Alakazam the Great

Today, Japanese animation is a huge part of our American pop culture.  When I was a kid we’d watch shows like “Battle of the Planets” or “Voltron” just like they were any other show.  Sure we wondered why the characters mouth movements never seemed to match up, but we could live with that.  Nowdays, even Disney has gotten into the act, bringing Japanese animated films like “Ponyo,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” and the upcoming “The Secret World of Arrietty” to American audiences.  But in 1960, it was American International Pictures (AIP), the studio best known for the Frankie and Annette beach party flicks, that was one of the first to bring a Japanese animated film to the US…the musical adventure “Alakazam the Great.”

Alakazam is a monkey who becomes the king of the animals.  Unfortunately, the monarchy goes to his head and he becomes selfish, rude and power hungry.  He even forces the great wizard Merlin to teach him everything he knows.  Now, even more full of himself, Alakazam travels to the heavens to battle the great King Amo.  But Alakazam is easily defeated by the king and imprisoned in a mountain.  After letting him sit for awhile, it is decided that Alakazam will be sent off on a quest with a young prince, Amat, to teach him to be a better person…er, monkey.  Along the way he acquires several other traveling companions, including an upright walking pig, and must battle the evil King Gruesome.

As I was watching this film, I started to think that there were some things that seemed familiar.  Then I remembered a movie I saw a few years ago…sort of a kung fu kiddie flick called “Cave of Silken Web.”  That film tells a story about a character out of Chinese mythology known as The Monkey King.  He also happens to have a sidekick who is a pig.  A few weeks after I saw that film, I saw another movie that dealt with The Monkey King, the Jackie Chan / Jet Li teamup “The Forbidden Kingdom.”  Well, as it turns out, “Alakazam the Great” is actually another take on the story of The Monkey King.  It is based on the 16th century Chinese novel Journey into the West…that is also the Japanese title of the film.

Most Asian films, from anime to a kung fu epic to Godzilla, tend to loose something in the translation when they come to America.  There is some degree of that with “Alakazam the Great,” but for the most part, the film is strong.  The voice talent for the US version is top-notch, featuring Peter Fernandez as Alakazam, Jonathan Winters as Broken Bottom the Pig, and the great Sterling Holloway providing the narration.  AIP’s favorite teen idol, Frankie Avalon, provides Alakazam’s singing voice.  Though at first glance it seems like stunt casting, like when Tiffany performed Judy Jetson’s voice for “The Jetsons Movie,” but Avalon really does a great job and the songs work well in the grand scheme of things.

Another very strong element of the US version is the beautiful score by Les Baxter.  I admit, it caught me off guard.  AIP was not exactly known as a big budget Hollywood player…that they would put so much work into creating a big new score for a re-dub of a Japanese cartoon is surprising.  But speaking as someone who’s iPod is mostly filled with film scores, I’d buy this one.

The highlight of the film is, of course, the animation itself.  It’s not quite the anime style that we are used to today.  There are a hints of the big-eyed, basketball-headed characters we often see, especially in the design of Alakazam, but other influences are evident as well.  There are slivers of Disney influence, particularly in some of the background designs, but many of the characters are reminiscent of the work of The Fleischer Studio…which for my money was one of the most original and innovative of the studios working during the golden age of animation.  The animation is particularly strong during some of the action sequences.  Being a fan of both animation and martial arts cinema, it was great to see some great cartoon-fu!

“Alakazam the Great” is a film that deserves another chance.  The original Japanese film is well made, and the US re-dub is carefully and respectfully done.  A forgotten family classic if there ever was one.


11 thoughts on “Alakazam the Great

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  1. Hey, this is great! I had begun to think I was crazy, when I recalled seeing this film as a child…because NOBODY believed me. I had dreams for years about some of the sequences and had almost given up hope of finding any reference to it, until today. Is this available anywhere to view, or buy? I’d really like to see it again, as my current remembrance of it verges on the surreal.

    1. As seen in the Philippines on RPN 9 now CNN News Philippines since the early 1970’s in primetime TV based from the anime/manga film created by Osamu Tezuka under its title as Saiyuki in Japan.

  2. I’ve been looking for this film for years! I use to watch it at my grandma house on every thanksgiving day, and march of the wooden soilders. I’m going at this to my family holiday films.

  3. I can’t understand why this film was included in the 1978 book, “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time” by Harry Medved. Like the previous commentators, I too remembered seeing this as a child and found it wondrous. Granted, by today’s standards the animation seems primitive. Keep in mind though,this is one of the first Japanese animations that America was exposed to. (Other early Japanese animations I remember were Gigantor, Kimba the Lion and Astro Boy.) As a child of the 60s, my cartoons included other “primitive” cartoons such as Popeye and the early Hanna- Barbera cartoons. So taking into account the era it was introduced in, like the author of this article, I too would label this as a “family classic.”

  4. The original film was in a very widescreen format like Vistavision. But when it was transferred on to VHS and DVD the aspect ratio was cropped and formatted to fit the analog television screen. The widescreen version was found only on laserdisc, a format that lasted only briefly before the much better DVDs took over. I hope the rerun telecast version is in the widescreen format.

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