Aladdin’s Magic Lamp Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 release of Aladdin’s Magic Lamp – another entry in the Russian Cinema Council’s line-up of fairytale adaptations . Sadly, though, the disc is a distinct notch below most of its contemporaries, particularly in the extras department, and the film itself doesn’t exactly challenge the Disney version!

Although it’s initially somewhat surprising seeing a Russian-language version of the much-filmed story of Aladdin (pronounced “Allahdeen” here), there’s no logical reason why it should be any less valid than an English-language version given the tale’s Arabian origins, and this is for the most part a pretty watchable adaptation with a few quirky touches, even if it never scales the imaginative heights of its Ruscico companion-piece The Tale of Tsar Saltan.

The film kicks off with an evil Mahgribian wizard seeking to lay his hands on the miraculous lamp of the title. Securing the services of Aladdin, a young man picked out by the stars as the only one who can help, he tricks him into procuring what appears to be a worthless brass lamp. But after the wizard’s attempt at seizing it goes awry, Aladdin discovers that hidden inside the lamp is… oh, come on, does anyone reading this honestly not know?

Anyway, armed with the genie-fuelled ability to perform miracles on the spot, Aladdin sets about transforming the lives of his parents before falling in love with Princess Boudour, though quite why is something of a mystery, as she takes spoilt brattery to ridiculous lengths. Aladdin’s mother is none too impressed by her lack of knowledge both of domestic matters – even if she doesn’t know how to use an oven, you’d have thought she’d at least recognise one! – and basic fauna: “What is this mysterious monster?” she shrieks as she encounters the family goat.

And her father is equally unimpressed at her plans to marry a poor boy from the rough end of town, though given the sheer grotesqueness of most of her suitors you’d have thought he’d be somewhat relieved. A great deal of rather basic knockabout comedy ensues, intercut with a certain amount of dramatic tension when the wizard reappears, steals the lamp and orders the genie to kill his friend Aladdin…

Shot in CinemaScope (or its Russian equivalent)Aladdin’s Magic Lamp makes striking use of the widescreen frame, not least because the compositions often have a deliberately flat, two-dimensional quality about them – they’re not a million miles removed from Sergo Paradjanov’s tableaux in such films as The Colour of Pomegranates, Legend of the Suram Fortress and Ashik Kerib, though with only a fraction of Paradjanov’s visual and conceptual inventiveness.

The special effects are more than a little rough and ready – we’re firmly in the realm of smoke and mirrors here, not to mention obvious jump-cuts – but this adds to their period charm, and there are some nice visual touches, such as the Mahgribian wizard being split into four by the genie so that he may be banished to the four corners of the earth, although this is nothing more elaborate than a single black-clad man being turned via a smokebomb and a jump-cut into four identical wizards each wearing a different colour.

Ultimately, Aladdin’s Magic Lamp doesn’t add up to much – the story is too familiar for there to be any major narrative surprises, and it lacks the deranged flights of fancy that enlivened The Tale of Tsar Saltan – there’s nothing remotely as show-stopping as the all-singing all-dancing squirrel, for instance. It pales even more by comparison with Western films like the 1940 Alexander Korda/Michael Powell The Thief of Bagdad and Disney’s 1992 Aladdin – the Genie here is a bald dullard who can’t hold a candle to the Robin Williams-voiced motormouth and Aladdin and Boudour don’t strike too many sparks either.

That said, some of the supporting roles are memorably eccentric (even if it’s occasionally somewhat hard to tell one turbanned pointy-bearded loon from another), and the set and costume designers clearly had a whale of a time – the desert setting and the bleached-white town is particularly effective. But this would be far from my first choice for those wishing to sample Russian fairytales on DVD, not least because the disc offers little else apart from the main feature.

Given the film’s age, the source print is in reasonable condition, even if it never quite scales the heights of some of the best restorations I’ve seen. The major problems are sporadic spots, scratches and tramlines (the latter being most prevalent around the 40-minute mark, which suggests a damaged reel), together with quite a few colour shifts that are almost certainly down to the original materials. None of these problems, though, were especially distracting or unexpected in a 35-year-old film, and for the most part I was very pleasantly surprised – some sequences are as near pristine as makes little difference.

