Long ago in a kingdom called Majutsoland various magical beings gather to observe strange things happening on Earth when the animals elect Alakazam the Great (voiced by Peter Fernandez, future voice of Speed Racer (1967)) their king. He is a magical monkey, cocky and proud, but his devoted girlfriend Dee Dee (Dodie Stevens) believes he is good inside. Unfortunately absolute power soon goes to Alakazam's head. He tricks Merlin the Magician into sharing his secrets. Then, in a show of strength, Alakazam invades Majutsoland battling Hercules himself before his challenge to His Majesty King Amo sees him tricked, defeated and imprisoned under a mountain. Only Dee Dee remains his friend and her decency inspires Queen Amas to set Alakazam free. To prove himself worthy of a second chance Alakazam agrees to accompany Amo's son Prince Amat on an epic quest, wearing a magical band around his head that prevents him misbehaving. Along their adventures the heroes befriend skirt-chasing pig Sir Quigley (Jonathan Winters) and reformed cannibal Lulipopo (Arnold Stang) but find themselves facing King Gruesome and his monster army.
Re-cut and dubbed for the English speaking audience by drive-in kings American International Pictures, in its original Japanese form Alakazam the Great is actually Saiyuki, an early anime film detailing the exploits of Son Goku (or Sun Wu Kong, if you're Chinese) the Monkey King. Beloved by children across Asia, this folkloric cross between Mickey Mouse and Superman inspired an array of adaptations both animated and live action, often adapted from Wu Cheng-En's sixteenth century novel Journey to the West. Of course mainstream American film-goers in the Sixties knew little about Buddhism and next to nothing about this particular tale, hence AIP reset the narrative in a more nebulous fantasy setting and bestowed new names upon mythological characters better known in the East as Pigsy, Tripitaka, Na Cha the Great, the Goddess of Mercy and even Buddha! The studio also provided a fairly big name voice cast including Sterling Holloway as our affable narrator and teen idol Frankie Avalon taking over on vocals whenever Alakazam bursts into song. Which is a lot. AIP's in-house composer Les Baxter provided a new score that is rather lovely. Baxter takes a leaf out of Carl Stalling's book mixing old standards with original easy listening tunes though the songs, which range from pleasant to unremarkable, are unlikely to give the Sherman Brothers any sleepless nights.
The end result suffers the inevitable problems that arise from trying to re-contextualize a culturally specific story for mainstream tastes. Indeed in later years Alakazam the Great was singled out for derision by bad movie guru Michael Medved in his book 'The Golden Turkey Awards' albeit more likely as a dodgy Frankie Avalon vehicle than a bastardization of a great work of Asian literature. Yet in either version the film remains a charming relic of the early Sixties with lively and colourful action and intricate visuals worthy of the Disney studio at their best. Even kids not versed in Asian folklore will likely find this an engaging fantasy adventure. The story of a bratty hero who learns the importance of kindness and love has a universal appeal one imagines would earn the approval of Walt Disney himself.
Toei Films, producer-distributors of the original Japanese Saiyuki, hired Osamu Tezuka to co-direct this adaptation of his breakthrough 1952 manga My Son Goku (created when he was only sixteen years old) back when he was merely the hottest manga artist in Japan rather than the one-man industry he eventually became. Tezuka had an uneasy relationship with Toei and following creative interference on his second film, Woof Woof 47 Ronin (1963), broke away to form his own studio: Mushi Film. Here Toei paired the fledgling director with veteran animator Taiji Yabushita who directed Panda and the Magic Serpent (1958), the first anime feature in colour. Yabushita made several key early anime, e.g. Magic Boy (1959), The Littlest Warrior (1962), Little Prince and the Eight Headed Dragon (1963), often adapting traditional folk tales adding a dash of Disneyesque cuteness, i.e. cuddly animals and musical numbers. Tezuka had a personal connection with the Monkey King story. A childhood viewing of the Wan Brothers' pioneering Chinese animation Princess Iron Fan (1941) inspired him to make his own cartoons. He returned to the story several times in ensuing years with the controversial, scatological send-up Goku's Great Adventure (1967) and his final semi-autobiographical fantasy Tezuka Osamu Story: I Am Son Goku (1989).
Saiyuki establishes philosophical themes Tezuka developed throughout the rest of his career. Flawed heroes and intellectually inquisitive animal kings whose quest for greatness turns into a search for enlightenment reoccur in major works like Kimba the White Lion (1966) and Phoenix 2772 (1979) as does the idea that mercy and compassion provides the path towards greater understanding of the universe. Tezuka's original manga already included a lot of anachronistic humour and proves the one aspect that adapts well to a western context with some amusingly smart-alecky beatnik dialogue ("You old guys should make way for the younger generation. You get me buddy?") and Jonathan Winters coming off best as a wisecracking Sir Quigley a.k.a. Pigsy.
Certain aspects of Saiyuki have proven fairly influential albeit chiefly in Asia. The recent multi-million yen CGI laden Hong Kong blockbuster The Monkey King (2014) boasts a similarly family friendly tone mixing mind-blowing philosophical discourse with funny animal antics complete with love interest for the super-simian not present in the original text. Tezuka and Yabushita present a Monkey King who is not quite the all-knowing, all-powerful and unflappable hero glimpsed in the Shaw Brothers' musical fantasy The Monkey Goes West (1964), Jeff Lau's bonkers sci-fi re-imagining A Chinese Tall Story (2005) or indeed cult TV favourite Monkey! (1979). Instead he comes across more vulnerable with Dee Dee acting as his conscience much the same fox spirit Ru Xue does in the 2014 film. Typical of Tezuka the plot also includes a minor villain who functions as the hero's mirror image, a bad guy with a streak of good opposing a flawed hero. Shape-shifting imp Philo Fester gets his own mini-arc eventually learning the error of his ways in a twist appropriate for a Buddhist parable.