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There was a time when film critics and interested cinéastes amused themselves by delving beneath a movie’s surface and unearthing all sorts of subtextual nuggets—repressed fears, disguised political views, subconscious symbolism, all manner of latent-isms. Often this stuff was planted by the filmmaker for just such perspicacious viewers; sometimes, especially in the recent years of do-it-yourself deconstruction, spelunkers found meaning where none was intended.

But the screen arts don’t deal in subtleties so much anymore—there’s no percentage in it. All the meanings are on the surface, and if a case can be made in favor of such simplicity as a sign of honesty, then it should be pointed out that suspecting one has paid $7.50 for garbage wrapped in tinsel is actually less humiliating than having unwrapped garbage thrust in one’s face with one hand and a bill for $7.50 boldly presented with the other. Kazaam is the latter type of movie—bratty, racist, shoddily made codswallop undisguised as anything else.

Shaquille O’Neal plays Kazaam, a genie trapped in a boom box, who is unwittingly released by 12-year-old Max (Francis Capra). Max doesn’t want a genie around, especially one who can grant him three wishes, but only of material nature. (“Things. Stuff. You gotta want something, kid,” says Kazaam reasonably.)

This premise raises immediate problems—however convenient for the scriptwriter the brat’s initial rejection of his unlikely buddy may be, it’s bonkers. What kid wouldn’t want his own personal cash ’n’ toys machine? Then there’s the larger point about a white boy who, by happenstance, finds himself literally in the possession of a grown black man. (Grown? He’s 3,000 years old; talk about the wisdom of the ages.) The genie wants his master to get on with making the wishes, so he isn’t beholden to him any longer. But being used to such prerogatives, the kid doesn’t want, or rather need, the guy around—until it occurs to him that he may find his burden useful someday. Max makes his genie a deal: He’ll claim his three wishes, eventually, but in the meantime, “You have to do everything I say.”

Forced into servitude until the little white tyrant says the magic words that will set him free, Kazaam has to follow his charge everywhere, awaiting orders and forbidden to eat when he’s hungry because the young master isn’t. Max even reminds his servant sternly, “I own you,” when the genie balks at carrying out orders. Later Max admonishes, “You do whatever I want, and then, and only then, do I make my wish. Understood?”

This child is a horror, make no mistake. Perhaps Capra’s face is unfortunate, but one can’t say he uses it to its best advantage—he’s the kind of pouty-lipped, petulant, double-chinned saucebox even Leo Buscaglia would itch to smack. After Kazaam demonstrates his powers by calling up a spectacular hailstorm of junk food, greedy Max thanks him with “So where’s the hot chocolate?”

In an oversize version of a sitcom family, Mom (Ally Walker) whines and sighs at her little darling, wondering querulously why he didn’t come home yesterday or didn’t go to school the day before. Max comes and goes as he pleases, routinely shoves Mom out of the way with a sneered, “I’m a little busy right now,” and ends conversations by screaming “What about me?! What about ME?!” and running from the room. And no, he is not redeemed into losing his self-absorption and free-floating resentment. This perpetual tantrum, it seems, is the writers’ idea of personality.

To O’Neal’s credit, he walks the line between seeming unaware of how his character is being used (and how he’s being used—the big, strong, confident, and competent athlete-hero-millionaire reduced to the status of a lackey) and a dignified cheerfulness that doesn’t seem to care. He has loads of charisma, is a camera magnet, and moves so beautifully that he makes everything around him look undersize, rather than appearing too big for his surroundings. His line readings are for the most part very natural, and if he’s a tad stiff in parts, who expects a 3,000-year-old genie to have caught up on the latest slang?

You don’t figure a smart fellow with magical powers would hang around a snotty, pint-size monster if he didn’t have to, but this being a buddy movie, Kazaam learns to love the little fart (his word). The trajectory of their relationship is unclear, though, because this thing is so poorly put together you never know where you are or what time of day it is. The film takes place in a series of bombed-out buildings, garages, and warehouses, as well as in an exposed-pipe-chic nightclub. If the post-tornado look of the sets is meant to convey something about the emotional alienation of modern times, it remains mum on the subject of personal safety—unsupervised Max travels on his bike and barges into creepy abandoned spaces with impunity.

Somewhere in this psychological ooze-pit is a plot of sorts involving Max’s estranged dad, school bullies (all conveniently white or Latino), pirated music tapes, a nightclub run by evil Arabs, and eventually, redemption. Not Max’s—have you been paying attention?—but Kazaam’s. The pivotal crisis is precipitated by the genie’s hubris—he is onstage at the nightclub rapping to a spellbound audience and various admiring babes, when Max is menaced by the evil Arabs. Enchanted himself by the rhythmic music and screaming crowd, Kazaam does not hear his master’s voice.

For the sin of pride and the more earthly mistake of getting above his station, the neglectful servant very nearly loses his little pal. He learns his lesson, of course, and even manages to grant the last wish, apotheosizing himself by turning into what he calls “djinn” and what looks like “dead” (our word “genie” is an Anglicized form of the Arabic “djinn”). As a big smiling face in the sky, the djinn-ized Kazaam thanks Max for his “freedom.”

Kazaam is not a parable about slavery, it’s feel-good family fun about the benefits of slavery—for white folk, who have so much to learn from their earthy brothers, and of course for black folk, who can find no higher calling than an eager urge to serve. There isn’t a shred of subtext in the whole torturous 90 minutes; it’s all blatant: the contempt for audiences, the bestial view of blacks (at one point Kazaam dons a gorilla mask; Max doesn’t notice), the ignorance of how real families function, the total unconcern for children’s welfare apart from their physical comfort. Taking a child, black or white or anything, basketball fan or movie buff, to see this abomination might be the worst thing a parent can do. At least until September, when First Kid will be released. It stars Sinbad as the secret service agent assigned to the arrogant only son of the president….CP