Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Animated Adaptations of One Thousand and One Nights

All of us are familiar with Disney's Aladdin, but there are a surprising number of other cartoons based on similar premises. 

Background on the Tales

One Thousand and One Arabian Nights is one of the world's most famous collections of fairytales and folktales. It is also one of the oldest literary works. Although the story was originally published in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age, many of the stories are far older and originate from not only Arabian countries but also Egyptian, Indian and Mesopotamian cultures. The stories first became popular in the Western world after their publication into French in the early 1700s by Antoine Galland. English translations soon followed, becoming increasingly common during the 1800s. Translations have continued to be made and revised up into recent years, as scholars endlessly debate about the accuracy of their sources and interpretations. (Earlier translations made during the Victorian era tended to cut out certain stories or aspects due to their depiction of violence and sex. Not all of these stories were originally intended for children. Pretty much the same thing could be said about Grimm's Fairytales.)

An illustration for Aladdin by Errol le Cain

For those unfamiliar with One Thousand and One Nights's basic premise, it is a frame story. Everyday the king Shahryar takes a new bride only to behead her by the next day, and then takes another. (Shahryar holds a grudge after finding out his first wife was unfaithful to him.) Eventually the vizier can no longer find any more virgin brides for the king. The vizier's daughter, Scheherazade, offers herself to be the next bride, and the vizier reluctantly agrees. Later that night after the marriage, Scheherazade begins to tell Shahryar a fantastical story. The story does not end and segues into another tale. The king becomes curious about how the tale concludes, so he postpones his bride's execution. This continues to be repeat until one thousand and one nights have passed and Scheherazade has run out of stories to tell. However, Shahryar has fallen in love with Scheherazade over the course of almost three years. So Scheherazade's life is spared and she becomes queen.

An illustration of Scheherazade and Shahryar by Edmund Dulac.

Most of the stories that Scheherazade tells are highly fantastical, involving various heroes journeying to far off lands in search of love or warriors fighting against fearsome monsters. Arguably, the most famous of these stories are Sinbad the Sailor, Aladdin and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Adaptations based upon these tales range from classical pieces to role playing games. (So many works have been influenced by these tales that they even have their own Wikipedia page!) Naturally, One Thousand and One Nights has been adapted numerous times into film as well, perhaps most famously by The Thief of Baghdad (both the 1924 and the 1940 versions) and the 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). The number of animated films adapted from One Thousand and One Nights is quite high as well. The stories provide a perfect vehicle for the medium given how imaginative and other worldly they are.

A brief synopsis and review for The Thief of Baghdad (1940).

Silent Cinema and Early Talkies

Not only is this film the oldest surviving animated feature, but it also the first to be directed by a woman.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) is the third animated film ever made, beating out Disney's Snow White by over a decade. Prince Achmed is adapted from the story in One Thousand and One Nights of the same name. The story follows Achmed as his journeys across foreign lands astride a flying horse. He encounters many strange and wondrous sights, befriends a witch, battles monsters and demons, meets Aladdin and falls in love with a princess. The movie is a true labor of love. Director Lotte Reiniger spent a total of three years creating Achmed using stop-motion cutouts resembling Chinese shadow puppets. The result is a hauntingly beautiful silent film. Although the film does not offering the audience anything new storywise, Achmed is a great adaptation due to its inspired visuals, wonderful score and cinematography. The entire film (which unfortunately lacks English subtitles) can be watched on the Internet Archive here.

The next notable animated works based on Arabian Nights arrived about a decade later in Hollywood, utilizing the newer technologies of full color and sound. Sinbad the Sailor  (1935) is a theatrical short created by Ub Iwerks as part of his ComiColor cartoon series. As with many of the other shorts in the series, Sinbad is visually pleasing, but tends to drag narratively and tends to come off as a weaker Silly Symphony cartoon. The plot concerns a rather cute looking Sinbad and his sidekick parrot fending off some fearsome pirates. Far more notable than Ub Iwerk's Sinbad are the three films released as part of the Fleischer Bro.'s Popeye the Sailor series. These three films (Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor [1936], Popeye the Sailor meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves [1937] and Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp [1939]) are significantly longer than the average Popeye cartoon, running between 16 to 22 minutes each. They were initially created as a way for the studio to transition into making feature length films in order to compete with Disney.

Popeye meets Bluto…I mean Sindbad.

Fine Features & Big Blockbusters

Surprisingly, the first color animated feature based on Arabian Nights did not originate from the United States. La Rosa di Bagdad (1949) hails from Italy. It does, however, bear an uncanny resemblance to many American features, specifically Snow White. La Rosa di Bagdad is about a young snake charmer, Amin, who must rescue his sweetheart, Princess Zeila, from the wicked sheik, Jafar, with the aid of a genie. While the film sports beautifully rendered backgrounds and an inspired art style, its animation has aged poorly and was even choppy by 1949 standards. The film has largely fallen into obscurity and is rarely seen today. La Rosa di Bagdad's only claim to fame is that it was the first film to ever feature Julia Andrews in a starring role (for its 1952 English dub The Singing Princess.)

