Fans of a certain classic Nineties animated feature will find a lot that’s familiar in The Thief Of Bagdad: from the titular street rat and flying carpet to the ‘djinn’ and nefarious grand vizier, it’s plain to see where Aladdin drew much of its inspiration from.
A remake of Raoul Walsh’s 1924 silent feature, this sees Prince Ahmad (John Justin) and earnest young thief Abu (Sabu) looking to win back their freedom after it is stolen from them by usurping sorcerer Jaffar (Conrad Veidt). It was producer Alexander Korda’s most successful film in the US, and it’s pain to see why: its tale of lost romance and the underdog triumphing is pure classic Hollywood era.
It’s cynicism-free, if at times jarringly violent for its age rating (it’s unlikely that any film culminating in a guy being shot in the head with an arrow would pass as a U nowadays), but unavoidably endearing in the way it charges headlong into each scene, only armed with a disarming sense of fun. It’s like a boys’-own adventure with all the darker moments left in, and all the better for it. The majority of today’s equivalent films are generally tales of innocence brutally shattered and irreparably lost: here, a sense of optimism is prevalent throughout the feature.
It helps that the performances all-round are generally excellent: Justin shines as the well-meaning but naïve young king, and Veidt adds the sort of layers not normally reserved for what is traditionally a cackling-bad-guy role. Easily stealing the show is Indian child actor Sabu (who went on to play Mowgli in the live-action version of The Jungle Book).
With a glint in his eye and an irrepressible penchant for mischief, he owns every scene he’s in, and his influence on the Disney film – both via Aladdin and Abu – is clear to see.
Putting aside the of-its-time instances of Hollywood whitewashing – with all the main cast apart from Sabu being Caucasian – The Thief Of Bagdad passes the acid test of timelessness by remaining just as entertaining now as it was when it was made.