Tuesday, May 10, 2011

ALAKAZAM, the Not That Bad!

ALAKAZAM THE GREAT! (1960) is streaming now on Netflix and I've watched it a few times recently. This used to come on TV in Syracuse around 1970. It seemed to come out of nowhere, which is to say that it was one of the very few non-Disney animated features around. The fact that it was Japanese and also relatively recent was an added attraction. Seeing a fully-animated feature on TV back then was an experience so rare it was almost unheard of. That this one came from no known studio brand or western story gave it yet another layer of intrigue...

I don't know much of anything about the behind the scenes production story of this movie, but of course it's based on JOURNEY TO THE WEST and seems to have been adapted from a manga (which I have never seen) by Tezuka. The animation tries very hard to be "Hollywood" and for all intents and purposes, it does a remarkably serviceable job. I don't mean that praise to sound as damningly faint as it comes off, but though it mostly lacks the true essence of "personality animation", it at least manages to achieve a solidly consistent execution of character animation's technical properties (timing, posing, weight, overlap, etc) which is no small thing.  Overall it has the kind of kinetic fluidity that some of the post-war Russian movies did and I wonder if there was some collaboration there...?

Visually it certainly is derivative as all get out but it seems to be pretty respectful of the standards it emulates, even though it gropes around stylistically in the process, generally favoring a default generic ethic. That said, overall there is a surprising effort to get things right in areas where Hollywood studios were already beginning to drop the ball. The color palette is intelligent and the backgrounds are carefully painted. It's a wide-screen movie and though the cutting is sometimes clumsy, the layouts are effective and occasionally some multi-plane effects are achieved with care and subtlety. Effects animation is at least as involved as anything done in Hollywood at the time (OK, not exactly Josh Meador, but able and ambitious).  The voice cast is post-dubbed, but they do a decent job-- whoever thought of snagging Johnathan Winters as "Pigsy" deserves a nod for a pretty inspired bit of casting for 1960... He is right in line with the anachronistic humor, much of which seems typically Tezuka (not that I'm an expert), although the script is ultimately pretty corny. Other voices include Sterling Holloway and Arnold Stang, Frankie Avalon ("Alakazam's" singing voice) and a cast of familiar English language dubbing stalwarts who comport themselves refreshingly absent of the grating, stylized delivery associated with post-dubbing just a few years later, (and pretty much still prevailing today, alas).

The score (for the English language version anyway) is by bandleader Les Baxter, and although the songs are utterly forgettable, the background music is surprisingly detailed, full and lush at it's best and avoiding sounding stupid or childish at least. It has a very harsh and tinny mix, and doesn't blend with the subtlety of a Disney score, but for a first effort it is intelligently done.

Inevitably, the narrative suffers from the uphill battle of trying to adapt a largely culturally unfamiliar Buddhist myth to American kids circa 1960. The whole point of the pilgrimage to spread the word of Buddha is confused by no mention of purpose,  dismissing the onscreen depiction of Buddha as an ersatz cosmic spirt called "King Amo". Making things even more confusing is the addition of  figures like "Merlin:" and "Hercules" to the cosmic pantheon along with a couple of heavenly Christian looking "angels" to round out the epic buffet of spiritual influences.  The priest who the Monkey King and his cohorts accompany is converted generically into some sort of Prince, (no mention of the intention of his pilgrimage: he just has to get from the beginning to the end of his vague but danger-filled journey safely). The spine of the story at the kid (and main character) level is a trite morality tale of "Alakazam" going from being a selfish dick to a hero who wins the admiration of his adorable girlfriend. His impact on other characters as that happens is typical of most kid's morality stories and while it is tedious, at least here it is no more heavy-handed than usual.

