Lush, lavish and longer than necessary, ABC’s “Arabian Nights” is definitely an appealing spectacle but overly sluggish in too many places. Impressively staged, Robert Halmi’s mixture of spirituality and fables is certainly a striking aesthetic achievement. But all the razzle-dazzle in the world can’t veil a lethargic story that gets stuck with a simpleton’s dialogue. Viewers who fancy a time machine ride will appreciate the style, just not all of the words.
The good is very good. Anchored by solid turns from Dougray Scott and Mili Avital, this take on “A Thousand and One Nights” uses Turkish and Moroccan locations, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop visuals and an overall elegance to create an experience that characterizes sweeps programming. A well–researched project that takes advantage of an accomplished cast, two-parter gets a big nod in the class department.
But oh, that screenplay. Like several of Halmi’s previous enterprises, the spectacle is the plot, while the language assumes a supporting role. Director Steve Barron sometimes goes for the inappropriate laugh, and writer Peter Barnes’ attempt to mix anachronistic imagery with a sophisticated journey doesn’t always work (there’s even an airplane/peanut joke).
As Baghdad’s ruler, Schahriar (Scott) has become an emotional wreck ever since his first wife had an affair. Vowing never to trust another woman, the sultan, forced to marry again, decides to make his point by killing his new bride at sunrise.
His dastardly scheme is revealed, but the fetching Scheherezade (Avital), convinced she can change her childhood friend’s evil ways, volunteers for the job. Her strategy: tell extensive yarns about honor, independence and power so his hatred and bitterness melt away.
The tales are familiar: Ali Baba (Rufus Sewell) loots a treasure cave belonging to a master thief; Aladdin (Jason Scott-Lee) deals with an odd pair of genies (John Leguizamo); the death of hunchback BacBac (Alexei Sayle) panics an entire town; princes trade places with paupers; and three sons seek out humankind’s greatest wonder.
It’s unfortunate that “Arabian Nights” couldn’t parlay its narrative efforts into a more compelling package. Everything is there — intrigue, politics, sexuality and humor — but Barron’s pacing is inconsistent and unbalanced. Aladdin’s chronicle is by far the strongest of the bunch, but the final account of siblings on a quest offers little in terms of importance or amusement.
The perfs, however, are sound all around. Avital is refined as the maiden who eventually weds a madman, and Scott, despite some over-the-top theatrics, is convincing as a leader who is losing his mind. Also notable are Lee, a joy as an honest and noble gentleman, and Sewell as a conniving bandit.
Besides Tony Burrough and Ben Van Os’ terrific production design, all tech credits, from Dominic Smithers’ sets to Maurizio Millenotti’s stellar costumes, are top-notch.