An Italian feature that tired to emulate the films of Walt Disney…

…complete with three seven dwarf wannabes.

Of course, hardly anyone needs an introduction to Disney's Aladdin (1992). Although Aladdin is loosely based upon the fairytale of the same name and visually inspired by the 1940 film, The Thief of Baghdad, it is a far more carefree and goofy take on One Thousand and One Nights than most adaptations. Aladdin's love interest, Jasmine, is also portrayed as a stronger, more independent character than the female leads in the sources that Aladdin was derived from. Aladdin was not only one of the most successful movies of Disney's Renaissance Era, but continues to generate sequels and spinoffs to this day. The most recent being a Broadway adaptation which debuted earlier this year.

While some attribute a large part of the Aladdin's success to its star studded cast (and is often credited with starting the dubious trend of 'celebrity voice actors' in animated movies), much of it also owes to musical composer Alan Menken and the directing duo Ron Clements and John Musker (The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Frog). It should also be noted that Pixar provided computer animation for the Cave of Wonders and that Aladdin was the third Disney film to utilize the CAPS coloring system developed by Pixar, hinting at the company's future prominence in the animation industry.

"Pssst, Robin Williams will bring your movie great success."

Although released a year after Aladdin (and sometimes accused by some of cashing in on the Disney film), The Thief and the Cobbler was actually in development hiatus for over 25 years, due to director Richard Williams running into funding problems and eventually having his work taken away from him when he could not finish The Thief by its deadline. The result is a horribly butchered film that bares only a passing resemblance to William's original vision. Fortunately, however, an excellent fan restoration of the film entitled The Recobbled Cut is readily available for viewing on Youtube. The plot of the film involves a silent cobbler, Tack, who becomes involved with the saving his kingdom after he accidentally insults the king's grand vizier, Zigzag (voiced by Vincent Price). Tack and his allies must try to find a way to defeat a hostile army and the traitorous Zigzag. At the same time, he must also beware of the thief's constant bumbling actions and falls in love with the king's daughter, Princess Yumyum. The film itself is largely visual experience and sports some of the most gorgeous and complex animation ever created (which makes sense given the amount of time the film was in production). While The Thief and the Cobbler is not the strongest movie ever made when it comes to its narrative structure, it is a unique work of art that any film or art enthusiast should see.

Trailer for The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut.

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (Dreamworks, 2003) is somewhat infamous due to the marketing hype that surrounded its release and its failure to deliver sufficient box office returns. It was not the mega-hit that Dreamworks hoped for only earning back $80 million for its $60 million budget. In the end the film cost the studio to suffer a $125 million lose which caused CEO Jeffery Katzenberg to state,  "I think the idea of a traditional story being told using traditional animation is likely a thing of the past." Indeed, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas was the last traditional animated film to be released by Dreamworks, all of their subsequent films have been entirely done in CGI. But Katzenberg's reasoning for Sinbad's failure is faulty. The film did not fail due to its medium, but rather due to its overly familiar storyline, reliance on cliches and toilet humor, and unimpressive CGI effects. Its all star cast featuring Brad Pitt and Michelle Pfeiffer could not save it. Sinbad offered its audience nothing new and thus stood no chance against Pixar's Finding Nemo which premiered a month earlier and went on to be one of the highest grossing animated films ever released.

Dreamwork's Sinbad is a rather lackluster adaptation that suffers from plot cliches and poorly integrated CGI effects.

Franchise Films

Although movie franchises have become increasing common since the late 1990s, animated adaptations based upon One Thousand and One Nights utilizing popular characters date back to 1959 with the release of the UPA film, 1001 Arabian Nights. The film is a retelling of Aladdin and his Magic Lamp and casts Mr. Magoo's ancestor, 'Azzie' Magoo, as Aladdin's bumbling uncle. 1001 Arabian Nights is largely forgotten by the general public, and while it is aesthetically pleasing with its minimalist animation style, it does tend to drag at times. 1001 Arabian Nights would have probably faired better if it focused solely on Aladdin and his love interest and did away with its Mr. Magoo character.  Azzie Magoo isn't really that central to the plot of the film and his comic asides often disrupt its narrative flow. Still, Magoo's film is not a bad one. It is also important to note that 1001 Arabian Nights was the first major animated film to be released in the USA outside of Disney since the fall of the Fleischer Brothers' studio.

A poster for UPA's first animated feature.

