Exploiting our Archives: Control Nathan and Clint: Kazaam (1996)

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Welcome to the latest entry in Control Nathan and Clint, the column where we let the good-hearted souls who contribute to the various Patreon pages of Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place and Nathan Rabin’s Happy Cast choose between which of two impossibly-terrible looking movies Clint and I must watch, and then discuss on our podcast

In honor of Shaquille O’Neal returning to the world of theatrically released films with Uncle Drew, we decided to revisit Shaq-Fu’s 1990s golden age and let patrons choose between the unspeakably awful 1997 superhero dud Steel or 1996’s unconscionably terrible Kazaam. 

I have a confession to make, dear reader. When Kazaam triumphed in the poll, I had already seen it. I don’t remember the exact time or reason I subjected myself to this abomination previously but I know it was for a guest appearance on a podcast called Not Just Sports to promote something. 7 Days in Ohio, perhaps? World peace? Transcendental meditation?

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All I know is that I have now watched Kazaam now twice. Of my own accord. I chose to see Kazaam when I could have picked literally anything else. Weep not for me, dear reader, for this is the life I chose. 

I was once like you. I was raised with the best of everything. Servants! Boarding schools! A loving and supportive mother who ensured that I never lacked for anything. Actually, none of that is true. I grew up poor and angry, lacked for most things and due to a series of bad choices and poor decisions, not to mention a series of crummy breaks, found myself re-watching a movie about a magical rapping genie from the 1990s who befriends a juvenile delinquent and saves him from entering a shadowy nightmare world of music piracy. 

No, not the famous, successful, beloved, nearly identically titled Oscar and Nobel Prize-winning film of the same name from the same era famously starring Sinbad. That's Shazaam. I’m talking about the other one, the one that stars rapper, actor, lawman and basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal that was poorly received and, unlike Shazaam, has not been honored by the National Film Registry as a film of historical and cultural importance. 

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On paper, Kazaam has a certain commercial logic. At the time of its release, Shaq was one of the famous, successful and beloved athletes in the world. Despite a stilted, clumsy flow and amateurish lyrics, he’d even managed to score a few hip hop hits. Kids loved him. Kids loved Aladdin. So why not make a live-action riff on Aladdin casting the superstar athlete as a rapping genie who imparts life lessons to a troubled, angry white kid who doubles as a surrogate for the movie’s target audience when not busting dope rhymes or doing physical comedy? 

Francis Capra plays Max, the aforementioned angry white boy/audience surrogate, a juvenile delinquent haunted at school by bullies who push him to the ground, outline his body in green spray paint and issue overly verbose taunts like, “It’s a math problem: If we took all the money from the dork on the floor, would it be enough?” and at home by the specter of her mother’s boyfriend Travis, a kind, gentle and loving firefighter who the obnoxious little twerp inexplicably hates even though he’s not just superior to his piece of shit father Nick (James Acheson), who abandoned him when he was two years old, but rather perfect in every way. The sexy firefighter even saves Max from a fire even though he's been a total dick to him the whole movie. That's what I call a stand up dude. 

I will just have to assume that the reason Max resents Travis is because he can hear the screams of orgasmic joy the firefighter brings his mother for hours at a time every night like clockwork. Sexy, sexy clockwork Just because this Travis fellow can perform oral sex on our hero’s mother for hours, even days at a time, bringing her to undreamed of heights of sensual bliss doesn’t mean that he poses a threat to Max’s relationship with his mom but that doesn’t keep Max from hating him and desperately seeking Nick’s love and approval even if, to paraphrase the title of a Shaquille O’Neal single that reduces me to tears every time I listen to it, his biological didn’t bother. 

Running from bullies one after afternoon Max ends up freeing ancient genie Kazaam (Shaquille O’Neal) from the boom box that has been his home and prison. 

Upon being awakened from his slumber, Kazaam roars to life and clumsily shout-raps, “Who dare to wake me? Ain’t gonna make this a mystery. Don’t wanna do time on your wishes three. Watch it, boy. You don’t wanna diss me or I’ll dish out my misery. Now, who’s that sorry wanna-be that disturbed my Zs?”

As painful as those words read, they’re infinitely more embarrassing tumbling out of Shaq’s mouth. I briefly misremembered all of Kazaam’s dialogue rhyming and was frozen in abject horror before I discovered that he alternates between rhyming and non-rhyming speech even before his incredible skills as a wordsmith leads to an unlikely, if not outright impossible career as a rapper who only rhymes about his experiences as a millennia-old genie. 

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True, Kazaam’s flow might be stilted and his rhymes embarrassing and borderline incompressible, but who can’t relate to music about the aggravations of being forced to grant wishes and not being able to leave the broken boom box you’re imprisoned in? 

In their first meeting, Kazaam, a seven foot tall Goliath saves Max from bullies, does a whole bunch of magical shit and offers to make this creepy, angry little boy’s dreams come true yet Max blows him off. He calls him a “psychopathic dork in a basement” and quips “I bet they miss you at the nice building with the padded walls.” 

To paraphrase a slightly better genie-based movie, Max has never had a friend like Kazaam. Judging by his atrocious attitude and predilection for saying things like “Who put a squirrel in your shorts?” he’s probably never had a friend, period. Yet when a literal Magical Negro shows up vowing to help him, he’s like, “Whatever, dude! I have more important things to worry about, like trying to reunite my mom with the dude who abandoned me and being angry at that saintly fireman for sexually satisfying my mother with his enormous penis.” 

