Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Aladdin (the TV series) 20th anniversary -- Episode 18: "Strike Up the Sand" (9/23/94)

Sadira and the four episodes that featured her were atypical in approach for not just Aladdin, but virtually all of the Disney Afternoon series that preceded it. In each appearance, she functioned as an antagonist, and technically had the same shtick each time, much as your typical recurring villain usually does, from Duke Igthorn through to Mechanicles, but she had a story arc that started with her introduction in "Strike Up the Sand", continued through her next two appearances, and had a definite ending with "Witch Way Did She Go?", by the end of which, it was quite evident that she wasn't going to indefinitely keep coming back as long as the series ran, each time with a new scheme to make Aladdin love her, and lo, she was never seen again. Whereas most of Mechanicles' and Abis Mal's appearances could be seen in any order with no apparent continuity problems, the chronology was made explicit in Sadira's episodes. A story arc made of multiple, non-consecutive episodes, as opposed to the occasional multi-part serial (of which Aladdin only had one, the "Seems Like Old Crimes" two-parter), had never been standard practice for The Disney Afternoon (though soon would be taken to a possibly never-equaled, enthralling extreme with Gargoyles). Thus, when this episode's first aired, its cliffhanger-esque, "teaser" ending, where Sadira cunningly alludes to her next plan to possess Aladdin's heart, seemed especially "edgy" and intriguing.

But let's not gloss right past that at the beginning of the episode, it's strikingly clear that there's something different and special going on. Until now, we've never seen Aladdin and Jasmine with peers in age, race, or mortality. So by virtue of being another human character of the same age as Al and Jas, Sadira brings a whole new gravity to the cast dynamic just by showing up on screen. And it's the nature of her entrance that's the most intriguing: for having stolen an apple, she is running for her life through the marketplace from Razoul and his men, displaying acrobatic and tactical prowess ... paralleling our introduction to Aladdin at the beginning of the movie. Thus, in observing the proceedings, it's quite apropos that he comes to Sadira's aid when she's caught, having seen in her a kindred spirit. And there's another layer to this setup that makes it work all the better: when the action began, Aladdin was waiting for Jasmine to pick out for him "fine silks" etc., much to his chagrin, and prompting chiding from Abu, Iago, and Genie; Jasmine is trying to spiff Aladdin up. While in the movie she was fed up with the proprieties of royal life, which made her and Al "work" as a couple in the first place, she was never depicted as tomboy, so it's acceptable for her to still have "girly", hoity-toity tendencies. And because of the twist that's about to be introduced in Aladdin having more in common with Sadira (which is shown, and never outright stated -- nice of them to trust our intelligence!) than he does with Jasmine, it's actually the best application of the "class differences" theme concerning Al and Jas to date.

From the get-go, Aladdin has no romantic interest in, or attraction to, Sadira, which would have made things all the more complicated, in a "steamy" sort of way. But obviously, they didn't want to broach the subject of being unfaithful or "cheating" on a kids' show. Sadira's objective in her first three episodes, then, is exclusively to destroy the couple's relationship; conflict within the relationship itself is never a factor (except when Sadira's magic has placed Al or Jas literally not in their right mind or alterred the whole fabric of reality). Admittedly, the whole enterprise, with a jealous, scheming scorned lover, is pretty soap opera-esque, and Sadira, at least until her transformation in "Witch Way", is a one-note, hackneyed villain. I'm not saying she was masterfully executed and groundbreaking in complexity! But I still appreciate the considerable effort that was put into avoiding making her into a traditional villain, instead depicting her as made up of "shades of grey", and charting a character trajectory in which she evolves, culminating in a finite resolution.

