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'Kazaam': Magic Elements, Campy Humor


In this summer of special effects, the new Disney release "Kazaam" has the biggest and most expensive effect of them all--Shaquille O'Neal, the 7-foot-something, $100-million center for either the Orlando Magic or the Los Angeles Lakers, depending on who eventually signs him.

But can he dunk a role?

As the rapping genie with a big heart and a big ego, O'Neal is certainly a force to reckon with. Shot mostly from the point of view of his pint-sized master Max (Francis Capra), Shaq looms over the screen like one of the spaceships in "Independence Day." And in his big action scene, when he takes on a gang of thugs in a warehouse, he turns it into a bigger mismatch than the Dream Team running over Sri Lanka.

This is O'Neal's second film role. He co-starred with Nick Nolte in the 1994 basketball movie "Blue Chips," and he has, on both occasions, demonstrated a loose, amiable presence. He's obviously comfortable in front of a camera, and the role of Kazaam was written to his limited off-court strengths. He is a successful rap artist, with gold and platinum albums to his credit, and he gets plenty of time here for rhythm and rhyme.

The odd truth is that the film's novice star is better than the material. The script, by Christian Ford and Roger Soffer, is an awkward blend of campy humor and psychological sulking, and director Paul M. Glaser exacerbates the problem by emphasizing the extremes.

In its most fantastic moments, Kazaam is whipping up some remarkable, if totally silly, miracles. He answers the first of Max's three wishes by having the sky rain a torrent of junk food. Later, he turns a gang lord into a basketball, and slam-dunks him. In its most earnest moments, Max is going through parent-child crises of Shakespearean proportions.

Max's mother (Ally Walker) is preparing to divorce the man who abandoned them 10 years ago and marry the gentle fireman (John Costelloe) whom Max resents. Meanwhile, the headstrong kid has tracked down his father (James Acheson), only to learn that he is some sort of international thief.

Max, with the genie he accidentally releases from a boom box in a condemned building, must use his time and his wishes wisely to save his dad from a life of crime.

Young Capra, who was so impressive as Robert De Niro's son in "A Bronx Tale," plays Max as a tortured brat, as obnoxious around his mother and Kazaam as the school bullies constantly harassing him. Yes, his behavior comes from pain, but does he have to be such . . . a . . . pain?

The gloomy psychology detracts from the film's magic elements. When a kid releases a genie, you expect him to have a good time, and genies like Kazaam don't grow on trees. This lug is a child himself, a prankster who uses his power to tie Max's shoestrings together or fill his pocket with fresh-chewed bubble gum or race around the sky on a bicycle that spews gold sparks.

And he's a pal. Kazaam has his own weaknesses. Besides the usual genie-yearning-to-be-free angst, he wants to be loved, and cannot resist the adoration of fans at the rap club where he becomes an instant star. But he's not above offering Max a free wish now and then, and when push comes to shove for his master, Kazaam is there like a guardian angel.

Given the timing of the overlap of the film's release with O'Neal's contract negotiations, it's hard to resist the parallels between the genie and the NBA center. O'Neal has one wish left to grant, and with Hollywood thrown in as an unofficial signing bonus, the Lakers can still hope to get it.

* MPAA rating: PG, for action violence and language. Times guidelines: Depictions of surly or mean adolescents and violent or stupid adults may be too much for younger kids.



Shaquille O'Neal: Kazaam

Francis Capra: Max

Ally Walker: Alice

Marshall Manesh: Malik

James Acheson: Nick

Fawn Reed: Asia Moon

John Costelloe: Travis

An Interscope Communications/Polygram Filmed Entertainment production, released by Touchstone Pictures. Director Paul M. Glaser. Producers Scott Kroopf, Paul M. Glaser and Bob Engelman. Screenplay by Christian Ford & Roger Soffer, based on story by Glaser. Cinematographer Charles Minsky. Editor Michael E. Polakow. Costumes Hope Hanafin. Music Christopher Tyng. Production design Donald Burt. Art director Mick Strawn. Set designer Kevin Cross. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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