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Philly Cheesesteak

Arabian Nights Vs. Episode: Thief of Baghdad vs. Aladdin

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In one corner, the 1940 fantasy classic The Thief of Baghdad. It won three Academy awards (Cinematography, Art Direction and Special Effects), it's the first documented film to include bluescreening as a practice and Roger Ebert enthusiastically proclaimed it rivalled The Wizard of Oz in imagination, bright and vivid popping colours, good cheer and spirited storytelling.

 

In the other corner, Disney's Aladdin, which not only paid homage (or outright knocked off) several scenes from the aforementioned Hollywood classic but acquired a reputation as the first real "boy's Disney movie" of the Disney Renaissance Age. An iconic performance by Robin Williams, the first 2D animated film to feature a prominently 3D character (the Carpet) and catchy and memorable songs have long made it a favourite for Disney fans for years.

 

Both of these movies take liberal interpretations of their source material in 1001 Arabian Nights. Both influenced and were influenced by the popular culture of their time. Both were pioneers of new filmmaking techniques. On a darker note, both have uncomfortable elements we today would call "problematic," we have dozens of dudes in the former wearing brownface while the latter distinguishes its protagonists and antagonists by lighter skin tone.

 

A lot to unpack there.

 

Of the two, which of the two is Canon worthy? Who deserves the spot and who should get the boot, why and why not?

 

... And thinking this over, maybe a better Canon episode should have been Thief of Baghdad vs. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad...

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Oooohh, I wish I could join you in this. But I'm so much of a bigger fan of the Fairbanks silent. I just don't think the 1940 version holds up, except as a sign-of-the-times curiosity. Probably for the best Aladdin stole so much from it, so as to preserve some of the film's better visual elements (the villain, the sultan, flight, the gardens, the town, the arguments with the genie). So much of its appeal rests in the visual effects which, of course, do not hold up, and the extremely broad, stilted acting do not help at all. I can buy it as a visual extravaganza for the times, but certainly not today. The silent actually looks better by today's standards, I feel, as well as being better-paced and with more impressive stuntwork.

 

Aladdin might actually be a good movie to put up on its own, actually. It got some heat for its stereotypical depictions, but that's only gotten worse since. Now, while Breakfast at Tiffany's survived Mr. Yunioshi, he was an extraneous (if still unforgettable) character, but Aladdin sprinkles these depictions throughout the film. And while they've done similar things with many other ethnicities, this movie is, for obvious reasons, the one that probably struck at the most sensitive.

 

Also, while the Genie was a huge hit at the time, I've sensed some real weariness over the last decade or so at the over-the-top pop-culture-referencing celebrity cameo comic relief (star?). Dreamworks really drove that into the ground, but even Disney and Pixar have gotten resistance over characters like 'Mater and Mushu. And it all ties directly back to the Genie.

 

Does the film really hold up as a true Disney Renaissance, a classic Disney comedy with a once-in-a-lifetime comedic character, or was it only a good film at the time? Personally, I think it's one of the very, very best Disney's ever done - my very favorite, actually - but 20+ years is a long time, and I know Little Mermaid has its critics as well. There'd be plenty to talk about. Also, there would be no need for this to be a token film discussion. With Beauty and the Beast already in and The Lion King having kept it close, there's no reason to feel that Aladdin would have to represent the entire Disney Renaissance. It can stand on its own. That'll keep it simple.

 

P.S. The first Disney film to use computer-generated animation is actually The Great Mouse Detective, my first great Disney love. In the clock tower sequence.

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Oooohh, I wish I could join you in this. But I'm so much of a bigger fan of the Fairbanks silent. I just don't think the 1940 version holds up, except as a sign-of-the-times curiosity. Probably for the best Aladdin stole so much from it, so as to preserve some of the film's better visual elements (the villain, the sultan, flight, the gardens, the town, the arguments with the genie). So much of its appeal rests in the visual effects which, of course, do not hold up, and the extremely broad, stilted acting do not help at all. I can buy it as a visual extravaganza for the times, but certainly not today. The silent actually looks better by today's standards, I feel, as well as being better-paced and with more impressive stuntwork.

 

Aladdin might actually be a good movie to put up on its own, actually. It got some heat for its stereotypical depictions, but that's only gotten worse since. Now, while Breakfast at Tiffany's survived Mr. Yunioshi, he was an extraneous (if still unforgettable) character, but Aladdin sprinkles these depictions throughout the film. And while they've done similar things with many other ethnicities, this movie is, for obvious reasons, the one that probably struck at the most sensitive.

