Piggy and Fozzie have minimal screen time), taking care so that each Muppet was a "natural fit" in their role, allowing each to simultaneously be his or her "self" and the character they're "playing". Also, commendable discretion was used in not casting known Muppets as the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, instead following a purist's approaching, creating original Muppets(*) that are wholly based on Dickens' conception of each of these three entities. They're supposed to be unfamiliar and not of "this" world. Kermit's familiarity to the audience makes him as protagonist an easy sell. (I know, someone out there wants to chew me out, as Scrooge is actually the protagonist. I used the term for its connotations.) Thus, the juxtaposition between such a "grounding" character and the alien-ness of the ghosts (besides arguably having been more more stark) allows this iteration of the story to, at least in my opinion, retain the severity of the orignal's thrust. (More on this below.)

(*) Christmas Present, with his felt flesh-toned "skin" and general sweetness strikes me as a formal Muppet, while Past and Yet-to-Come seem like they would have come out of the Creature Shop. However, the credits don't indicate such. But I'm sure there was some crossover in staff.

4. Successfully walking the fine line between telling the story straight, hitting all of the right cues in terms of drama and suspense, while simultaneously being a spoof. It's crucial to note that it succeeds at the latter but is never a mockery, keeping all the Muppet-ian puns, absurd behavior, and physical comedy on an even keel, giving it consistent zest and spice without detracting from the main ingredient. And how is this consistency achieved? Delegating much of the comedic asides to a "narrator", Gonzo, and his "assistant", Rizzo was a very astute move -- in this function, they are explicitly removed from the story, allowing it to retain its, if you will, dignity. The Ghost of Christmas-Yet-to-Come scene is considerably dark, with said ghost's visage beingactually quite scary, but that in sensing the reaction of the kids in the audience, Gonzo and Rizzo's single moment of levity during this sequence (informing the audience in hushed tones that the proceedings are too scary and that we're "on [our] own" until "the finale") broke the tension at just the right moment ... a very fleeting moment, at that; we then resume -- with no flinching -- the so-tense-you-feel-like-you're-about-to-be-a-squished-tomato buildup to the revelation of the name on the tombstone and the outpouring of unabashed pathos that immediately follows. As far as I'm concerned, Michael Caine nails this scene -- if there's an audience that would laugh "ironically" at the melodrama, I don't want to sit in a theater with it.

...and how have I not addressed the lead role? In casting a real person as Scrooge, Scrooge's "non-Muppetiness" and innate "Scrooginess" are emphasized. Michael Caine, a fan of The Muppet Show who professed that he had always been jealous that he was never one of its guest stars and so relished that he "got to do a whole movie", was only too happy to be part of this movie. Having Scrooge played straight, much like the three spirits, is a move that at least has the right idea in preserving the story's austerity, but having a world-class actor whose completely sincere and fully invested in his performance is what brings the whole thing home. (And though Scrooge being a real person and not a Muppet sets him apart from them, having other "live" human actors interspersed throughout the crowds of London's Muppet denizens affirms that he's part of their earthly world, allowing the three spirits to be just as unearthly in contrast with him as they are in contrast with Kermit and Robin.)

My favorite song from the film (drove my whole family crazy by incessantly playing it over and over, day after day, rewinding -- and possibly fast-forwarding, at least a little -- the cassette tape after each play until I found "the right spot" so that I could hear the whole thing again ... and again, and again, and again, and again ...):

Unfortunately, the above YouTube upload does a disservice to the song by jumping in after it has actually begun -- here's the full version, sans video:

Though I've seen the movie many times over the years, seeing it in the theater again really transported me back to that Saturday afternoon at Showcase Cinemas all those years ago. More than once, it struck me, "This is just how I remember it." Even though it's clearly been the same exact movie every time that I've seen it on VHS and, more recently, on the Internet, there's something about seeing it on "the [a] big screen" ... it's not just a matter of scale, but of environment and perspective/vantage point. This time around, I was particularly struck by the cinematography in the build-up to Marley "and Marley" appearing to Scrooge -- it was clearly inspired by horror movies (the more classy, atmospheric type, not slasher flicks!) Unfortunately, the only version of not just the song "Marley and Marley" but this scene in full, including the "creepy" build-up sequence that I'm talking about, is in German. But you should be able to get the idea: 

(Pretty good dubbing and mindfulness of the original voices, I must say!)


I'd like to get one more Aladdin review in before the New Year. I have been giving much apprehensive thought to instituting a length cap, so that it won't take me until 2025 to get through the whole series. However, I only meant to write one or two short, casual paragraphs about The Muppet Christmas Carol in this post, and look how that turned out.


Merry Christmas, Chris, Joe, Joseph, Geo, David, Mom, and whoever else who might be reading!