There are a lot of monsters in the story and a good deal of very weird and surreal shape shifting sequences. These are the most intrinsic to the original source story and are some of the most entertaining bits. The animators have a ball with them too, with a lot of unusual and original flourishes. Thankfully martial arts movies really didn't exist as a genre yet so although there is a good deal of fighting, it is done without having to reference the tropes of kung fu movies, either legitimately or as parody.

The end result is more curious than satisfying or memorable. The mythic aspect provides a few thinly developed characters with an episodic series of challenges that are mildly diverting while the emotional story is familiar as it is predictable. Still the native quality of the story and execution is refreshingly unique, and compared to the wheezy dull American fare produced around the same time (GAY PURR-EE, HEY THERE IT'S YOGI BEAR!, MAGOO'S ARABIAN NIGHTS) it holds up respectably well in a number of aspects. If you know anything at all about animation production, the one thing you can't call it is lazy or cheap looking.

I am pretty sure I would find this a good bit less endearing without the nostalgia factor, but still, given how much can go wrong making an animated movie (especially back then) they did themselves at least as proud as any of Disney's feature-length rivals up to that time, including the Fleischers in my opinion. Hell, compared to a lot of stuff done much later and even now, it's surprisingly decent. The fact that the third of the three features mentioned above left me cold even as a kid says as much as the fact that the former two I can't manage to sit thru anymore even out of auld lang syne. ALAKAZAM is dandy enough eye candy at least.

I have to add, that as much as most (not all) anime also leaves me cold, I am glad Japanese animators abandoned the quasi-Hollywood standards of ALAKAZAM not too long after it's disappointing release. They didn't do too bad trying to imitate Hollywood, but if that's all they had continued to do, they probably would not have done a whole lot better... Anime is at least it's own thing and though I don't "get" most of it, lots of other people obviously do.
Anybody who has any background on the production please chime in!

Charles Brubaker sends along this super cool link to a whacky Tezuka style TV version. I love it!

Thanks Charles!


rad sechrist said...

I really like those designs.

Brubaker said...

Ah yes. As you said it was based on Tezuka's comic. He received a co-director credit but stated that he only showed up at the studio to take publicity photos.

Later on, after Tezuka opened his own studio, they decided to try animating the comic again. However the results were VERY different from this movie and the original comic.

The show was very cartoony with insane characters, nonsensical plots, and tons of slapstick. It was produced as a replacement for the original "Astroboy" (it took over the timeslot) and needless to say it wasn't the usual Mushi Production fare.

Episode #4 was possibly the most craziest, but it's no longer online, alas. You can watch the opening theme, at least:


R.Dress said...

I loved the BGs

Sue said...

Wow I remember watching this in Syracuse in the early 70's too. I'd like to take this comment opportunity to thank you for your wonderful contributions animation. Making a mantel clock act human is not as easy as youmade it look!

Stephen Worth said...

The Wan Brothers' Uproar in Heaven is another great monkey king cartoon feature, similar in style to Sleeping Beauty. It can be had for cheap at YesAsia.com... But alas, no subtitles.

Pablo said...

Gracias, por este post, la estética es alucinante y la aimación no se queda atras.

Hansel Castro said...

Just saw this on Instant Netflix. Pleasant surprises were had, and I thought the Alakazam/Deedee designs were adorable. Not so fond of how the Buddhism was wiped out. Assuming the American audience would have been baffled by it, were they going to be any LESS baffled by this? If I don't know who Buddha is, why would it be harder to remember that name than the equally new-to-me name of King Amo?

Chris Sobieniak said...

A pal I know, Mike Toole, did a little video review on "Alakazam The Great" some years back of interest to share here (unfortunately you have to wait through the usual news and a couple other things to get to the review, but you'll dig the guy)...

Another article mentioning the other variations of Journey To The West that were made into anime/manga over the years...

Incidentally, the non-singing voice of Alakazam in the film is by Peter Fernandez, best known for being the dubbing director behind "Speed Racer", though even in his final years he could never recall having worked on this film at all.

TParker said...

What an appealing design of Son Goku!