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'Kazaam': Aladdin Trouble

By Esther Iverem
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 17, 1996

In the modern fairy tale "Kazaam," Shaquille O'Neal, the 7-foot-1, 300-pound center for the Orlando Magic, plays a genie who has just been awakened.

Alas, the movie's producers could use a genie of their own.

Surely, if granted three wishes, they could have produced a better film. And since they were banking on O'Neal's appeal to kids, they could have made better use of his budding musical ability.

In the film, 12-year-old Max Conner (Francis Capra) lives with his single mother Alice (Ally Walker) in a struggling community in downtown Los Angeles. Their apartment is replete with the faux-seedy decor Hollywood uses to evoke the inner city. The effect is to say: This place is really depressing, and these people are real losers. Max is white but he is tormented by a predominantly Chicano group of boys who chase and beat him.

As Max nonetheless attempts to curry favor with his persecutors, the setting and tension are ripe for a good, old-fashioned celluloid lesson in values and maturity. But this ain't it. The main problem is that though the movie is built around Max and Alice, the script, direction and acting fail to give these characters the necessary depth. We gradually learn that Max's father hasn't been around since he was 2. But parental absence is not reason enough to empathize with Max, who is a chronic whiner around the apartment. We also learn very little about his mother -- like what kind of work she does, what happened to break up the marriage or what she cares about other than her fireman fiance. She flits in and out of scenes -- nervous, clueless and ineffective -- always reacting, never in control.

The effect of such thinly painted characters, of course, is to make the movie implausible to start with. And that makes it all the more difficult to suspend disbelief and accept the supernatural genie Kazaam -- a hip-hop-tinged apparition with rhyming pearls of wisdom, boombox, tasseled turban and Persian slippers.

The other reason "Kazaam" fails is because it fights with itself. It was obviously created as a vehicle for O'Neal, who is also a professional rapper. But director and producer Paul M. Glaser (who played Starsky in the television cop series "Starsky and Hutch" and directed the feature films "The Air Up There," "Band of the Hand," "Running Man" and "Cutting Edge") does not build on the hip-hop performances, which are among the more entertaining scenes in the film. Young children may like some of the special effects. Those who are in the gross-me-out stage might laugh at the hamburgers, tacos and other junk food that goes splat on the floor in one scene. But there's not much for anybody else.

Shaq's performance is also mixed. In his 1994 feature film debut, "Blue Chips," he was on familiar turf -- playing a college basketball player. But in "Kazaam," he doesn't seem sure what kind of genie he wants to be. One moment he's being a big brother to Max, the next he's a rapper and then he's taking all kinds of abuse from Max, being called Godzilla or told that he smells like "hippopotamus butt." But he continues to follow Max around like the big slow kid on the block, a huge '90s version of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson serving little Shirley Temple.

Kazaam is rated PG.

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