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Omar and his friend, Ali, returning to Moorish Granada after several years in the Middle East, discover that an evil usurper is now in power. With the help of a female genie, Omar sets about restoring freedom and justice.
1001 ARABIAN NIGHTS (1959) was the first feature-length cartoon produced by maverick cartoon studio UPA and was also the first non-Disney American animated feature since the Fleischer Bros.' MR. BUG GOES TO TOWN (aka HOPPITY GOES TO TOWN, 1941). It stars UPA's most famous cartoon character, the near-sighted Mr. Magoo, but places him in the Aladdin story from "Arabian Nights" and makes him the uncle of Aladdin. Here, an evil Wazir, who has been pilfering the Sultan's treasury and wants to marry the Sultan's daughter, Yasminda, pretends to be Magoo's long-lost brother so he can insinuate himself with Aladdin and enlist his help in finding the magic lamp with the genie. Eventually, Aladdin gains the power of the lamp, becomes smitten with Yasminda himself, and proposes marriage to her, putting himself in direct conflict with the Wazir. Some well-known actors of the time do the character voices, including Dwayne Hickman ("Dobie Gillis") as Aladdin, Kathryn Grant (THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD) as Yasminda, Herschel Bernardi ("Peter Gunn") as the Genie, and Hans Conried (THE 5000 FINGERS OF DR. T) as the Wazir, not to mention Magoo's regular voice-actor, Jim Backus ("Gilligan's Island"), making this the very first animated feature to rely on celebrity voices. Alan Reed, the future Fred Flintstone, does the voice of the Sultan, while Hanna-Barbera cartoon regular Daws Butler fills in several subsidiary voices.
Despite the film's historical significance, it won't usurp any memories of other, better Aladdin cartoon adaptations. In fact, it may be the most difficult one to sit through. It's never funny and it pads out the storyline with all sorts of unnecessary bits of business, including long stretches in the Wazir's dungeon hideaway and his antics with an assortment of hideous pets, including a spider, a bat, a lizard, a bunch of rats and a crocodile. Magoo's frequent near-sighted mistakes can be amusing in a seven-minute cartoonand truth to tell, they're amusing at times here as wellbut when the storyline kicks in and we want the action to proceed, they tend to get in the way, especially the bit with the ball of magic yarn that he keeps mistaking for a cat. Had this been a half-hour TV special, I wouldn't have minded so much. Aladdin and Yasminda are as bland and dull as any youthful romantic couple in a feature-length cartoon can be and their voice actors don't bring much to the characters. The always reliable Hans Conried puts a great deal of effort into making his villain character funny and interesting, but the writing is never as good as his delivery.
The limited animation on display is typical of UPA's stock in trade and was based on the notion that creative use of linework, color, perspective and suggested backgrounds could allow lower-budgeted cartoons to achieve artistic results and critical acclaim on a par with Disney. This strategy worked well with such short pieces as "Gerald McBoing Boing," "The Unicorn in the Garden," and "The Tell-Tale Heart," but when you've got an animated feature set in ancient Arabia and you want to compete with Disney's spectacular SLEEPING BEAUTY the same year, you need to put a little more detail and craftsmanship into the work. Here, the "limited animation," which extends to the art direction and design, simply looks "cheap." Even Hanna-Barbera, which had already shifted over to television animation by this time to make the likes of "Huckleberry Hound," could have done a better job than this.
After watching this, I dug out VHS copies of other Aladdin animated features I own, including a French version from 1970 directed by Jean Image and a Japanese version from 1982 that used celebrity voices on its English dub track, including Christopher Atkins, Kristy McNichol, John Carradine and June Lockhart. Both versions have glaring flaws, but they're much more interesting than the Magoo film, with the French one boasting a more compelling storyline and a more endearing Aladdin, while the Japanese one sticks to a more serious tone and offers finely detailed artwork and production design. Disney's 1992 musical version is, of course, the most lavish of animated versions of Aladdin, but it strays way too far from the original source material by allowing Robin Williams' vaudeville turn as a manic popcult-infused genie to dominate the proceedings.
Interestingly, Magoo's voice actor, Jim Backus, once did the voice of the genie in the lampin a Bugs Bunny parody of Aladdin entitled "A Lad in His Lamp" (1948). That, too, was a much better film than the Magoo version.
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