Leaden Performances and Dodgy Effects Ground This Flight of Fancy.




I just watched a movie about a young street rat and his pet monkey who unwittingly become the key players in an evil wizard’s plot to seize control over a fantasy Arabian kingdom. But enough about Aladdin, let’s talk Arabian Adventure! Arabian Adventure is a British production from 1979, featuring relative unknowns in the leads and a series of more recognizable stars in supporting roles, including Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Mickey Rooney. Arabian Adventure is an impressive looking movie, with some fun, fantastical elements, but ultimately it’s dragged down by leaden direction and wooden performances. 

Our story opens when young Majeed (Puneet Sira) arrives in a fantasy desert kingdom ruled by the iron hand of its Caliph, Alquazar (Christopher Lee). Alquazar, in addition to not being a very nice guy, is also an evil sorcerer. He needs a magic rose to become all-powerful, but Alquazar is unable to pluck the rose himself. Alquazar’s scrying leads him to believe that a young prince, Hasan (Oliver Tobias) is the one who can complete the quest and bring back the rose. Alquazar offers Hasan the hand of his step-daughter, Princess Zuleira (Emma Samms), in marriage if Hasan delivers the rose. Hasan, with Majeed’s help, takes on the perilous journey and must overcome many magical obstacles along the way- all the while unaware of Alquazar’s true intent!

Arabian Adventure wants to be a movie in the mold of The Thief of Bagdad or The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, but there’s no life to anything in it. The screenplay makes sure the hero, Prince Hasan, is noble, brave, handsome, and good with a sword, but the writers forgot to give him anything else. What’s worse, Tobias can barely summon up the energy to act out what little emoting Hasan is called to do. Hasan never displays outrage at Alquazar’s evil, fear or wonder at the magical threats he faces, and he barely cracks a smile when he encounters the woman he purports to love. Not everybody can be Errol Flynn, but Tobias’ non-performance creates a huge hole in the center of the film. He’s hardly helped out by his costars. Even the reliable Christopher Lee seems like he’s phoning it in this time around. Only Sira as the earnest and kind Majeed, and guest star Mickey Rooney, in a small cameo, add life to their roles. Rooney seems to have been the only adult who understood what sort of movie he was in, and what sort of performance it called for.

Ultimately it’s dragged down by leaden direction and wooden performances. 

Likewise, the action set-pieces are dull. The scene where Hasan breaks free from the palace dungeons was, on paper, exciting. Full of sword-play, acrobatics, running, jumping and narrow escapes, it’s the sort of sequence that is the life-blood of this sort of adventure movie. However, the fight choreography is questionable, the action is clumsily shot, and Tobias plays it out joylessly. The climactic battle between Hasan and his rebellious forces and Alquazar’s soldiers, each atop a fleet of flying carpets, might owe something to both World War II dogfights and Star Wars, which came out just two years prior. But the carpets move so slowly, the compositing is so iffy (even for its time), and the direction so confusing that there’s no thrills to be found anywhere in a sequence that should be potentially thrilling. 

The movie’s saving grace is in its production design. The more lavish sets are combinations of physical sets and matte paintings, and they look gorgeous (seriously, when matte paintings were done well, they were the best!). Alquazar’s throne room, with its long reflecting pools is a standout, as are the cavernous entrance to the palace dungeons and Mickey Rooney’s clockwork lair. Alquazar’s secret magic lab is a real treat. To access it, one must cross a narrow stone bridge over a fiery chasm, and take a magical lift to a hidden cave that looks out over the city (it seems very well protected until you realize that the password to open the secret door is just Alquazar’s name- your IT department warned you about that, dude!).

The designs of these sets work overtime to add the magic and wonder that the rest of the film sorely lacks. They look fantastic, even on a high-resolution blu-ray. The colors are vivid and the details are sharp. The production designer, Elliot Scott, would go on to work on Dragonslayer, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,  Labyrinth, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and The Last Crusade. It’s just too bad that the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to his work on it. 

Kino Lorber has released Arabian Adventures on blu-ray with a commentary track by director Kevin Conner, and a theatrical trailer. There are also a small collection of trailers for related titles, which are de rigueur for KL.