"I was a medium-level juvenile delinquent from Newark who always dreamed about doing a movie. Someone said, 'Hey, here's $7 million, come in and do this genie movie.' What am I going to say, no? So I did it."—Shaquille O’Neal
With logic like that, it’s almost hard to be too tough on Kazaam, one of the more infamous critical bombs of the 1990s. Then again, the fact that O’Neal made $7 million off it AND rapped extensively throughout the process eliminates any guilt I might have.
Quick Plot: When a wrecking ball knocks into the window of an abandoned antique lamp shop, the disembodied voice of an NBA all-star is released into a boom box soon to be discovered by Max, an unhappy sixth grader struggling to cope with his mom’s impending marriage to a perfectly nice fireman, the mystery of having never met his deadbeat dad, and daily beatings from Latino bullies. Poor white kids in the ‘90s!
It looks like SOME screenwriter watched a whole lot of live action 1990s Disney kids’ films, eh?
Upon finding the mystical boom box (and yes, this being 1996, one could and should take a chug of Zima every time the words “boom box” are used), Max frees the titular genie Kazaam, who introduces himself via rap.
Well, I think it’s rap. Shaq basically talks in rhyme and music plays underneath him. That’s the same thing, right?
Although Max is guaranteed three wishes, Kazaam’s skills are a little rusty, rendering the kid dubious of his newfound rapper’s delight’s actual powers. What follows is a not-creepy-at-all sequence wherein Kazaam starts following the kid’s every move, be it to find his smarmy music pirating dad or, um, to bed.
But back to the music pirating, since that’s the ultimate plotline Kazaam’s script chooses to follow. Makes sense really: if there’s one thing 6-12 year old audiences want in their mainstream family comedy films, it’s a morality lesson about the illegal side of the recording industry. Will Max’s absentee father learn that videotaping live performances to sell on the black market for an evil mustache twirling, genie hijacking Arab is wrong? Ain’t NO villain worse than a sham recording studio executive!
Sigh. Even The Nucracker In 3D knew that when in doubt, toss in a Nazi.
Directed by Paul Michael Glaser (the man responsible for two of my vastly different guilty pleasures, The Running Man and The Cutting Edge), Kazaam stands today as hilariously ill-planned attempt to create a Rock-like movie star using a cookie cutter kids’ film. It pains me to say this, but Shaquille O’Neal isn’t actually the worst thing about Kazaam. Like a lot of athletes-turned-thespians, the man can’t quite act, but is surprisingly likable when just hanging around.
Just ask Max’s mom, who temporarily forgets her engagement to a hot NYC firefighter to flirt with the 7’ tall self-proclaimed tutor to her tweve-year-old son.
This being Kazaam, however, Shaq doesn’t JUST hang around. He raps. He does the cabbage patch. He delivers lines like “This puts the boom in box!” in a manner that, despite his self-describing introductory song, is neither contagious, outrageous, nor spontaneous.
Although I’m not saying it isn’t funny.
No, the problem with Kazaam—aside from its very existence—is that it’s so clearly written as a product by people who can’t quite really write to begin with. Nevertheless, screenwriters Christian Ford and Roger Soffer grabbed a batch of proven tropes—fatherless kid, teen bullies, magical (literally) Negro, stock Arab villains (aaahhhh the ‘90s), product placement—and mushed them into something of a movie. With an incredibly unlikable brat of a protagonist and a muddled plot (remember: the bad guys in this KIDS’ FILM are music bootleggers) Kazaam is rather wonderfully miscalculated.
Also, a tad, perhaps one might say, racist? Or just weirdly unaware of some of its implications. See, when a black man tells a bratty young white boy that the kid is now his master, something slightly wrong is going on. “I own you!” Max later shouts when Kazaam dares to ignore his whims. Yes, this post is coming from someone who epically ranted against The Blind Side to the occasional ‘you’re overreacting’ comment, but PLEASE don’t tell me I’m not supposed to be reading anything into A WHITE BOY OWNING A BLACK MAN.
Perhaps one could think of Kazaam as a ‘90s version of The Toy. Except with rapping. And with the grand comedy skills of Richard Pryor replaced by the wooden enthusiasm of a basketball player. And with Middle Eastern music pirates standing in for Jackie Gleason, piranhas, and the KKK.
Did I mention the rapping?
Shaq gets a “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” moment, and you KNOWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW how much I love those
It’s not my place to criticize a film I’m only watching BECAUSE of its awful reputation, but even the bad movie lover in me can’t find a proper rationalization for why concert bootleggers made sense as Disney villains
Building a neutron bomb can be a little dangerous
Romeo once said to Juliet, “grab four of your friends and we’ll have a sextet.” Weird how I don’t remember that scene from 9th grade English class
Nubian goat eyes is the food of kings
Men are like buses. There’s always another (sound advice for a mom to pass onto her child)
In life, there are no second chances. No. Second. Chances. Well, there are if your genie becomes a djinn, but what are the odds?
The Winning Line
“And if you girls are hungry, let’s green egg and ham it”
Rapped, of course. I chose this particular lyric because from henceforth, I shall no longer use the term “Let’s get something to eat.” No no no (or as Matthew McConaughey would say in Magic Mike, “Nahhh nahhh nahhh”). My goal in life is to now see how long I can go constantly saying “Let’s green eggs and ham it” before being beaten senselessly—actually, sensibly—by friends, family, waiters, take-out cashiers, or anyone with hearing on the street
The Winning Possibly Really Inappropriate Sodomy Based Line
In a film rife with slightly discomforting scenes between a preteen and his full-grown friend with no sense of boundaries, it’s kind of a twist that The Winning Possibly Really Inappropriate Sodomy Based Line does NOT come from the mouth of a genie. Instead, there’s this:
“There’s only one place this will fit!” threaten the bullies as they wave a small key in front of Max’s terrified eyes. Um…ew?
Just in case you were worried that Shaquille O’Neal forgot his athletic roots, fear not:
Law & Order: SVU Alert
You KNEW I couldn’t let this one go: Max’s mother is played by Ally Walker, best known to current television audiences as the villainous Agent Stahl on Sons of Anarchy but ALSO special for guest starring in a pretty ridiculous episode of my favorite criminal justice program. In Season 11’s “Conned,” Walker played a psychiatrist who was controversially into electro-shock treatment and positively scandalously into sleeping with her thirteen-year-old patient, who was also the father of her baby. Just another day in SVU
Kazaam is pretty much as bad as you probably think it is, so those (like me) who look forward to such validation will certainly benefit from a rental. The disc is tragically sans special features, but it does have this as its menu:
Which is almost worth owning in itself.