Aladdin and the King of Thieves (1996)

2015 #196
Tad Stones | 82 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9* | USA / English | U

For most of the ’90s and ’00s, Disney churned out direct-to-video sequels to many of their most beloved animated classics. They have a reputation for being unremittingly awful, hence why Pixar’s John Lasseter put a stop to their production after he became Disney’s Chief Creative Officer in 2006. Despite that reputation, however, there are those who say one or two are actually quite good. One of those (and the only one I’ve previously seen) is The Lion King 1½ (released as The Lion King 3 in the UK), which is a sort of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to the original film’s Hamlet, re-telling the story from the perspective of Timon and Pumbaa. I saw it years ago but would vouch for its relative quality — when I first re-watched The Lion King after, I briefly thought some scenes were missing, which I guess is testament to how well it fits.

Another such-praised sequel is this follow-up to Disney’s 1992 Animated Classic. It’s actually the second sequel (the first was also the first of those Disney DTV sequels) and also follows an 86-episode TV series. Fortunately, the makers dropped an early idea to use one of the series’ main villains as the film’s antagonist, and so it functions perfectly as a direct sequel to the original movie. Which is nice, because that first sequel isn’t meant to be very good and I imagine the TV series is hard to come by nowadays. Plus, neither of those can claim an ever-so-important distinction that this can: it features the return of Robin Williams as the Genie.

The film begins on the wedding day of Aladdin (Scott Weinger) and Jasmine (Linda Larkin), which is interrupted by the mysterious Cassim, the King of Thieves (John Rhys-Davies), and his gang of forty thieves seeking to steal an oracle from among the wedding gifts. Although they fail, the oracle informs Aladdin that the answers he seeks about his long-departed father are to be found with the forty thieves… I expect you can guess where that’s going. Fortunately the film gets there pretty quickly, then transitions into a story about the possible redemption (or not) of Cassim alongside the quest for the Hand of Midas, capable of turning whatever it touches into gold (natch).

The King of Thieves has a few things in its favour. It’ll come as no surprise that the biggest and best is Williams reprising his iconic performance, and consequently being responsible for most of the film’s humour. There are a couple of fun nods to some of Williams’ other best-remembered roles, and plenty to other Disney films too. The rest of the film offers a fast-paced, action-packed narrative, with a few musical numbers to boot. The songs are certainly not as memorable as those found in proper Disney movies, but most are decent while they last. Jasmine gets somewhat short shrift, but this is really a story about father and son.

Those who dislike Disney’s Aladdin won’t find anything to enjoy here, but for fans of the original, Aladdin and the King of Thieves is a solid, fun follow-up.

4 out of 5

* The film was made for release on VHS, so it’s no surprise that the OAR is 1.33:1. The HD version is cropped for 16:9. It’s mostly alright, though anyone with an eye for composition will find it obvious at times. ^

Aladdin (1992)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #1

Imagine if you had three wishes,
three hopes, three dreams
and they all could come true.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 90 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: G

Original Release: 25th November 1992 (USA)
UK Release: 18th November 1993
First Seen: VHS, c.1993

Stars
Scott Weinger (Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Shredder)
Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting, Insomnia)
Linda Larkin (The Return of Jafar, Joshua)
Jonathan Freeman (The Return of Jafar, The Ice Storm)

Directors
Ron Clements (Basil the Great Mouse Detective, Hercules)
John Musker (The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog)

Screenwriters
Ron Clements (The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog)
John Musker (Basil the Great Mouse Detective, Hercules)
Ted Elliott (The Mask of Zorro, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)
Terry Rossio (Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End)

Story by
Deep breath… Burny Mattinson and Roger Allers, Daan Jippes, Kevin Harkey, Sue Nichols, Francis Glebas, Darrell Rooney, Larry Leker, James Fujii, Kirk Hanson, Kevin Lima, Rebecca Rees, David S. Smith, Chris Sanders, Brian Pimental & Patrick A. Ventura.

Based on
The folktale of Aladdin and the magic lamp from One Thousand and One Nights, aka The Arabian Nights.

Music
Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors, Tangled)

Lyrics
Howard Ashman (Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast)
Tim Rice (The Lion King, Evita)

The Story
Street urchin Aladdin falls for bored Princess Jasmine when she sneaks out of her palace one day, leading him to the clutches of evil vizier Jafar, who needs Aladdin to retrieve a magic lamp as part of his scheme to rule the land. When Aladdin accidentally discovers the lamp’s inhabitant, a wish-granting Genie, he uses his wishes to set about wooing the princess. Jafar, of course, has other ideas…

Our Hero
One jump ahead of the bread line, one swing ahead of the sword, steals only what he can’t afford (that’s everything). Riffraff, street rat, scoundrel. It’s Aladdin, of course.

Our Villain
Grand Vizier Jafar, a plotting underling — the kind of role that has strong precedent in fiction, I’m sure, though Conrad Veidt as villainous Grand Vizier Jaffar in The Thief of Bagdad is rather clearly the direct inspiration.

