Right, so we’ve had one good panto and one bad panto, where does Aladdin (2000) fit? Is it another Jack and the Beanstalk (1998), or will it crash and burn like Cinderella (2000)?
In China, a young man called Aladdin (Ed Byrne) is living with his mother Widow Twankey (John Savident) and brother, Wishee Washee (Ralf Little) in the family laundrette, when he is visited by the wicked Sorcerer Abanazer (Martine Clunes) who has travelled from Egypt on the advice of the spirit of the ring (Paul Merton) who asks him to retrieve an ancient lamp from the cave of wonders, whose genie (Julian Clary) is famed for granting wishes. Aladdin goes to find the lamp, hoping to impress Princess Jasmine (Patsy Kensit) with whom he has fallen in love, before she is married off by her father the Emperor (Griff Rhys Jones) to save their bankrupt Empire.
Aladdin can be easily grouped with Cinderella as a pretty poor panto. As usual, lets look at the positives first. I’ve been a fan of John Savident ever since his days in Coronation Street (1960-Present) as the character Fred Elliott (1994-2006) and while he isn’t nearly as fun in Aladdin as he was in Corrie, it’s still nice to see him again. I have a lot of issues with Martin Clunes’ character, which I’ll talk about later, but I have to admit he is pretty entertaining in this, as is Lisa Riley as Handy the handmaiden. Some of the scenes are ok, it is especially enjoyable watching Paul Merton and Julian Clary have a scene together, such as it is. However, the best thing about Aladdin is the special effects. I know. It’s a very strange thing to admire in a panto, but they are really very good. There’s a magic carpet that actually flies, John Savident is pulled into the air in a stunt most men of his age wouldn’t attempt in casual wear, let alone wearing an ostentatious drag dress. There’s even a really great scene change where the cave of wonders is revealed in its full glory. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the special effects in this panto are really something else.
Now onto the bad. Firstly, lets deal with the elephant in the room. Aladdin is kind of racist. It’s set in China with a cast of actors paler than the driven snow wearing fu Manchu moustaches and Chinese dresses, and features a villain from Egypt with a thick accent. Suffice to say, it’s pretty uncomfortable to watch at times. I suppose 2000 was a different time, we’d not come nearly as far in terms of social justice as we have now and Aladdin certainly is on the ‘harmless and stupid’ side of the racism scale but nonetheless, there it is.
There are other problems with Aladdin. Not least the fact that it’s actually pretty boring, but Aladdin also fails in an area exclusive to panto. Audience participation is a key aspect of pantomime and while it is incredibly difficult to control, an attempt must be made to tame it. At the end of the panto, Abanazar decided to reform his life and leave evil behind him. The next scene he appears at a party scene and is very friendly and jovial and the entire scene is drowned out by boos and hisses from the children in the audience. It seems that Abanazar’s conversion was not made plain enough, I certainly missed it when I looked away from the video for the briefest of second, and so when the children are meant to receive the character as a good guy, they respond as they have been told to respond to him throughout the entire panto; as though he is some sort of mutant crossbreed between Jimmy Saville and a giant spider.
It’s not their fault, they’re children, if they respond this way it is because the writers haven’t made it clear that a change has occurred.
There are other, smaller problems too. Patsy Kensit is not a good singer, her title love song with Aladdin is croaky and dull. In fact, I can’t remember any of the songs. Tisha Goddard is in this in a small cameo role and it is entirely pointless. Every now and then something dangerous will happen in the scene, like a character being put in a washing machine, and an actor will turn to the crowd and say, in a serious and deadpan tone “Please don’t try this at home children” It’s not even done in a humorous way, it seems like they had to stick in a warning for legal reasons and it really takes you out of the action. There are quite a few little issues like this, some of the acting is poor, Leslie Philips cameo is less suave and more creepy, there is literally no reason for a spirit of the ring or for Abanazar to live in Egypt at all, nor does Wishee Washee need to exist; I could go on.
Really not great, the songs are bad, it is not nearly as funny as it should be and the positives are minor at best. Add to that some weird lines, lack of accounting for audience participation, and some pretty overt casual racism and Aladdin is pretty poor, the only thing to really admire are the special effects which lifts the quality considerably.