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That Confusing Anime Movie About a Magic Monkey : Alakazam the Great (1960)

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The early attempts to import anime from Japan to the United States led to some bizarre childhood memories for a lot of us. Many 70s and 80s kids remember shows like Speed Racer and Battle of the Planets mixed in with our standard Saturday morning cartoon fare. Anime always stood out from the rest of the cartoons, because it had an unmistakable drawing style and a different feel to it.

Sometimes you’d be able to recall a series or animated feature clearly. Sometimes you only remember brief snatches embedded in your subconscious like Pompeii ruins. That case is frustrating to you because you know the damn thing exists but can’t recall the name and every time you try to describe it to someone you sound cuckoo. The situation with English dubbing just makes things harder to track down.

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If you have blurry childhood memories of a kingdom of singing monkeys and magic powers culminating in an epic quest tying together figures from mythology all over the world, chances are you were the guinea pig audience for Alakazam the Great (1960), AKA Saiyuuki, one of the first Japanese anime feature length movies to reach American shores.

Alakazam the Great was not a Disney feature!

Alakazam the Great was released in the US by American International (AIP). Any kid would be confused on this point, because right away the movies tells your ears “this is Disney.” The opening narration is by the late Sterling Holloway, a prolific actor whose throaty voice you’ll instantly recognize as Winnie the Pooh, Kaa the Snake from The Jungle Book, the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, the stork from Dumbo, and narration in countless Disney features and shorts besides.

In fact, the American dub brought in major names like Jonathan Winters, Arnold Stang, Dodie Stevens, and E.G. Marshall, all of whose combined voice acting could form a list of the history of animation. The music was rearranged by American bandleader Les Baxter, better known for Boomer-class orchestral music including “exotica,” a whole genre he invented. When Alakazam sings, that’s none other than the voice of former teen idol Frankie Avalon. They tried their best on the voice talent end.

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The animation style, still aping (sorry) US mid-century American cartoons, was produced by Toei Animation, which ought to need no introduction here. It was based on work by mangaka Osamu Tezuka, better known here as the creator of Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion, among many more. Though Tezuka is credited as the film’s director, he had no actual part in the film itself.

The plot is almost abstract

You have to hand it to Alakazam the Great – at a brisk 79 minutes running time, the story moves at a fast clip without giving you too much time to think things over. If you did, you might notice that it doesn’t take many pains with logic. To be honest, the movie feels rushed and has been severely cut from the Saiyuuki original version, because there’s whole chunks of exposition missing.

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Alakazam, a monkey, is made king of all the animals. Why? Who cares! There’s a female monkey, DeeDee, who is hinted as being his girlfriend, but she generally just pines after him. Alakazam becomes a spoiled, moody monarch with an insufferable ego. One day he learns about Merlin the Magician (yes, that Merlin!), and is offended at the idea that anybody in the world is wiser than him, so Alakazam sets off to study magic under Merlin. He does this through coercion, while we have to wonder what kind of wizard this is if a monkey can get the better of him. Just give it time, it gets better.

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Alakazam studies magic with Merlin as his sensei, which apparently (judging by the montage) involves exercising and weight-lifting? Soon he graduates from Merlin’s tutelage and returns to his animal kingdom. Well! If you thought Alakazam was an unbearable egomaniac before, he comes dancing back home singing a sassy song and using his powers to arrogantly show off. If your Spidey-sense in tingling telling you that we’re being set up for an Aesop about learning humility, ding you are correct.

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Alakazam flies up to, uh, heaven (“Majutsu Land”)(this seems to be a stand-in for the Greek Mount Olympus) to challenge King Amo for some “forbidden fruit.” Raiding the forbidden fruit tree in heaven, he soon has heaven’s police (they’re wearing white robes and hoods???) in hot pursuit, which he fights by multiplying himself into a dozen Alakazams to fight off. Likewise, he gets into a duel with Hercules, who also has magic powers – don’t ask, we’re lost at this point too – whom he fights to a draw. However, his boss fight with King Amo (who resembles Buddha?) doesn’t go so well for him, and he is punished with one of those grueling sentences the ancient Greek gods were so fond of handing out.

Eventually his girlfriend gets Alakazam’s sentence reduced to servitude as the squire of Prince Amat, a son of some of the gods and goddesses in, er, heaven. Prince Amat just so happens to be off on a pilgrimage (to where exactly? who cares!) and could use a hand on the road.