Best Supporting Character
Oh, I don’t know, maybe… the Genie! Fantastically voiced by a heavily-improvising Robin Williams, praise is also deserved for Eric Goldberg’s character animation, which matches him every step of the way. In fact, it was an animation Goldberg created using one of Williams’ stand-up routines that convinced the comic to take the part.

Memorable Quote
Aladdin: “You’re a prisoner?”
Genie: “It’s all part and parcel, the whole genie gig. Phenomenal cosmic powers! Itty bitty living space.”

Memorable Scene
Trapped in a desert cave, Aladdin accidentally rubs a lamp and unleashes the Genie — and with it, Robin Williams’ all-time-great hilarious performance.

Best Song
For me, it’s Prince Ali, the huge Genie-led number as a disguised Aladdin arrives back in town in grandiose style. The Genie’s big solo number, Friend Like Me, is an incredibly close second. Soppy A Whole New World won all the awards, because of course it did.

Truly Special Effect
Only the second time Disney used CGI with 2D character animation. In Beauty and the Beast, it built a room for the characters to dance in; here, there’s a character (the entrance to the cave) and a whole action sequence (the flying carpet escape from said cave). It earnt the team a BAFTA nomination. There’s no shame in what they lost to: Jurassic Park.

Making of
Robin Williams ad-libbed so much of his role as the Genie — generating almost 16 hours worth of material, in fact — that the film was rejected for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination.

Previously on…
Aladdin is Disney’s 31st Animated Classic, their official canon of animated movies. It’s the fourth film in the “Disney Renaissance”, the decade-long period (starting with The Little Mermaid and ending with Tarzan) when they had a run of films that were critically and financially successful (unlike those before and after said period).

Next time…
Two direct-to-video sequels, the second of which is quite good; in between those, a TV series ran for 86 episodes(!); a Broadway adaptation debuted in 2014 (it’s coming to the West End in May); not to mention numerous video games and appearances in other works, almost all still voiced by the less-starry names among the original cast. The go-to new voice for the Genie? Dan “Homer Simpson” Castellaneta.

Awards
2 Oscars (Original Song (A Whole New World), Original Score)
3 Oscar nominations (Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Original Song (Friend Like Me))
2 BAFTA nominations (Score, Special Effects)
1 Annie Award (Animated Feature)
3 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Supporting Actor (Robin Williams), Younger Actor (Scott Weinger))
1 Saturn nomination (Music)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“What will children make of a film whose main attraction — the Genie himself — has such obvious parent appeal? They needn’t know precisely what Mr. Williams is evoking to understand how funny he is. […] What will come through clearly to audiences of any age is the breathless euphoria of Mr. Williams’s free associations, in which no subject is off-limits, not even Disney itself.” — Janet Maslin, The New York Times

Score: 94%

What the Public Say
“the perfect Disney film, one that cleverly combines the sensibilities of classic and modern audiences, one that matches toe to toe with many of the studio’s greatest films. You may prefer the emotional heart-ache of The Lion King or the romantic magic from Beauty and the Beast, but I would always prefer the witty and charming Aladdin.” — feedingbrett @ Letterboxd

Verdict

Hailing from slap-bang in the middle of the Disney Renaissance, Aladdin may not be quite as strong as the films either side of it (Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King), but it’s the next best thing. Buoyed by Robin Williams’ top-drawer performance (have I mentioned that yet?), multiple toe-tapping musical numbers, and a dastardly villain who’s among Disney’s best — and is just one of several great supporting characters here, actually — Aladdin is an A-grade animated Arabian adventure.

In #2 no one can hear you scream.

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

2015 #175
Raoul Walsh | 149 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / silent (English) | U

Douglas Fairbanks started out in comedies, where he was so popular he was quickly established as “the King of Hollywood”, which allowed him to attempt something different: an historical adventure film. The Mark of Zorro was a huge hit, in the process defining the swashbuckling genre, so he followed it with The Three Musketeers, then Robin Hood. With each new film he tried to outdo his last, and that culminated in his Arabian Nights fantasy, The Thief of Bagdad.

Fairbanks plays the titular thief, who steals only what he can’t afford — that’s everything. Well, that’s not strictly true: he’s clearly stolen a load of cash, so he must be able to afford quite a bit. But shush, I will have my Aladdin references. No, the thief mainly steals for the thrill and the adventure, and to have whatever he wants. As he tells a fella in a mosque, “My reward is here. Paradise is a fool’s dream and Allah is a myth.” I guess you could say things like that in the ’20s without being brutally murdered.