-- Ryan

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Aladdin (the TV series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 15: "Some Enchanted Genie" (9/19/94)

Genie Watch: Yes, I suppose it makes sense to designate this entire post as a "Genie watch", given that the character with which that regular feature is concerned is integral to this episode, and not in his usual role of a tag-along supplier of (sometimes clever or enjoyable absurd, sometimes stomach-turning and obnoxious) comic relief. One may logically surmise from the episode's title that he takes center place in its story ... but it actually might have been more accurate to have called it "Some Enchanted Genies", for, in the end, Eden's feelings seemed reciprocal, did they not?

I have actually always been pretty "eh" about this episode -- the premise reeks of the writers realizing that a Genie-centric episode was "due", and then in trying to figure out what they should do with the character, they went one of the most obvious routes: "Hey, we should give him a love interest! Hey, there's other genies, right? And there's no reason that there wouldn't be girl genies, is there? So let's give him a genie girlfriend for an episode! And in so doing, we'll show what other genies are like and how they interact!"

And apparently, all genies are spastic and prone to impressions and cultural references. Eden is modeled after a certain type: a "sassy", sort-of "hot" but somewhat aged and rough around the edges (personally, if this weren't a kids' show, I would think that her character is a smoker) single 30-something, who is so socially savvy that she sees through people's "BS" ... but despite -- in fact, in a way, because of -- channeling her perceptiveness through sarcasm and loud-mouthedness -- two of her primary traits -- she still is popular in her social circle and general locale. (I'm bad at pinpointing accents, but with her voicing, it seems like they were going for one that is severely diluted Long Island or "Joisey" -- it makes sense that she wears hoop earrings, à la Fran Drescher's eponymous role in The Nanny, who exemplifies the "type" I'm talking about ... though admittedly, Eden's not so grating -- at least vocally -- when compared to Drescher. But it does make sense that a female genie would be comparable to a female comedian, given that Robin Williams was essentially playing himself when recording Genie's voice tracks.)

Take such a brassy, overbearing character, whose performance is modeled on one (Williams') that I'd never cared for, and feature her in an episode that amounts to a sitcom, and you have a recipe for a production that my adventure story-preferring self would never be too thrilled with (but especially at 13, when I first saw it). But this time around, I definitely admired the writing (Abis Mal's efforts to become Eden's master is adroitly woven into the the story of Genie's "Does she like me, does she hate me?" ordeal) and animation. It looks to have been animated by whatever house is the one that I favor, which I believe worked on "Never Say Nefir", "Air Feather Friends", and "Garden of Evil". Their squash-and-stretch style -- fluid in movement but exaggerated and incredibly specific in poses and facial expressions -- is certainly fitting for a comedy episode, but particularly for the hyperactive, heavily physical antics of the genie species (or at least the two presented here).

(I'd expect Robin Williams' Genie to react to a female genie
more like Tex Avery's wolf and less as a lovesick sap.)

It's bewildering that Eden is written as Genie originally was in the movie -- fully in command and the master of (no pun intended) his own powers, intelligent but preferring to be the comedian present in every situation (even if no one's looking for one), perceptive, on top of things, quick-witted, fast-talking, fast-acting, and generally having his **** together -- and yet on his part, he is still the incompetent, clueless bumbler that he all too often is throughout the series. (Do genies lose functionality after they are "freed" and are no longer in the servant-to-their-master/slave-of-the-lamp/bottle role?) One could argue that here, his ineptitude stems from him having gone gaga for Eden -- he's a nervous wreck first in asking her out and then on their date, and during the depression that he sinks into after he thinks she's stood him up, he certainly doesn't become any more alert, aware, or capable than usual. His being lovesick, and all the stomach butterflies and mind-blanking-out that comes with it, is certainly a factor. However, I question if the original Genie would've even been nearly this vulnerable -- he was so "smooth" and quick on his feet, and I could see that iteration of the character as having been a natural "player". If he hadn't been so dumbed down for the series, I would accept the premise that it was a clear exception for him to turn into a klutz and have his confidence drop when Eden enters the picture, as it's normal per genie biology for a male genie to turn to jelly when falling for and courting a female genie ... something we just hadn't previously been given the opportunity to witness.

Though taking a carriage ride to Saturn and skating on its rings actually seems pretty mellow for a genie date, considering the "cosmic, phenomenal" powers at their disposal (presumably, they can go anywhere in space and time; if "our" -- or the series', but that's semantics -- universe is but one atom to another, then the evening out that they opted for should be like what going to a gas station convenience store is to us), but the fantastical, whimsical (hmm, I think I may have used those adjectives before...) nature of this excursion is fitting, given that they're both playful magical entities and that it's played as an idyllic, storybook perfect, er, enchanted (well, can you blame me?) romp.