Sadira is introduced to "the dark side" (not that Dark Side) almost immediately after her first encounter with Aladdin, and then, shortly thereafter, Jasmine, which has left her in dejected and bitter. The way that she conveniently stumbles upon the Witches of the Sand's lair is contrived and hard to buy, without a doubt. And ultimately, we get what's really a simple Jasmine-is-kidnapped-by-a-big-monster-and-the-gang-comes-to-rescue-her-and-fights-the-big-monster episode. But Sadira's character exposition and her scandalous m.o. is compelling enough to more than carry the episode. Very similar to writer Steve Roberts' Sultan of the Al-Muddi, Sadira's sand monster goes against "giant hulking monster" type by being articulate, having a dry sense of humor, and speaking with what I guess is a British accent. It's probably one of the most obvious ways to have a big monster go against type (and as just noted, has already been done by this series), and it certainly isn't the same thing as avoiding having a big monster, but it does spice up and bring more class to the going-ons, even if it is a caricature of class. Along the same lines, the gag of a meek little worm turning out to be behind the deep, thundering voice that greets Sadira upon entering the Witches' lair, and announcing that that's where she is, saves the tackiness of the scenario with an unexpected Dr. Seuss-or-Charles Addams-esque cartoonish whimsy.

(Why does the above look familiar? Oh, yeah...)

(...seems the resemblance between Sadira's sand monster 
and the Sultan of he Al-Muddi wasn't just vocal.)

Also, the sand monster action sequences are lively, well-animated, and well-paced, so that even if it's pretty standard stuff, the episode never loses its flair. Actually, I noticed that in the opening scene, particularly Sadira's acrobatics, while the action poses are well-drawn anatomically, the timing is stiff and a bit off; whereas in the second and third act, the skirmishes with the sand monster are comparable to some the series' most sublime spectacles to date, such as those in "Mudder's Day" and "Never Say Nefir". Also, with certain poses in that early scenes, the regular characters seem a bit off-model and oddly proportioned, similar to how I found them rendered in "Plunder the Sea", but in the latter scenes, they're closer to they're more exquisite squash-and-stretch incarnations from, say, "Mudder's" and "Garden of Evil". However, whether or not my perception of any imperfections in the opening scene is credible, I don't consider it remotely disruptive enough to seriously complain about.

After all, the opening is so well-written and layered, and Sadira's introduction so dynamic a game-changer, that I'm not going to split hair over some rush in-betweens. But the sequence in which Aladdin and his pals intervene just as Razoul and his men have cornered Sadira, and Abu through a sleight of hand tricks Razoul into believing that Sadira really is the "Royal Fruit Inspector", a title that Aladdin, thinking fast, had just blurted out and ascribed to her, is possibly the most ingeniously "choreographed" bit in the series up through this episode. Abu's confidence trick (which Genie assists with -- see below) is carried out through dialogue-free action, occurring simultaneously with Al and Sadira's exchange with Razoul. Just as Sadira seems backed into a corner, unable to verify her fruit-inspecting credentials, Abu indicates to her where he's planted Aladdin's "Royal Badge" (guess he has one just as a perk of dating the princess) on her -- he draws her attention to it and she demonstrates her understanding nonverbally, which Razoul misses because he's trying to swat off a pesky "insect" (again, see below). All of this transpires within just a few seconds, but it involves more characters doing more things at once than usual, and the timing of each action and interaction are interdependent, and yet it's pulled off without a hitch.

In actuality, the relief of dramatic tension from Razoul having been thrown off the scent is not to last. But rather than merely having Al, Sadira, Abu et al. trip up a mere moment after Razoul found himself in a position where he had no choice but to buy their story, the false sense of security that the audience had been lulled into is maximized by being sustained all the way through the next two scenes, until Jasmine finally locates the rest of the gang and Al introduces her to Sadira. While Razoul just happening to show up again is painfully contrived, Jasmine blowing Sadira's cover by expressing incredulity at Razoul addressing her by her phony title makes the sting of the exposé especially sharp, due to the secondary effect of Sadira learning the identity of Aladdin's girlfriend and grasping the implications. Her resulting exigent flight from and evading of the guards ends in her blind stumbling-upon of the lair of the Witches of the Sand (which does not seem nearly far enough out of the way to have remained untouched for centuries), which as I mentioned, is an absurdly convenient coincidence. However, her jealousy now compounded by a resentful feeling of adequacy and inferiority, the audience is ready to accept her picking the apple from the tree, to use a metaphor, and the momentum of the chase and her evasion have kept with the story beats in such away that her fateful discovery just feels right. And, hey, the writers have a lot to get done in a short amount of time!