Anyway, it’s time for the princess of Bagdad (Julanne Johnston) to get married. Princes are called from far and wide to vie for her hand, and one of the keenest is the Prince of the Mongols (Sojin Kamiyama), who wants to add Bagdad to his empire (because only a truly evil ruler would use their army to conquer Baghdad). With goods flooding into the palace in preparation, the thief decides it would be a grand time to burgle the place. As he goes about his thievery, he comes across the princess’ bedchamber and falls in love. Or maybe just lust, because his next plan is to masquerade as a prince and steal her.

With the aid of his comic chum (Snitz Edwards), the thief pretends to be Prince Ali, fabulous he, Ali Ababwa Ahmed of the Isles, of the Seas, and of the Seven Palaces. It’s a made-up title, of course, which alerts the Mongol Prince to the attempted deception — though as he’s “the Governor of Wah Hoo and the Island of Wak”, he’s a fine one to talk. The thief manages to make it to see the princess anyway. She instantly falls in love with him, and he realises he loves her too, so can’t just kidnap her. His whole value system is undermined! But now he’ll have to win her hand by more honest means. Well, she already loves him, so he’s halfway there; but he’s an imposter, so there’s that to sort out yet.

The main problem with The Thief of Bagdad, for me, was that it took more-or-less 90 minutes to get to this point. That stretch isn’t without entertainment value, both deliberate, like Fairbanks’ joyful displays of athleticism, and not, like the overwrought intertitles in which characters speak like Yoda by way of Shakespeare (“Thou wilt wed the suitor who first toucheth the rose-tree” / “He touched not the rose-tree”). The beginning is where the pace really suffers: the multitudinous ways the thief goes about his larceny are individually entertaining and/or ingenious, but as an introduction that merely needs to establish “this man is a clever, successful thief”, it’s overkill. Lovers of Fairbanks’ theatrics may well disagree, but I wanted the real story to get going.

However, once it gets past this languorous preamble, the film really comes alive for its final hour. Everyone’s off on a quest, and so we leave the epic Bagdad set for an array of other equally-impressive locales. Here’s where the film’s real adventure lies, as we whizz through multiple fantasy landscapes, the thief battling monsters as he goes, and the Mongol Prince plotting to conquer the city. This is also where most of the film’s famed special effects are to be found. So groundbreaking that they were analysed in scientific magazines at the time, they still have the power to enchant viewers the best part of a century later. Okay, sometimes you can see the wires, but that rarely undermines the magic. While a giant bat looks quite cuddly, a dragon-ish alligator-creature is fairly effective, and an underwater-spider-thing is actually rather creepy.

Even more impressive are the sets. The work of famed Hollywood designer William Cameron Menzies, at the time Fairbanks felt Menzies was too inexperienced to work on such a big project. Undeterred, he created a collection of detailed drawings and convinced the star/producer. No surprise that worked, because Menzies’ designs are extraordinary. His complex, detailed, unreal drawings are recreated accurately on screen (examples of this can be seen in the ‘video essay’ included on the film’s Blu-ray releases, for instance), using numerous techniques to create truly fantastical scenes: ginormous sets (they covered six-and-a-half acres), built on a reflective enamel floor (which had to be constantly re-enamelled throughout the shoot) and painted in certain ways to make them appear floaty; or glass matte paintings used to seamlessly extended or enhance shots. Reportedly 20,000 feet of film — that’s hours and hours worth — were shot just to test the lighting and painting of the sets.

Such visual extravagance could overwhelm many a movie star, but not so Fairbanks. I suppose it helped that, as the biggest male name in Hollywood movies, and with his own production companies and studios, he was in charge. Whatever the credits may say (not that there are any on the current widely-available prints), it seems Fairbanks was as much the film’s director as Raoul Walsh, who was hired because he used to run and box with the star. Consequently the film is built around Fairbanks, his skills and his interests — it’s a true star vehicle. He exudes fun, embodying that swashbuckling spirit of adventure and derring-do, and clearly having a whale of a time, which makes it all the more enjoyable for us, too.

Nonetheless, other cast members manage to make a mark. Kamiyama is an effective villain, with his skull-like face and menacing manner, in particular when he unleashes one of my favourite threats ever at the ruler of Bagdad: “You shall add joy to the wedding festival by being boiled in oil.” Who doesn’t think deep-fried caliph is joyous? In a star-making supporting role, Anna May Wong is indeed memorable as a traitorous handmaiden. That’s more than can be said of her employer: Johnston is a bit of a non-starter as the princess, which I guess is what happens when you have to re-cast because your original choice departs part way through production. Comedian Snitz Edwards was also a mid-production replacement, drafted in to provide comic relief. It wasn’t necessary: he doesn’t add much, and Fairbanks had it covered.

The Thief of Bagdad succeeds most as a spectacle, especially as it has various kinds to offer: Fairbanks’ stunts, Menzies’ sets, the still-remarkable effects work. It may be a bit bloated, but Fairbanks’ exuberance infects the entire production so that, when it’s at its best, it’s immensely enjoyable.

4 out of 5

This review is part of Swashathon! A blogathon of swashbuckling adventure. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host Movies Silently.