 

Also, while the Genie was a huge hit at the time, I've sensed some real weariness over the last decade or so at the over-the-top pop-culture-referencing celebrity cameo comic relief (star?). Dreamworks really drove that into the ground, but even Disney and Pixar have gotten resistance over characters like 'Mater and Mushu. And it all ties directly back to the Genie.

 

Does the film really hold up as a true Disney Renaissance, a classic Disney comedy with a once-in-a-lifetime comedic character, or was it only a good film at the time? Personally, I think it's one of the very, very best Disney's ever done - my very favorite, actually - but 20+ years is a long time, and I know Little Mermaid has its critics as well. There'd be plenty to talk about. Also, there would be no need for this to be a token film discussion. With Beauty and the Beast already in and The Lion King having kept it close, there's no reason to feel that Aladdin would have to represent the entire Disney Renaissance. It can stand on its own. That'll keep it simple.

 

P.S. The first Disney film to use computer-generated animation is actually The Great Mouse Detective, my first great Disney love. In the clock tower sequence.

 

Whoops, I misread that. That said, Carpet is still the first 3D animated character in a major motion picture. I still get to maintain my "they're both pioneers" thematic connections argument, woo!

 

But, anywho, as for the rest of the above... I haven't seen the original Fairbanks, I'll cop to it. But, speaking personally as a fan of this period of Hollywood, I'm kind of fond of the broad and over the top vaudeville-inspired acting of this generation. Keep in mind this was made for kids at the time, and I find it helps maintain this children's adventure storybook vibe from point a to point b with consistent aplomb.

 

Not to mention you have to give props for Abu's actor, who did all of his own stunts and more or less stole the whole film under the actual (white) star of the picture.

 

And as for the effects? Man, when you consider the effort that had to be done with the barest essentials we take for granted nowadays, I find it's a little unfair to make that argument. It's dismissive of the real work that went into the making of the movie. I'd like to bring up Devin's argument that, sometimes, a movie can just "be" a visual feast or thrill ride extravaganza and ride on those coattails to victory. For me, Thief of Baghdad is one of those movies. It was a smash hit in its time for a reason. Aladdin ripped it off for a reason. It left a greater impact on the popular culture, shaping all of our Western visual iconography of Arabian Nights and all inspired stories since. The Fairbanks original didn't make that cut.

 

Hence, I'm sticking to my guns for this particular pitch for a Vs. episode.

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But, anywho, as for the rest of the above... I haven't seen the original Fairbanks, I'll cop to it. But, speaking personally as a fan of this period of Hollywood, I'm kind of fond of the broad and over the top vaudeville-inspired acting of this generation. Keep in mind this was made for kids at the time, and I find it helps maintain this children's adventure storybook vibe from point a to point b with consistent aplomb.

 

If you like broad acting, you'll LOVE the Fairbanks version. Try acting using only your arms and your teeth. Fairbanks knew how to do it.

 

Not to mention you have to give props for Abu's actor, who did all of his own stunts and more or less stole the whole film under the actual (white) star of the picture.

 

Sabu? Make no mistake, HE was the star of the film, even at the time, hence why he got to do all the action scenes, while the other guy just spent time pining and being vaguely romantic. Sabu was big stuff back then. I don't even remember the name of the other guy.

 

And as for the effects? Man, when you consider the effort that had to be done with the barest essentials we take for granted nowadays, I find it's a little unfair to make that argument. It's dismissive of the real work that went into the making of the movie. I'd like to bring up Devin's argument that, sometimes, a movie can just "be" a visual feast or thrill ride extravaganza and ride on those coattails to victory. For me, Thief of Baghdad is one of those movies. It was a smash hit in its time for a reason. Aladdin ripped it off for a reason. It left a greater impact on the popular culture, shaping all of our Western visual iconography of Arabian Nights and all inspired stories since. The Fairbanks original didn't make that cut.

