BOOTLEG FILES 409: “Alakazam the Great!” (1961 English-dubbed version of the Japanese animated feature “Saiyu-ki”).
LAST SEEN: The full film is available online at DailyMotion.com.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A VHS version was released, but no official DVD version has appeared.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The film has been commercially unavailable for years.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Oh, I hope not.
From the mid-1950s through the 1970s, the low-rent studio American International Pictures (AIP) made large sums of money by presenting a steady cinematic diet of cheapo horror flicks, noisy teenage exploitation movies and haphazardly dubbed presentations of the worst of international filmmaking. On several occasions, AIP tried to expand their output away from shlock and present motion pictures carrying a somewhat higher artistic pedigree. Inevitably, these attempts backfired due to problems in the allegedly classy material that AIP tried to sell.
One of the more unusual AIP failures was a 1961 animated feature released as “Alakazam the Great!” With this offering, AIP tried to put itself in competition with Walt Disney at the box office and the retail store – “Alakazam the Great!” came with a level of merchandising outreach that was far beyond what AIP normally scared up. Unfortunately, this vehicle seemed to be pre-ordained to failure.
“Alakazam the Great!” began its life as “Saiyu-ki,” a 1950s manga by Osamu Tezuka that was based on the Monkey King character from the 16th century Chinese novel “Journey to the West.” At the same time, the Japanese film company Toei was expanding its output to feature-length, full-color animated productions. The popularity of both the manga and its legendary source material assured that it would be a commercial hit when it opened in Japanese cinemas in 1960.
At the time of the film’s Japanese release, AIP co-founder James H. Nicholson was in Tokyo on a business trip. Nicholson would later state that he stumbled upon “Saiyu-ki” by accident when he sought shelter from a rainstorm in a Tokyo theater that happened to be showing the film.
Nicholson believed that AIP would benefit from having this film as part of its release schedule for two reasons. First, at the time, Disney was the only major U.S. studio offering animated features on a regular basis; several European animated features turned up in the U.S. during the 1950s, but they experienced distribution problems and never resonated with audiences. And second, AIP was already successful in reaching teenage audiences with its films – how difficult could it be to reach further and tap the pre-teen market?
AIP quickly realized that “Saiyu-ki” was not going to be an easy sell to the American kiddie audience. For starters, it was a complex story of an arrogant monkey king who is harshly punished for daring to exert his superiority over Buddha – but who gains redemption as the bodyguard for a monk who is tasked with delivering sacred Buddhist sutras to a distant kingdom.
AIP hired Lee Kresel to scrub out all elements of religion from the screenplay. Thus, while the Japanese protagonist simian ascends into the heavens to meet Buddha, his new U.S. doppelganger (who has been renamed Alakazam) encounters a Buddha lookalike named “King Amo” who is given a wife and adult son for this film, even though these characters are not his family members in the original version.
It also didn’t help that Kresel seemed to have a knack for sticking in bad jokes at weird points of the English-language script. When Alakazam tells his monkey girlfriend Dee Dee that she cannot join him in his effort to meet “Merlin the Magician” (don’t ask how an Arthurian legend wound up in a Japanese romp), the pugnacious primate snarls, “It’s no place for women. Besides, magicians don’t like girls. They saw them in half!”
Later, Alakazam shows his contempt for Merlin by banging on the elderly magician’s castle door and yelling, “Hey, stupid!” If that’s not bad enough, the nefarious King Gruesome arrives to explain a crass kidnapping scheme. “I need that ransom money,” he moans. “That queen of mine wears out mink stoles like they were nylons!”
Then there’s the problem with Jonathan Winters, who was recruited to play the voice of “Sir Quiggley Broken Bottom,” an anthropomorphic pig who is an associate of “the McSnarl brothers, Herman and Vermin.” Winters, of course, is one of the most brilliant improvisational comics of all time, and he uses his porcine character to reel off an amusing series of non-sequiturs. Unfortunately for the viewer, Winters’ surreal remarks constantly undermine the frayed focus of the film. (It also doesn’t help that most of his dialogue is not synced with the character’s lip movements.)
But even without Kresel and Winters, “Alakazam the Great!” is one of the most unappealing animated features ever created. The character design is broad and unattractive, and the film’s climax in the caverns of King Gruesome’s castle is hideously garish. It didn’t help that the Toei animators occasionally inserted offbeat slapstick into the mix: this knockabout includes a Keystone Kops-style chase around the heavenly abode of Buddha/King Amo, a demon using his cranial horn as a transmitter to King Gruesome’s television control panel, and Alakazam playing a frenetic percussion inside the stomach of a cannibal.
Despite this somewhat dubious combination of bad Japanese animation and inferior U.S. dubbing, AIP pressed ahead with an ambitious promotional campaign for “Alakazam the Great!” The company tiptoed into the world of retail merchandising, offering a bounty of kid-friendly goodies with the hope of making Alakazam as popular as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.
Alas, AIP slipped badly on a banana peel with its Japanese monkey. The film was a major commercial disappointment, and AIP withdrew its plans to import and dub additional Toei animated films. The film was mostly forgotten until the late 1970s, when it was included (somewhat unfairly) in the Medved Brothers’ snarky book “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.”
“Alakazam the Great!” returned in 1995 on VHS release from Orion Home Video. To date, however, there has been no commercial DVD release. Bootleg copies are not hard to locate, and the full film can be found at DailyMotion.com.
Today, “Alakazam the Great!” is a curio blip in both AIP history and the development of Japan’s animation industry. And, quite frankly, you’ll have more fun with that proverbial barrel of monkey than with this monotonous piece of ape shit.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!
Posted on January 6, 2012 in Bootleg Files, Features by Phil Hall
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