Artisan // 1999 // 180 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // August 16th, 2000
When night falls, the adventure begins.
The Arabian Nights is perhaps one of the most universally known stories, or collection of stories, worldwide. There have been many incarnations of these tales, from highly abridged books to the 16 volume Burton comprehensive translation. Though many have tried, it is difficult if not impossible to encompass the tale properly in a film. Therefore Hallmark Entertainment went about making it as a television mini-series, with wondrous results. Certainly some liberties were taken, but the extremely high production values and a fantastic international cast result in one of the best television mini-series in recent memory. Artisan has provided us with the uninterrupted show on DVD, with a very nice picture and sound but light on the extras.
A Sultan named Schahriar is nearly insane with his paranoia about women following the betrayal of his beloved wife and his brother. When he is forced to re-marry lest he lose his kingdom to said brother, he decides he will marry and have the wife killed the next morning, before she has a chance to betray him. Scheherezade, the lovely daughter of the sultan's grand vizier, decides to marry the sultan to cause him to change his heart and relieve the darkness within him. She does this by telling stories, but leaving the story unfinished in the morning, so that Schahriar will leave her alive one more day to hear the end of the story. But one story runs into another, as she gives the classic tales of the Arabian Nights, including Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. Each story intertwines with the main plot surrounding Scheherezade literally telling the stories of her life.
I missed the show on television, but have been a fan of One Thousand and One Nights, as it has also been called, for a long time. One of the prize books in my collection is an old 1872 version with many woodcut illustrations. I still hold out hope for one day owning the complete 16 volume Burton set. When Artisan sent us a review copy I decided I really wanted to see what I had missed.
What I saw was a simply marvelous rendition of at least some of the parts of the tale. This, like the literature, is not one story, but many told within a single framework. Each story has it's own actors, it's own thread, but tied tightly to the overriding narrative. Lush sets, authentic locations, and vivid enactment's of the stories are the rule. The budget for this effort, unlike so many made for television, was of feature film size.
I thought Scott Barron, the director of this and other Hallmark mini-series such as Merlin, did a fine job of mixing the stories with the main plotline. Stories begin and instantly a face or a situation can change as Scheherezade changes parts of her story to better gain the Sultan's interest. The shifts back to the sultan's bedroom and the stories being told there work well, much as the similar scenes in Princess Bride did. Though you are reminded by this method that the stories you are watching are indeed just stories being told, the effect is not jarring and it is easy to remain committed and interested in the outcomes of the characters. I also liked how the stories themselves worked in the end to tie into the main plot about Schahriar and his evil brother, something that did not happen in the literature.
And I was surprised by the depth and detail of those stories, as well as the powerful performances. British actor Dougray Scott (Mission Impossible II) brings off the anguish and mania of Schahriar superbly. But the real star of the show is Israeli-born Mili Avital (Stargate) as Scheherezade. Her exotic looks sell the part easily, but she also added the nobility and desperation needed in the character. I was also happy with nearly all the performances in the stories. Rufus Sewell (Dark City) is particularly great as Ali Baba, as is Alan Bates (The Rose) as the storyteller who helps Scheherezade hone and polish her stories during the days. There were no truly bad performances, only those who weren't quite as strong as another, or given a part with as much to show.
The production values were absolutely first rate. The costumes were wondrous, detailed, with an authentic yet fantastical quality. The sets were lush, sumptuous, and evoked total believability. I say believability in the sense not that it looks like something you see every day, but in the sense that it allows total suspension of disbelief, and allows you to fully enter the story. For such a fantasy, this is key.
I would be remiss if I did not discuss the many action sequences and special effects. Over 500 digital effects were used, most of which were quite convincing. Again, with such a fantasy surrounding djinni, magic, and monsters, top notch special effects are important. The action sequences, in exotic locales in Turkey and others such as Yemen, mix seamlessly often enough with the special effects, to create captivating and even breathtaking spectacle.