Her ultimate rejection of sorcery and duplicity to come in "Witch Way" occurs in miniature at the end of this episode, when she undoes her creation and admits to the gang the error of her ways ... or so it seems. Seconds later, as soon as the others are gone, comes the teaser ending where she revels in identifying and announcing her next scheme. This turnaround happens so fast, it's hard to know what was going on in Sadira's head. For Al and Jas to move on to the adventures they'll have between this and her next episode, it had to appear that the whole situation was resolved. Twenty or so minutes earlier, when we'd first met Sadira, she was likable enough where I don't want her to have been disingenuous in the way she made nice with the heroes, but her actions in private indicate that she was. However, during their parting exchange, she behaved despondently, slumping her shoulders and wearily keeping her eyes toward the floor. For a lust-driven teenager who had sought what she wanted with complete indifference toward the cost to others, such angst is completely logical, allowing her behavior to seem natural, while her words deceive.

And who might be the writers who had all of these good ideas and wrote all these clever, complex scenes? They're Bill Motz and Bob Roth. This is their first Aladdin episode to air, and we'll be seeing a lot more of this writing duo.

Genie Watch: I'm delighted to say that this is actually one of his best showings yet! Motz and Roth seemed to have an especially keen sense of how versatile, eclectic, and fantastical his antics were in the original movie. On the flip side of the way that Genie came close to exhibiting his original "phenomenal, cosmic powers" in "Never Say Nefir" by changing when he saw fit to a gigantic size, for the duration of "Strike", he has an inclination for shrinking himself. In the opening scene, he, Iago, and Abu compose the peanut gallery chiding Aladdin for being the object of Jasmine's "dress-up" game, Genie manifests himself at a height comparable to Iago's, so that he's truly with them, on their "level". Several beats later, when Abu orchestrates the Royal Badge trick, Genie momentarily distracts Razoul while Abu plants the badge on Sadira by turning into what I think is a mosquito (a mosquito version of Genie, really) and buzzing around Razoul's head (and in one ear and out the other -- with this symbolic way of illustrating his opinion of Razoul, Genie is atypically written as subtle here!).

A variation of the "winged insect" stunt recurs during the underground battle with the sand monster: Genie changes not just himself, but the entire gang into flies, allowing them to evade the monster undetected. As you might expect, I like it when Genie is portrayed as knowing what he's doing and as not just getting results by using his powers, but when his powers actually seem like powers.

I also like that he actually holds his own against the sand monster, doing impressions and "routines" that are actually clever-funny, as opposed to stupid-funny: first, during the attack of the palace when Genie takes the form of a sword-wielding (I think) ancient Chinese warrior; then, in Sadira's lair, he actually gets the upper hand on and embarrasses the sand monster with his psychologist shtick (almost as good as his "heart-to-heart" talk with Nefir!). As I've said before, I'm okay with Genie not being able to overcome other magic, and so I find it especially logical that he is able to keep the sand monster in check -- including by running it through a flour sifter and perplexing it with a hardboiled detective impression -- but not destroy it, which can only be achieved by using the same amulet of the Witches of the Sand that created it.

Genie's taking the guise of a seasoned French "lover" to advise Aladdin on feminine wiles is one of the rare moments where, even if it's in jest and he's not actually making sense, the writers remember that Genie is Aladdin's friend. On the other hand, I'm surprised that they got away with Gay Hairdresser Genie, but I guess it was decided that kids wouldn't recognize the archetype anyway!

-- Ryan

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