Director: Usha Ganesarajah
It’s worth remembering that America and Japan aren’t the only countries producing animated feature films. A lot of the actual work involved in animating for film and TV is farmed out to companies in Asia - so it should be no surprise when Asian companies start making their own films, for their own market.
Pentamedia were the company behind Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of Mists, the world’s first 100 per cent motion-capture CGI feature film, and also worked on the animated version of The King and I. Director Ganesarajah was director of photography and technical director on the former, and CGI supervisor on the latter. Now here is Pentamedia’s - and Ganesarajah’s - latest offering, Alibaba.
The tale of Ali Baba (to use the more common Western spelling) is one of those generic stories, the details of which tend to be pretty loose: there are 40 thieves, there’s a magical cave with the password ‘open sesame’, and there’s a chap called Ali Baba who starts out poor and miserable and ends up rich and happy and gets the girl. In this version, Alibaba is skint while his brother Rakim is a wealthy, fat slob. Wandering in the desert, Alibaba sees the gang of forty thieves and overhears their password; inside their cave he finds wealth beyond measure and on this basis he becomes fabulously rich and popular and builds a palace for himself and his girlfriend Margina.
Rakim, ever greedy, finds out the password but is found in the cave by the thieves and killed. Alibaba and Margina find Rakim’s head on a spike (!) and swear revenge. Meanwhile, the thieves are coming looking for Alibaba and try to sneak into his palace inside barrels, the leader posing as an oil salesman - but Alibaba and Margina are too smart for them. However, the leader escapes, leading to a climactic confrontation in the magic cave.
The story is simplistic and doesn’t stand up to too much scrutiny, it must be said, and the characterisation is limited. Alibaba is a pretty clean-cut hero, Margina is a feisty babe, and the thieves’ leader is a nasty piece of work - although lacking the charismatic flourishes that a really great villain needs. Alibaba has a pet donkey, Rafi, presumably influenced by Donkey in Shrek, though this creature can’t talk - he just makes irritating donkey noises throughout. There is also a talking rock-genie who guards the cave entrance, who is nicely world weary and shows comic potential with some of the better dialogue.
What about the animation? Well, one must bear in mind that this is not Disney or Dreamworks, and that it uses motion capture (as used on TV for Dan Dare, X-Calibur, etc), and one should view the film accordingly. With a budget that, while impressive for Indian animation, wouldn’t cover the cost of the paperclips on the average Disney film, Alibaba does a pretty impressive job. There are sweeping backgrounds, busy streets and a well-directed sword fight. But there are limitations too: no flowing robes here, characters walk stiffly, and galloping horses move like flying rocket sleds with waving legs underneath.
Most annoyingly, character’s eyes don’t tend to move, leaving them often not looking at the person they’re talking to and staring like a blind person. But of course one doesn’t know what costs would be involved in such extra animation, and the audience here is small children who won’t really care about such things (though the brother’s decapitated head is pretty gruesome!).
The voices - the film was made in English - are something else. There’s no sign of an Indian accent, or an Arabic one. Alibaba, Margina and most other characters are generic American, but Rakim is Jewish, his wife is a Southern belle, and there is also a Scottish merchant and a Jamaican dragon! So extreme are these voice characterisations that one is left wondering whether what at first appears sloppy is deliberate and intended for comic effect.
Overall, Alibaba is unpretentious kiddy-fare which is of interest to animation fans as an example of what other countries can do; it certainly went down well with the audience at the Bradford Animation Festival. The script is probably the weakest element, with only the cave genie having a few witty lines that raise smiles from an adult audience. A new, sharper script aimed more at the international market would detract from the limitations of the animation - and wouldn’t cost much. Pentamedia have other films in production and I would certainly like to see more from this company.
MJS rating: B-