I've alluded to the changes or liberties taken with the literature. That is not entirely a bad thing, and often the film benefits from it. For example, Schahriar is made far more redeemable and worthwhile despite his terrible flaw (he wants to kill his wife the morning after the wedding after all) because in the film he hasn't already been killing a woman a day as he had in the original tale. Needless complexity was removed by not including Scheherezade's sister in the bedroom during the tales. (Don't ask what she was doing there, read the book.) In one case at least the story was greatly improved by the changes, such as the tale of the three brothers sent on a quest to find a wondrous object. In the literature these young men simply buy the objects; in the film each has a real adventure associated with acquiring them. In these ways the film takes advantage of its own strengths and lessens the weaknesses, such as improving visual impact and short term interest rather than depending on the long story that works better in books.
I am aware of the differences between film and literature, and yet there were times when I wish they'd left the original stories alone. The Ali Baba story would have been somewhat better if it had stuck to the more traditional tale, as would the story of Bak Bak, the court jester. I didn't think the changes to the story made it funnier, but less so. And I was greatly disappointed with some of the liberties taken with the Aladdin story, which turned the two djinns into stand up comedians. John Leguizamo, who was so crudely wonderful as the clown in Spawn, was stuck with some shtick I didn't care for, often taking me right out of the film into the present day. Except for the entrance into modern day humor (a djinni needing "me time" for example) the story worked well enough, and Leguizamo certainly looked the parts of the twin djinns. Jason Scott Lee (Jungle Book) was also fine as Aladdin, though I thought casting him in the role and switching the tale to some strange amalgamation of Middle Eastern and Chinese motifs was wrong. I would have preferred a more straight Persian version of the story.
I was less pleased with some of the special effects than others. I thought the Chinese style dragons in the Ali Baba tale, courtesy of Jim Hensen's company (you know, the muppet people) were less realistic than other effects. I was also disappointed in the flying carpet effects (you knew there had to be one in an Arabian Nights tale, didn't you?) which I thought could have been more realistic looking. Most of the other hundreds of effects I liked, and some I loved, so this is a small complaint at best.
It was difficult to decide where in the format of our reviews to put the technical descriptions of the disc itself, for my opinions are mixed. While colors were bright and vivid on this full frame (done for television after all) transfer, there was an annoying bit of shimmer and ringing effect that detracted somewhat. It didn't happen often enough to be more than an annoyance, but it was noteworthy. Shadow detail was adequate, and blacks and fleshtones accurate enough. Except when the bits of artifacting crept in, the look was quite good.
The soundtrack was fairly standard television fare; a Dolby Surround that was spacious enough in the front, but not very directional and had little for the surrounds to do. The clarity and detail of the sound was fine, and dialogue was always clearly understood, but I would have greatly preferred a more aggressive, active mix in Dolby Digital. Still, it sounds at least as good as it did on television sets at first airing I'm sure.
Extras are a bit slight on this dual layered disc, but I'm sure space requirements for the 3 hour main course made this necessary. I was surprised that Artisan, the champion of the mini-series on DVD-18 discs (dual layered, two sided), did not opt for that here. Instead there is only a 16 minute featurette describing the making of the film, production notes, and some thorough text screens of cast and crew bios and filmographies. Everything there was fine, but I would have liked to see a more informative and thorough documentary at the least.
Last but not least, again no subtitles from an Artisan release. I will keep harping on them until this issue is resolved.
The original mini-series aired on 2 days on ABC, but fortunately you don't have to wait to see how it turns out on DVD. What would have been 4 hours with commercials is 3 without, and the film moves along at a pace such that the running length passes quickly enough. I am happy to have seen this finally, and heartily recommend it for a fun evening's entertainment. I'd easily recommend a rental, but for those who enjoyed it on television or on disc, a purchase. I should mention for those who want more stories, they can find all they desire at the links I have provided. The original tale had Scheherezade telling many stories over one thousand and one nights, and only a small sample of them are provided on the disc.
Hallmark Entertainment and all involved with this version of Arabian Nights have my congratulations. I would classify this as high quality as any feature film, and off the scale in quality for something made for television. Artisan gets a slap on the wrist for not giving this quite the same quality of treatment they've given other mini-series, but the transgressions were not so serious as to cause me to refrain from a recommendation. I do, however, continue to fine them for their continuing lack of subtitles.
Review content copyright © 2000 Norman Short; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 180 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "Making Of" Featurette
* Cast and Crew Info
* Production Notes
* Sir Richard Burton's translation of The Arabian Nights
* Electronic Literature Foundation: Arabian Nights