 Bugs Bunny's 1001 Rabbit Tales (WB, 1982) is a compilation movie which strings together various Looney Tunes featuring Bugs Bunny and other well known characters. Bugs Bunny plays the part of Scheherazade as he tells the sultan's (Yosemite Sam's) spoiled son various stories (each story being a different cartoon short). At the same time, Bugs must also outwit his rival, Daffy Duck. While Rabbit Tales manages to entertain well enough despite its limited budget and recycled animation, Hannah Barbara's Scooby Doo in 1001 Arabian Nights (1994) is another story. Despite being the titular character, Scooby Doo (and Shaggy) hardly appear in the TV movie and are frequently drawn off model. The movie instead chooses to focus on the two stories Shaggy tells to a caliph. The first being a thinly veiled gender swap of Disney's Aladdin (with Yogi Bear and Boo Boo playing the part of the genies) and the second featuring Magilla Gorilla as Sinbad. One of Japan's most popular franchises, Doramon, also received a film adaptation based upon Arabic folklore, Dorabian Nights (Asatsu, 1991), which brings us to our text topic: anime films based upon Arabian Nights.

As far as compilation films go, Bugs Bunny's film is not bad.

The less said about this, on the other hand, the better.

Arabian Anime?

Toei Doga released several anime films based on foreign fairytales throughout the 1960s-80s.

Throughout the 1960s and into the 1980s Toei Doga released many anime features aimed at a general audiences, initially in hopes of becoming the 'Disney of the East', before the company ultimately decided to focus on the cheaper option of TV animation. In order to appeal to wider audiences (specifically the Western market), Toei began making several of their movies based upon non-Japanese stories and folktales, including One Thousand and One Nights. Their 5th animated feature was Arabian Nights: The Adventures of Sinbad (1962).

While Sinbad was released around the height of Toei's theatrical output, it is generally regarded as one of their weaker pictures and seldom seen outside of Japan today. As with most other Toei features released at the time, Sinbad's production values were fairly high and its artwork was lush compared to what other studios were producing. However, its formula feels rather stale and forced compared to Toei's more personal features. It should also be noted that this was the second and last anime film that manga artist Osamu Tezuka worked on with Toei Doga before coming fed up with the lack of his creative control and establishing his own studio, Mushi Production. (Toei Doga later released two other Arabian themed films: Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves [1971], a slapstick comedy that owes much of its quirky style to the works of Dr. Seuss, and Sekai Meisaku Douwa: Aladdin to Mahou no Lamp [1982], a subpar feature that, while easily bested by Disney's Aladdin, is a more loyal retelling of the tale.)

FUN FACT: A young Hayao Miyazaki was an animator on the 1971 version of Ali Baba.

Interestingly enough Tezuka's studio, Mushi, released its own adaptation of Arabian Nights in 1969 entitled A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. The feature was unlike any of Mushi's former output, which largely consisted of family friendly television anime. A Thousand and One Nights was made strictly for the adult crowd. (In fact, today it is often considered the first animated film to made for mature audiences, beating out Ralph Bakshi's infamous Fritz the Cat by three years.) Tezuka Osamu and the film's director, Eiichi Yamamoto, were getting tired and of being labeled solely as children's entertainers and by the late 1960s manga and anime was beginning to evolve and cater towards older consumers. Thus, A Thousand and One Arabian Nights was created as part of the studio's Animerama series, a trilogy of art house features utilizing a mixture of experimental techniques and more traditional animation (as well as several violent and sexual scenes). All of these films were also far longer than any other animated film previously created.

A Thousand and One Nights itself runs at a whopping two hours and ten minutes. The film fudges together many of the storylines from its source material (such as making Aladdin the same character as Sinbad) and even takes influence from Biblical sources (i.e. The Tower of Babel). In order to appeal to modern audiences, the story was 'updated' by giving it a rock soundtrack and a somewhat psychedelic feel. While A Thousand and One Nights is a very strange film and is quite muddled at times, it was very ambitious for its time and managed to be very successful in its home country. However, Tezuka's hopes to make it an international success were unfounded. Perhaps the film was too strange for foreign audiences or perhaps all of the sexuality was a turn-off for Westerners more accustomed to Disney-style cartoons. Despite this there was an English dub produced for A Thousand and One Nights, which is now seemingly lost. (Although a trailer for it does exist.)

Mushi Pro's adaptation was one of first animated features to be aimed at an adult audience.

Two major anime television series are also based upon One Thousand and One Nights, Arabian Nights: Sinbad's Adventures (Nippon, 1975) and Magi: The Labyrith of Magic (A-1 Pictures, 2012-2014). Sinbad's Adventures's is a children's anime which portrays Sinbad as a young boy longing to travel with his merchant uncle, Ali. When Sinbad and his bird, Yasmina, are separated from Ali after a whale attacks their boat, he sets off to find his uncle and missing parents. Along the way he encounters many of the creatures found in Arab folklore and becomes friends with Ali Baba and Aladdin. Magi: The Adventure of Magic is aimed at a slightly older audience and is based on the manga of the same name. Here, Arabian Nights is remade as a shonen (boy's) series, complete with magical transformations, battling monsters (or in this case, djinns) and stylized fight scenes. The series stars Aladdin and Alibaba as a pair of traveling treasure hunters and magi. Both series were successful, with Sinbad becoming a hit overseas (particularly, surprise, in the Middle East) and Magi receiving an OVA sequel, Magi: Adventure of Sinbad, earlier this year.

Arabian Nights as a shonen series. Hey, it was bound to happen sometime.


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