Upon hearing that a professional basketball player is going to take the lead role in a major film, a normal person’s response would be something along the lines of “No thank you” or “That sounds terrible” or “Please stop talking to me.” But learning that the basketball star is going to play a genie who is also a rapper somehow makes the film irresistible. You know it will be bleak, tragic, and have devastating consequences, yet you are drawn to it. It’s like marrying a stripper, or sending troops to Vietnam.
Morbid curiosity explains why approximately 4 million people paid money, in the summer of 2006, to see Shaquille O’Neal in “Kazaam,” a movie that every single one of those people must have known was not going to be good. No one, including the people who made the film, could have thought that Shaq would be able to act. I mean, there are plenty of famous actors who can’t act. What makes you think a basketball player could do it?
“Kazaam” was made under Disney’s Touchstone banner, which means legally it’s an homage to Disney’s “Aladdin,” not a shameless rip-off of it. The setting is New York City, where our hero is a swaggering, smart-mouthed 12-year-old brat named Max (Francis Capra) whose mom (Ally Walker) is about to marry a fireman. Max’s dad left years ago and Max doesn’t remember him, but he’s still upset that Mom is remarrying. Especially a New York City fireman! Those guys are losers.
Max is frequently picked on by bullies, and it is while fleeing a pack of them that he stumbles into a condemned building and falls down and knocks a boom box off the shelf, and for some reason out of the boom box comes a genie. The genie is freakishly tall, weighs about 400 pounds, and has hands the size of canoes. A marvel of special effects? No! It is just Shaquille O’Neal.
(In fact, the special effects in the film are rather chintzy. I discovered the reason for this in the opening credits, when I saw that the “visual effects supervisor” was Charles Gibson. No wonder! Charles Gibson is an ABC network news anchor, not a visual effects supervisor!)
The genie’s name is Kazaam. He speaks primarily in rhyme — an interesting choice for the screenwriters to make, given that they are incapable of writing good rhymes for him. (Consider: I would not write a screenplay in which the characters spoke a lot of Portuguese. Why? Because I do not speak Portuguese.) One of the first things Kazaam says to Max is “Who’s the sorry wannabe / That disturbed my Z’s?” The street-wise Max does not believe that Kazaam is a wish-granting genie. “You wanna pull the wool over someone’s eyes?” Max says. “Go find a sheep.” And now we understand why the screenwriters were so bad with the rhyming dialogue: because they’re bad with dialogue generally.
Kazaam insists that Max is his master now, that Max owns him. Even in the 21st century, this is a somewhat uncomfortable thing to hear a black man tell a white kid. (It’s even worse later, when Max warms to the idea and reminds Kazaam, “I own you!”) After wasting his first wish on something stupid, Max takes his time on coming up with the other two. This means Kazaam is his new constant companion, hanging around impatiently and awaiting his instructions. I was hoping Max would go home and tell his mom, “A weird man in baggy pants said he’d give me whatever I wanted,” but no luck. I was also hoping there would not be a scene where Max wakes up in the morning and finds Kazaam in bed next to him, but no luck there, either.
While Max is contemplating his wishes, Kazaam reveals that he wants to be a rapper. He also wants to be freed of his wish-granting responsibilities and become a free-agent genie. But I think he wants to be a rapper more. He goes to a club and freestyles. During his performance he holds his boom box aloft and makes it shoot magical sparks, which should terrify the crowd but delights them instead. I wrote down this couplet:
“What’s the matter, your tongue is broken?
At a time like this you should be stokin'”
But maybe that’s from the scene where he first appears to Max. Hmm. Yeah, I think it is. You’ll just have to take my word for it that his actual rapping is approximately that lame, delivered arrhythmically and without inflection. You wouldn’t think Shaquille O’Neal would be an even worse rapper than he is an actor, but “Kazaam” is a movie full of surprises and miracles.
Max finds his long-lost father, who it turns out has been living in the same city the whole time and has a high-profile job as a music producer and part-time pirate (the kind who sells illegal recordings of concerts, not the cool kind.) Somehow Max’s dad’s business associate, a Middle Eastern man named Malik (Marshall Manesh), figures out that Kazaam is a genie and tries to steal ownership of him by stealing the boom box. If that doesn’t make sense, just think how much less sense it will make when I tell you that the movie never bothered to mention that the boom box was the source of Kazaam’s powers in the first place. In fact, Kazaam has many scenes where the boom box is nowhere in sight. But now, suddenly, it is precious, like the movie just barely thought of it. “Oh yeah!” the movie says. “Whoever has the boom box owns Kazaam! Tap-tap, new rule!”
You can see how someone was hoping Kazaam would remind people of Robin Williams’ genie in “Aladdin.” He wears a variety of disguises, freely riffs on whatever’s on his mind, and gets into mischief. The problem, obviously, is that Shaq is no cartoon genie. He’s slow, lumbering, and uncharismatic. His one “move” is to grin cheesily, which he does at random intervals, whether the situation calls for it or not. I guess if anyone on the set ever asked him to do something else, he probably just said, “Hey, you want acting? Maybe you should have hired an actor.”
But if you can get past the embarrassing rapping, the nonsensical story, the out-of-nowhere plot elements, and the general idiocy, it’s actually not a bad way to kill 90 minutes — assuming all the other movies Netflix offers are unavailable, there’s nothing on TV, and you hate yourself. That is my final analysis / This movie is as much fun as dialysis.