Alakazam the Great!
Alakazam is a simple monkey who becomes more than a bit of an arrogant jerk when he's made King of Beasts. After extorting the magician Merlin (!) into teaching him all his magic, his hubris leads him to take on King Amo (Buddha) in Majutsu Land (Heaven) in a contest of magic that does not go well for Alakazam, and he ends up imprisoned inside a mountain until a journey with Amo's son Prince Amat offers him a chance at redemption.
Once upon a time, children, a few years after the Second World War, some creative folks in Japan got together and formed Japan Animated Films. They'd seen the success that Disney Studios in the U.S. had had with animated films for kids- Disney even had animation rivals in America, like Warner Brothers and Max Fleischer's studio, but Disney was the undisputed king of the full-length animated film. (Fleischer's studio tried it, but its efforts just weren't as popular.) Anyway, back in Japan, Japan Animated Films was bought by a bigger entertainment company over there called Toei in 1956, and it became Toei Animation, and many, many years later Toei Animation would bring out Dragonball and Sailor Moon, and I think your parents might remember those. But in those ancient days of the late 1950's, Toei Animation decided to make a film based on a story called Journey to the West. The original story was written in China so long ago that I bet you wouldn't even believe people existed then. (It was actually around 1592, and attributed to Wu Cheng'en, though Wu may have just compiled and edited it from earlier legends- Mr. Reviewer.) The version of the story that they used for their film was written by Osamu Tezuka, who was a really smart guy who invented that boy with the spiky head and the rockets in his feet, and a doctor with a scar, and that story about robots in a fantastic city- but he didn't invent that one, did he, I think some German guy did?- and he also wrote one about a bird that was supposed to give eternal life, and that was a REALLY GOOD SHOW, no matter what Mr. Reviewer says. (I never SAID it wasn't a "good show", Grampa, just that I had some issues with it- Mr. Reviewer.)
Anyway, Toei Animation made this version of Journey to the West (originally named Saiyuki) in 1960, which was so long ago that even Grampa was only 5. I bet you can't even imagine so many years ago, children.
Now in those days a lot of movies were needed in the U.S. market, especially for kids. There was something called the Saturday Matinee, where you could see, for a quarter (or maybe it was 50 cents?), so many movies that I think it would cost you $50 today. (Please don't trust Grampa's math- he's kind of shaky on that these days- Mr. Reviewer.) There was also something called the drive-in, where you could see movies in your car. No, that's NOT like your Uncle Dennis' car, where he can lower a little screen in the back and let you watch Scooby-Doo!. Scooby-Doo! is very bad for you, you know. (Yes, it is. Very, VERY bad.- Mr. Reviewer.) No, this was on a BIG screen, but you sat in your car, and you put a big speaker on your side window, and sometimes you had to drive around a lot to find a speaker that really worked. Anyway, they also sometimes had more than one movie at each show, and sometimes parents took their kids; and sometimes people WITHOUT kids went to the drive-in without even caring what was happening in the movie. Grampa might have even done that himself.
Like I said, a LOT of movies were needed. And so there were firms like American International Pictures, or AIP. AIP produced films as well as distributed them, which means they paid for a movie to be made, and they didn't pay very much, so a lot of the movies weren't very good, but some were clever, and there was a director named Francis Ford Coppola, and an actor named Jack Nicholson, who got their starts doing AIP films. (Those were important people, trust me.) To have yet another movie to show to kids, AIP bought the rights to Saiyuki, which means that they got to chop some of it out, and rename it Alakazam the Great!, and rename the Monkey King Alakazam, and get rid of the Japanese dialogue and original songs. (Grampa tried to find them, but couldn't.) They hired someone I'd never heard of, Peter Fernandez, to talk for Alakazam, but to do his songs, they hired a guy named Frankie Avalon, who made a bunch of movies with a girl who used to be in the Mickey Mouse Club until she got too big, someplace, to be on THAT show. To talk for Alakazam's girlfriend DeeDee they hired Dodie Stevens, who was some kind of teenage singer and only 14 when she did this movie. The new songs were composed by Les Baxter, or maybe not; Wikipedia says he was a bandleader who was sometimes accused of taking credit for songs he didn't really write. Sterling Holloway, who did a lot of voice work for Disney, became the movie's narrator. And zzzz...
Mr. Reviewer Takes Over:
I'll try to finish this up while Grampa takes his nap. He DOES go on, doesn't he? Tezuka's treatment of Journey to the West emphasizes the Monkey King character, whose name in Tezuka's original manga was Son-Goku, so now you know, if you didn't already, what inspired a certain character in a certain anime that starts with D. Even Tezuka's adaptation is a loose one, of course, I doubt that the appearance of an English wizard is exactly authentic in a 16th Century Chinese story. Still, despite the obvious love the Japanese have for this Chinese fairytale allegory, Alakazam might be one of the more faithful treatments of it in anime. Enoch has a THEM review of a 50-episode 2000 TV series called Saiyuki that, from his description, sounds like not just a loose, but an actually flaccid adaptation that deviates to an incredible degree from either the facts or the spirit of the original story. One I AM familiar with, the bizarre parody of it in an episode of Love Hina, actually sounds truer to the spirit of the story, and to tell the truth, since the Monkey King is supposed to be arrogant and violent, Naru Narusegawa is ALSO a better choice to play the character than Alakazam's voice actor.
I won't go into the issue of who actually wrote the songs attributed to Les Baxter here, but they are pleasant, if unmemorable, exercises in the pop song style of the era. (A barbershop quartet/Greek chorus of monkeys was kind of clever.) The artwork and animation are similar to what Fleischer and Warner's were doing in their shorts, but seems to me inferior to Disney's feature film work of the time. I didn't spot any of Tezuka's rather distinctive character art here, or for that matter even any of his heavier considerations of ethics beyond the simple theme of an arrogant character learning kindness and mercy. I'm not always in agreement with Tezuka when he dives into deeper philosophical waters, so I'm perfectly OK with the simple magical adventure story with a basic moral framework that we're given here, though a modern viewer may label it trite and naïve.
But there are some things that haven't dated at ALL well, ESPECIALLY the attempts at humor in the English version. King Gruesome, the minotaur/bull monster who's the head bad guy here, has lines such as, "That Queen of mine wears out mink stoles like nylons!" . Jonathan Winters' take on Journey's pig character, here given the awful name Sir Quiggley Broken Bottom, undertakes the most tedious and annoying seduction I've ever seen. It kind of reminded me of certain Bugs Bunny scenes where Bugs was imitating a female to pull one over on the villain, but without Bugs' dry wit (or, in fact, any wit at ALL.)
The show also comes across as sexist, but I think that this is a problem that could largely be laid at Tezuka's feet. As I said in my review of Phoenix, he liked female characters who were sweet and supportive and not much else, and DeeDee certainly fills the bill, though she does try to gently cajole Alakazam out of his (frequently) poor decisions, which I guess was OK for females to do even in those days.
This "proto-anime" is not the sort of show that a modern audience can enjoy in the same way its original audience might have; we've all become more cynical in the intervening years-
Grampa, go to sleep. I swear, if you keep this up, I'll wind up talking to myself.
Two Stars for modern audiences; Grampa might have other ideas. — Allen Moody
Recommended Audience: So innocuous now that it's kind of embarrassing. Pure G rated.
Version(s) Viewed: Streaming on Netflix.
Review Status: Full (1/1)
Alakazam the Great! © 1960 Toei Animation
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