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.
“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.