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Max is inexplicably grouchy and terrible to Kazaam until he makes a creepy discovery. Upon realizing that the large, indentured black man seeking his attention MUST do what he commands him to, the smug little white boy razzes Kazaam, “I OWN you, don’t I?” 

Kazaam isn’t quite as cringe-inducing as The Toy, but in this awful moment, which should have been enough to sink the whole misbegotten project, the narrative’s playful echoes of the horrors of slavery come to the fore in a way that’s incredibly disturbing and also, you know, pretty racist. 

Max, meanwhile, discovers that, despite his mother’s words to the contrary, his biological father briefly tried to make contact a few months back. So Max seeks out the biological who didn’t bother and makes a horrifying discovery: his father is involved in the music business. 

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That would be horrifying enough, but it gets worse: bad dad Nick is deeply immersed in the darkest, most sinister and downright Satanic element of the music industry: this monster pirates music illegally, and even Lars Ulrich knows that’s wrong. 

True, the fact that Nick abandoned his child at two years old does not speak well of his character. But the fact that he thinks absolutely nothing of making 50,000 bootleg copies of an unreleased album by superstars like Da Brat and DJ Spinderella (to name-check the only two musicians of note willing to cameo in Kazaam) illustrates that he’s really a monster. 

At the nightclub one evening, Kazaam, who is forbidden from ever revealing his magical powers to anyone other than his master, spontaneously decides to drop some science with a girl group known as KEI so obscure that if you Google them the only thing that pops up is Kazaam and the crowd is so overwhelmed by his marble-mouthed flow and genie-themed material that they go nuts. 

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Kazaam, who combines Shaquille O’Neal’s rapping ability with the relatability of rapping about being a magical, millennia-old mythological creature, instantly rockets to superstardom. He gets a recording contract, performs sold-out shows and has a live band and back up singers. Kazaam’s star-maker, the man who grants all of his wishes, is Malik (Marshall Manesh), an evil Middle-Eastern gentleman, the owner of the nightclub and a man also immersed in the evil world of mid 90s music piracy. 

Why on earth would the people behind Kazaam imagine that their target demographic of easily entertained small children would be interested in something like music piracy? Then again, Kazaam is a profoundly confused film. Half of the movie plays like a live-action version of a moronic mid 1960s Hanna-Barbera cartoon about a kooky genie. The other half plays like a grim and gritty drama about a rage-filled boy coming to terms with parental abandonment and a father who is a toxic narcissist and low-level criminal. 

Kazaam rockets to superstardom on the basis of his dope rhymes and relatable, genie-themed content while stupid Max wastes his wishes on dumb shit like a fast food feast. He even gets his sorry butt killed when Malick shoves him down an elevator shaft. 

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An enraged Kazaam is so filled with anger that he squeezes his body into the shape of a basketball and “slam dunks” Malick down a garbage disposal, basketball style! 

Kazaam, on the verge of tears, holds Max’s lifeless white body in his muscular arms and delivers what I like to think of as Shaq’s Oscar monologue, since every overwrought moment of it screams “For your consideration”, particularly when he tells an unlikable snot who has been an asshole to him all movie, "In five thousand years, you're the only friend I've ever had." 

Seriously? A likable, wish-granting dude like Kazaam? Weird to think that in five millennia he hasn't encountered anyone more pleasant than Max. 

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This towering indentured black man’s love for his pint-sized white master is so strong that it allows Kazaam to transcend the rules and strictures of his life and evolve into being a Djinn, which is to say a genie who can do for self. “In our hearts, we’re are Djinn, and we’re all free” he insists, along with “THE POWER IS IN…YOUR HEART!” 

I am a big believer in singling out enjoyable moments in otherwise worthless endeavors so I feel duty-bound to praise the thirty or so seconds of Kazaam that I enjoyed on anything other than a morbid or bitterly ironic level. In them, Kazaam is hanging out in a club where he’ll soon be winning over the crowd with his trademark genie-hop when he sees a cool DJ type working some turntables. 

“Now this puts the boom in box!” he quips painfully but when the music comes on and Shaq shuts the fuck up so that he can groove to the music, we’re reminded for the first and last time why Shaq became a huge pop icon beyond his skills at slam dunking and blocking shots. In this moment, and only this moment, we’re treated to Shaq the big kid, Shaq the charmer, Shaq the dude who loves being Shaq every bit as much as his fans love watching him do his thing. 

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This stand-alone moment lets Shaq be Shaq. That’s what he’s good at. Other than basketball, that’s all he’s good at: being fun and charming and appealingly goofy and child-like. The rest of the film forces Shaq to do a bunch of things he’s egregiously bad at: slapstick physical comedy, rapping, and heavy dramatic acting.

Shaq got his three shots at being a movie star with Blue Chips, Kazaam and Steel. With the exception of the William Friedkin-directed Blue Chips, which I vaguely recall liking and using O’Neal well, he air-balled although he did memorably cameo in Freddy Got Fingered, so he’s at least tasted the sweet nectar of cinematic greatness, albeit briefly. 

Will Uncle Drew finally catapult to late-period stardom, like a seven foot tall, slightly less cerebral John Houseman? Probably, but I will be able to tell you for sure when I cover for the film for the next edition of Scalding Hot Takes. 

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I make my living largely through Patreon, seeing movies like Kazaam and then constantly cranking out a never-ending stream of meaty, 2000 word articles about them for the nice people so if you would consider pledging as little as a dollar a month over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace, you would make my professional wishes all come true.