Excellent animation clashes with a ludicrous localisation to make an unforgettable Journey to the West-ish adaptation.
“Stop! I am Hercules!”
“I’ll call you Jerkules.”
So straight off the bat, you might notice something a bit off about the dialogue in the American dub of the 1960 Journey to the West film Saiyuki (the Japanese name for the book), if its title change wasn’t enough to tip you off. Hercules’ sudden appearance and name drop isn’t the only thing that’s different about this version, though: if you were listening to an audio-only version of the movie there would be nothing that would tip you off to the fact that you were watching anything Journey-related in the slightest.
Originally and very loosely based off Osamu Tezuka’s manga adaptation Boku no Son Goku, Alakazam the Great was one of the first pieces of Japanese animated material to have any kind of release in the United States. Much like with the US import of Godzilla a few years prior, the entire film was redubbed and edited to fit a story that would sell overseas and with it came a whole lot of character name and lore changes. And while I’d love to see the original version one day, Alakazam the Great’s very existence is such a strange joy of a trip that I’m glad they butchered it in the way they did.
The re-edited plot goes as such. On the island known as Majutsu Land (Originally the heavens), King Amo (the Buddha) and Queen Amas (actually the bodhisattva Guanyin) decide to hold a contest to see who will become the ruler of all the animals. Among those who participate is a small, brave monkey known as Alakazam (Sun Wukong), who nails it pretty quickly. This impresses his girlfriend Deedee but this new position causes Alakazam to turn into a bit of a tyrant. He insists on visiting the wizard Merlin (Subhuti) in order to learn all his magics, and returns quickly with many powers, a bigger ego and a newfound dislike of chestnuts.
He breaks into Majutsu Land and faces off against Hercules (Erlang Shen), before challenging King Amo to a contest of magic. He loses after doing the whole jump-out-of-my-palm thing, and is imprisoned. There he starts to learn humility after making Deedee cry, and is told that Prince Amat (Tang Sangzang) will be coming by in a short while to bring him on a pilgrimage for … well, it’s not really specified but we know it has nothing to do with retrieving Buddhist scriptures. That wouldn’t fly with such a Christian audience, probably. So Wukong gets the headache band, and they go on their way, encountering countless classic enemies like Sir Quigley Broken Bottom, Max Lulipopo , Filo Fester, the McSnarles brothers, and King and Queen Gruesome.
Alakazam the Great is a lot of different things and I’ll go over what came from the original film first. On the one hand, it’s beautifully animated, filled with excellent action sequences and some really top notch character design. Elements such as background demons all look and move differently to one another, and there’s a really satisfying fluidity to all of the animation that made it especially pleasant to watch. It’s absolutely filled with clever visual gags, and a lot of cartoony elements that would never work in other mediums, such as Red Boy (sorry, Filo Fester) using his horn as a telephone antenna.
On the other hand, it’s one of the fastest paced movies I’ve ever seen. It manages to get through the entire Havoc in Heaven, meeting the Tang monk, Zhu Bajie, Sha Wujing, Gold and Silver Demons, Bull Demon and Princess Fan, and Red Boy arcs in a head-spinning eighty minutes. Multiple stories end up mashed together, and if you don’t know what you’re meant to be watching it can get a bit much. This isn’t helped either by the dub, which more often than not is more reminiscent of a group of improv comedians speaking over the top of a movie. The entire story is gibberish, smashing together mythologies (see Hercules and Merlin) but races by so quickly you don’t really have much time to ask questions. Songs are occasionally thrown in because it’s an animated film, and Les Baxter’s Big Band score is very good, but it’s so jarring to see these ancient Chinese characters croon to one another with American accents that the experience of watching Alakazam the Great is not unlike making a stir fry with ketchup and bacon as key ingredients.
In short, Alakazam the Great is an absolute fucking trip. Listening to Sterling Holloway’s Winnie the Pooh voice narrate while Buddha discusses Merlin with a thick transatlantic accent and Herclues shapeshifts into a dragon is some crazy bullshit that just gets better the more Journey content you’ve experienced before. But combined with moments of pure animation where the designers can let loose, and Alakazam the Great is actually a pretty decent time. Oh, and to its credit this is so far the only Journey film (outside of Buddies in India) I’ve seen where they actually make it to the fucking West. Tang monk actually gets the scriptures! Except he doesn’t, because those don’t exist in the dub. And we were so close.
Verdict: Highly imaginative and wildly entertaining from start to finish, Alakazam the Great is one of the most unique Journeys I’ve seen yet.
Overall entertainment: 7.5/10
Sex: More monkey romance that I’d have thought
Accuracy: Both 7/10 and 0/10
Deedee: So did she also live for 500 years?
Sha Wujing: Looks like a racist caricature of … well, I don’t know. But it’s something.
Alakazam the Great (1960)
Also known as: Saiyuki
Director: Taiji Yabushita, Daisaku Shirakawa
Writers: Wu Cheng’en (novel), Osamu Tezuka (manga), Keinosuke Uekusa, some genius madman (dub)
Peter Fernandez, Frankie Avalon (singing) – Sun Wukong/Alakzam
Dodie Stevens – DeeDee
Jonathan Winters – Zhu Bajie/Sir Quigley Broken Bottom
Arnold Stang – Sha Wujing/ Max Lulipopo
Sterling Holloway – Narrator