Casting basketball star Shaquille O'Neal as a genie who offers a beleaguered 12-year-old boy three wishes, "Kazaam" looks likely to fall through the cracks of age identification. Too gritty, violent and downbeat for tykes, it's also a bit juvenile and fairy tale-like for teens and older auds. With its uneven mix of comedy, melodrama and action, pic will need all the help Shaq's name can provide.

Casting basketball star Shaquille O’Neal as a genie who offers a beleaguered 12-year-old boy three wishes, “Kazaam” looks likely to fall through the cracks of age identification. Too gritty, violent and downbeat for tykes, it’s also a bit juvenile and fairy tale-like for teens and older auds. With its uneven mix of comedy, melodrama and action, pic will need all the help Shaq’s name and a rap soundtrack can provide to score more than modest points against midsummer’s power players.

Its unsuitability for younger viewers is announced almost at once. Set in a grimy and dangerous-seeming urban milieu, tale opens with its annoying young hero, Max (Francis Capra), disobeying his harried teacher, then getting ambushed in the school bathroom by a gang of inner-city toughs, whom he placates by handing over a key that’s supposed to assure a valuable heist from a downtown store.

When the bullies figure out they’ve been had, they chase Max into an abandoned warehouse, where he accidentally hits a battered old boom box and releases bottled-up Kazaam (O’Neal). Nowhere is it explained how the genie managed to be imprisoned for 3,000 years in a device that can’t be older than 30 , but this isn’t nearly the greatest of the script’s problems. Kazaam says he must remain in the human realm until he realizes three wishes for Max, who is understandably skeptical when the genie, claiming that he’s rusty, fails to conjure a Jaguar XKE on demand.

At home, Max’s wishes aren’t coming true either. His mother (Ally Walker) wants to marry her firefighter boyfriend (John Costelloe), who in turn wants to befriend Max. But the boy, who resents not being consulted in advance on the engagement and harbors secret hopes that his longunseen dad might return, turns sulky and unruly.

Much of pic’s first half notably lacks forward momentum, and consists mainly of obvious efforts to keep the boy and the genie together and bonding. There are a few comic bright spots here, though, as when Max, having wished for “junk food up to the sky,” finds himself pelted by falling burgers and a rain of fries.

Things turn darker after Max tracks down his father (James Acheson), a sleazy and temperamental music-biz operator involved in a CD-pirating scheme and surrounded by a host of unsavory types. Kazaam, however, not only finds a lady friend (Fawn Reed) in this netherworld, but begins to display all the makings of a supernatural rap star. Such distractions prove crucial at tale’s climax, when Max’s father gets into potentially lethal straits with his criminal cohorts. Max wishes for “a second chance for my dad,” only to be ignored by his official wish-granter, who’s in the midst of a big concert. Naturally, the musical genie snaps out of it in time to provide a safe, upbeat and special effects-heavy finale.

Helmer Paul M. Glaser mounts all this with plenty of visual finesse and an obvious feel for his cast. Perfs are able across the board. Though Capra is a fairly unappealing kid thesp, at least where part calls for heroic fantasy rather than realism, his work with O’Neal displays welcome chemistry and skill. On his side, the hoops great follows his 1994 debut, “Blue Chips,” with proof that he’s a natural and ingratiating screen presence. Granted, he’s not required to stretch a lot in playing a genial, outsize charmer, but role does make the most of the friendliness and innocence of O’Neal’s persona.

Walker, Acheson and Costelloe do smart work in pic’s melodramatic corner, but their parts also reveal an unfortunate imbalance in the script. If Disney’s not poised to win back any disaffected conservatives with this film’s mix of magic and rap, it perhaps should be scored more strongly from the opposite side of the spectrum: As in too many such pics, the central white characters are honored with a more or less nuanced and realistic treatment, while the surrounding characters are treated as so many flat, ethnic cartoons.

Soudtrack’s rap is of the bland, anonymous, overproduced variety. Led by Charles Minsky’s sharp lensing and the special effects work by Rhythm & Hues, tech credits are well above par.

Kazaam

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Touchstone Pictures presentation of an Interscope Communications/Polygram Filmed Entertainment production. Produced by Scott Kroopf, Paul M. Glaser, Bob Engelman. Executive producers Ted Field, Robert W. Cort, Leonard Armato, Shaquille O'Neal. Co-executive producers, Michael A. Helfant, Beth Maloney Jelin, Bruce Binkow. Directed by Paul M. Glaser. Screenpaly, Christian Ford, Roger Soffer, story by Glaser.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Charles Minsky; editor, Michael E. Poloknow; music, Christopher Tyng; production design, Donald Burt; art direction, Mick Strawn; set design, Kevin Cross; set decoration, Kate Sullivan costume design, Hope Hanafin; sound (Dolby Digital), Lance Brown, Victor Iorillo; visual effects supervisor, Charles Gibson; assistant director, Gary Scott Marcus; second unit camera, John V. Fante; casting, Dianne Critenden. Reviewed at the UA Gemini Twin, N.Y., July 15, 1996. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Kazaam - Shaquille O'Neal Max - Francis Capra Alice - Ally Walker Malik - Marshall Manesh Nick - James Acheson Asia Moon - Fawn Reed Travis - John Costelloe

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