 

It's not just the effects themselves, it's how they are integrated into the film. This film was obviously made as a showcase for these effects. The plot just stops dead when Rex Ingram's Genie shows up, and then it just becomes about the (then) impressive effects of how they made a scene with a giant Genie and little Sabu, with no memorable dialogue exchanged. Similarly, the scene where Jaffar shows the blue Indian-ish idol toy to the sultan, that scene is slow, its ending heavily telegraphed, clearly existing just to show off the effects, same as the incredibly fake-looking spider, and the very slow and clumsy fight scene with Sabu vs. the spider. The many shots of the flying horse galloping through the sky, very slow, very repetitive. The effects don't hold up, so how well do these effects-heavy scenes? It's a movie that is poorly-paced by today's standards. Sure, back in 1940, it must've looked amazing, so who would mind it? But while we can forgive a film's dated visuals (and enjoy them in an escapist way), it's much harder to forgive how the film has so little else to fall back on BESIDES the visuals. The dialogue is simplistic, there's almost nothing to the characters, the performances are stilted, most scenes extend past their sell-by date. It's not a BAD film, just a badly dated film. As most films that are highly dependent on being state-of-the-art are. Imagine how Avatar will look in 50 years.

 

You could, on the one hand, compare that with the Fairbanks version, which has even MORE dated visuals, but which has better pacing, to see the difference. Or, because it's (currently) this week, we can look at The General. Of course those effects are dated. But do they drag the film down at all because they don't look like photo-realistic CGI? Certainly not, the movie races right along. It uses the effects to add comedy and stunts to a story that technically doesn't need them to function, because we have so much else invested in the character, and the film otherwise doesn't drag. The Thief of Bagdad (1940) NEEDS its effects to work, since it doesn't really have anything else going for it these days. Of course, if you like it, that's awesome. I really, really wish I liked it more than I did. I mostly just respect it and can enjoy it as a dated bit of cinema (as this is coming from a big fan of Bond and Trek, so dated is an integral part of my fandom), but I just don't see it as a classic.

 

BTW, Youtube currently has the Fairbanks version free to watch, with a clean transfer (for YouTube) and the score I'm most familiar with. Just search Thief of Bagdad 1924. It's 2 1/2 hours, and I maintain that it's STILL better-paced, with so much more energy and dynamic direction, and overall more enjoyable than the 1940 version. It's worth a watch to anyone curious about a silent, especially if they like other imaginative, physical showcases like The General. The big difference is that it downplays the comedy in favor of being an epic adventure. It is

 

Without a doubt.

 

My favorite silent movie.

 

Of all time.

 

Just to put that out there. I've suggested/pimped the movie here before, but, thus far, neither Devin nor Amy have bit.

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I mostly just respect it and can enjoy it as a dated bit of cinema (as this is coming from a big fan of Bond and Trek, so dated is an integral part of my fandom), but I just don't see it as a classic.

 

 

Not for nothing, but I don't think you're the one who gets to decide what is or isn't a classic. History is the judge of that. This movie has impacted Western iconography of Middle East folklore in such a way that can be quantifiably measured, standing the test of time, influencing three generations of artists and creative media.

 

And I disagree about the film's pacing and energy, but we each have different standards for that sort of thing. I know a guy who can't stand Sergio Leone Westerns (or even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) but will watch through Shanghai Noon on repeat, so to each their own in regards to individual of patience and pacing. I certainly disagree that the film's technical crafts and accomplishments fail it somehow or that the framework doesn't support them. I will also argue your stance is more than a little unfair, maybe even dismissive. You argue the 1940 film is simply dated cinema with an overt reliance on its tech and visual craft to skirt by, yet you champion a film that does just that: silent films, even the best ones, are all about form in a way even most modern cinema aren't.

 

I get it's a favourite of your's, but a favourite by itself or even intense love and passion do not necessarily lay all the groundwork for an inclusion to the Canon. Historical significance, craftsmanship, pop cultural influence and tangible impact matter, and the 1940 version easily has more sway in each of these categories than the Fairbanks silent film.

 

But more importantly, above all else...

 

I'm not disparaging your love for the movie, but I am arguing that it's kind of tangential to the main topic of this hypothetical episode: you cannot have Aladdin without the 1940's film. That's the main point to discuss here.

 

Mind you, I'll argue any day of the week Aladdin is a stronger movie than 40's version. But it still owes it a massive debt. That, in of itself, is worth considering, discussing.

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It is

 

Without a doubt.

 

My favorite silent movie.

 

Of all time.

 

Just to put that out there. I've suggested/pimped the movie here before, but, thus far, neither Devin nor Amy have bit.

 

Also... if I sounded like I was snappy with you there, my bad, I didn't mean to sound confrontational there. Ain't no shame in loving what you love and championing for it.

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