Being when it comes down to it common thieves and not sorcerers or mad inventors, Abis Mal and Haroud are the most suited to be used as "generic"or "default" villains. A Mozenrath, Mirage, or Mechanicles episode tends to be about their respective scheme and efforts; the spotlight is on them. Here, the spotlight is on Genie and Eden, and Abis Mal and Haroud were a logical choice. Acquiring power is always Abis Mal's goal, and having him operating from a place of desperation -- pathetically skulking under the boardwalk to hide and spy (above), and sneaking into an impoverished orphan child's hovel to steal from her -- isn't a betrayal of his character whereas it would be beneath the dignity of the other villains listed above. Abis Mal can both carry an episode as its heavy and at center stage, or function as a go-to antagonist who, as in much of this episode, is kept to the sidelines. (That term is especially appropriate, as until the end of the first act, he and Haroud spend their time observing the goings-on from a distance.)

Given the (unknown, thanks to the credits not being available online) studio that animated this episode, with their "fluid in movement but exaggerated and incredibly specific in poses and facial expressions", Abis Mal and Haroud's are especially kinetic and snappy here. (See examples above.) The energy of their performance only augments their prickly exchanges -- my favorite moments are: 1. The ever-more-observant-than-his-"master" Haroud having finally (after a struggle, as such things with the thick-skulled Abis Mal tend to be) succeeded in drawing Mal's attention to Eden, only to have her simultaneously change into a seal, prompting Abis Mal to ask, "You brought me to look at a seal?" 2. Abis Mal drawing a blank when attempting to declare his second wish and have it nullify Genie's powers (as if they ever actually got in his way?), and Haroud having to repeatedly whisper his ear, "feeding" Mal his "line" broken down into segments. 3. Haroud dead-panning, "Yes, you'll be needing that" when Abis Mal asks for "mega brain-power" in addition to being made giant-sized. His only other line until Abis Mal is thwarted and his normal size and lack of super powers are restored is a dry, "Wonderful, soon you'll be able to play children's birthday parties", in reaction to Abis Mal panicking and hopping on one foot right after having set the other one on fire. It may have been that otherwise, the writers put Haroud out of sight for this scene. We don't actually see him do this, but I picture him standing aside, his arms stiffly folded and looking away to his side, resigned to the inevitably of Abis Mal blindly botching and squandering the whole enterprise. We certainly do see some eye-rolling on Haroud's part, though, as shown below. (But couldn't we have SOMETHING besides "Abis Mal turns giant-sized"?)

A couple of miscellaneous notes:

  • So, rubbing a lamp "calls" a genie not just from inside, but if he's anywhere else, anywhere at all, makes him instantly disappear there and reappear where the lamp is? Has this been established in the franchise? Like, did Aladdin ever do it in the original movie?

  • Also, speaking of lamps, I like the nod to other genie traditions in fiction in outfitting Eden with a bottle instead. (Below, with Dhandi.)

  • I like that besides being impoverished, wearing tattered clothes, and having saddened eyes, Dhandi (above, with Eden's bottle) is smart and resourceful (as demonstrated when she repeatedly points Abis Mal in the wrong direction when he's tearing apart her hovel in search of Eden's equivalent of Genie's lamp (a bottle, but Dhandi won't let on that fact) and her seizing the bottle just in time to use her second wish to undo Abis Mal's last wish. Her being a clever, wily kid counterbalances her generosity and compassion, avoiding the "homeless child as perfect angel" trope.

  • Why do Aladdin and Abu appear to be living on the riverbank?

  • Is "gumdrop pizzza" one of those things that's supposed to be funny because it's soooo "wacky"? And a literal "leaning tower of pizza"? Really?!

  • Dhandi "needing someone" shouldn't have really precluded Genie and Eden from continuing their relationship, as Dhandi lived in Agrabah anyway. Perhaps they thought that contriving a reason for Eden and Dhandi to relocate far away would come off as just that, contrived. They could have at least specified that raising Dhandi will be a "full-time gig" ... but even that would have drawn attention to the fact that Eden would still be able to at least take nights off, especially when Dhandi's a little older. Hmm, in inevitably having to restore the status quo at the end of the episode and get Genie's new girlfriend out of the picture, maybe the writers actually, for once, avoided the traps they usually fall into and thought the sentiment, the affectation of it would convey to the viewer in full what was happening, as if it were a "natural" development that "just felt right". And more or less, it did ... although it is highly appropriate to wonder if being conditioned to "end-of-episode status quo restorations" might account for buying this type wrap-up scene wholesale.

-- Ryan