So Alakazam is going to have to quest to redeem himself and learn Important Valuable lessons. The whole movie goes by in this mish-mosh blur of global mythology freely ransacking any culture that can make the plot go. If you thought things got confusing before, we’re just getting started! On paper, it looks like the script was written by a roomful of hyperactive ten-year-olds, although the end effect is delightfully zany.

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Alakazam the Great baffled American audiences

On first release, despite considerable marketing and studio effort, the film got tepid reception and was even written up in a book about bad movies. Through the years, even though it’s been rerun in syndication, it hasn’t gotten much recognition because of the opacity of its American production.

Listen, the story of Alakazam the Great is loosely based on the first part of the Wu Cheng-En classic Journey to the West, a well-known 16th-century story of epic Chinese literature. It has been adapted, usually in bits and pieces, into (DEEEEP breath…) eight stage plays, twenty-seven films, twenty-three TV series, twenty-seven comics and manga, and some thirty-five video games, to name the bulk of it! Just about anything of Chinese or far eastern origin with a monkey king as the lead or main supporting character is either based on this work or inspired by it.

As Alice in Wonderland is the spawn of so much derivative work in the west, so is Journey to the West to the east. Its core tells the true story of the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang on a pilgrimage to obtain sacred Buddhist texts, but the story embellishes the factual account with eastern folklore and mythology until Xuanzang (fictionalized “Tang Sanzang” in the novel) has picked up three traveling companions who are commandeered into serving as his bodyguards to atone for their past crimes.

Take it away, Overly Sarcastic Productions:

If you see this movie, then watch this video, you’ll recognize translations of scenes from the source material, right down to that jumping in the waterfall bit. That’s just the part covered by Alakazam and company. Parts 2 through 6 tell the rest of the Journey to the West story, at the links under the video, and you’ll also recognize a few more adapted characters and scenes in the film. You’ll also notice that the original story kicks some serious ass even just hearing the notes, and is much more epic than the tiny sliver we’re fed in the current film under discussion.

To give just one example of how much the story has been condensed, Tang Sanzang’s mount was originally a dragon prince who merely shape-shifts into a white horse. In this film, Prince Amat just rides a plain old whinnying horse. Not to mention that the novel’s original morals, steeped in eastern beliefs including Confucianist, Taoist and Buddhist philosophy, have all been erased from this telling.

What we have here, folks, is actually a spectacular butchering of an epic work of literature, which kind of casts this movie in a dimmer light. English translations of the original Wu Cheng-En work run to three or four volumes, and that’s the abridged ones. Alakazam the Great explains itself if you compare it to one of the many stunted attempts to adapt Lord of the Rings before Peter Jackson came along and did it right with the epic trilogy the work needed.

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Could Alakazam the Great use a remake?

Now that we know the story behind this production, it comes off as less of a wacky anime misfire and more of a case of the movie that tried to bite off far more than it can chew. At the same time, the adaptation throws out whole chunks of the founding mythology in favor of cartoon hijinks or freezing the story for one of its weirdly short songs.

Alakazam the Great has wonders to salvage from the chaos. When little demon Filo throws his voice from behind a rock to get Prince Amat’s party fighting amongst themselves, that’s the classic folklore material shining through. But later Prince Amat rebukes the group for bickering, telling them “I would have thought the four of us were true friends.” He’s literally talking to three characters who were forced to join this quest against their will.

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The scene where King and Queen Gruesome (yes, that’s their names!) party in their hall under the volcano includes dancing demons over fire (Judeo-Christian reference), an Indian snake charmer (Indian reference) and jousting knights (we’re back to King Arthur again) inside one minute, in a movie that’s already included Hercules, Buddha, and Merlin. And you wonder why it’s hard to follow?

To their defense, the film’s adapters were experimenting with a brand new market in America, with no idea whether it would sell. They changed significant parts of the original film and dialogue in an attempt to Americanize it; sometimes this is done to a jarring degree, adding to the disjointed cultural mosaic effect. With perhaps ten more minutes of added backstory to explain some of the obscured plot points, and some massaging of characters to make them blend in better (please, just pick one continent’s mythology and stick to it, at least?), the whole movie could be greatly improved.

Yes, Alakazam the Great could have been done better, but it still wouldn’t be anywhere closer to the source material. That’s the problem. The original novel Journey to the West is such a jam-packed odyssey that any single-film adaptation doesn’t stand a chance. What we need is a native Chinese Peter Jackson…

We’re probably not going to get one, at least not on an anime budget.