The transfer, too, is mostly very pleasing – anamorphic, framed at the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio and noticeably better than many of its Ruscico companion discs in terms of encoding: I didn’t spot any of the errors I’d encountered with DVDs like Viy, though there was a slight peculiarity in that occasionally shots would end with duplicated frames, meaning that the picture would freeze for a tiny fraction of a second before going onto the next shot. This wasn’t a serious issue at any point – indeed, I had to replay certain scenes to make sure that it wasn’t just my imagination! – but it’s a pity that so many Ruscico discs seem to stop just short of being perfect, as for the most part the technical quality puts many of their Western counterparts to shame.

As for the other picture issues, shadow detail is perfectly acceptable and the colours ring true, though I was surprised that the film felt so cool – the desert certainly looks convincing, but you don’t feel the heat at all. But it’s impossible to tell whether this is down to the transfer or the original film, so I’m quite happy to give it the benefit of the doubt.

The Russian, English and French tracks are full dialogue dubs, while the fourth option consists of the Russian track with a simultaneous Arabic translation. As ever, a mono original has been remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1, with reasonable success – the end result is very sensitive to the strong spatial impression given by the visuals, and there are some very convincing surround effects that don’t feel at all forced or artificial, while the subwoofer makes a few notable contributions, most notably during the genie’s first appearance.

On the debit side, though, there were moments when I felt that the balance was slightly out – Aladdin’s first speech to Boudour is very low in volume compared to the ambient surrounds (so much so that I checked the level of my centre speaker!), and the sound quality is acceptable rather than outstanding, with a somewhat compressed dynamic range and even some brief drop-outs – a typical mid-1960s recording, in fact.

These comments apply to the Russian version – the English soundtrack (not just the dubbed voices) I thought was distinctly harsher, while the dub itself is passable but not much more – though clearly small children will prefer it to the subtitled Russian version. Talking of subtitles, the English ones are excellent – not only grammatically accurate but also idiomatically convincing, catching exactly the right mock-epic Arabian Nights tone.

Sadly, for all the presentational excellence of the main feature, this is one of the less well-endowed Ruscico discs in the extras department, offering little more than the basics: a gorgeous animated menu, a generic Ruscico trailer plus trailers for Aladdin’s Magic Lamp and The Princess and the Pea, the usual well-presented stills gallery (ten colour images, selectable via thumbnails), filmographies for director Boris Rytsarev, writers Victor Vitkovich and Grigory Yagdfeld, cameramen Vassily Dultsev and Lev Ragozin, composer Alexei Muravlyov and actors Boris Bystrov, Andrey Fait and Georgy Millyar.

Disappointingly, there are none of the hidden trailers that occasionally pop up in Ruscico filmographies, but at least there’s the usual profusion of unintentionally amusing titles of films that we’re almost certainly never going to see and can only fantasise about: Kidnapping Caucasian Style (1966), A Kick! Another Kick! (1968), Immured in Glass (1978) and the frankly bizarre-sounding “Veniks”, or Cute Besoms (1991). Still, it sounds more fun than Regional Party Secretary (1960)…

The only really distinctive extra is the Ruscico Museum section – but even here it’s a pale shadow of what other discs have had to offer: just brief (one-page) tongue-in-cheek biographies of the Genie and the evil Maghribian (“He is the established authority on the history of magic arts – however, his obsessive idea of world domination is somewhat detrimental to his academic career”).

So despite my quibbles with its transfer, The Tale of Tsar Saltan remains my favourite Ruscico fairytale DVD to date – the film’s a fair bit more entertaining while the extras are outstanding. Aladdin’s Magic Lamp, by contrast, is a very watchable adaptation of the story but it’s unlikely too many children will favour it over the far more inventive Disney version, and the relatively bare-bones disc by Ruscico standards doesn’t help. Unlike Tsar Saltan, this material is simply too familiar to Western audiences – for all the incidental pleasures, the film never really catches fire.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Jan 11, 2002

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