From cinema's inception, it split into two different camps: Those inspired by the Lumière brothers' "Employees Leaving The Lumière Factory," which was the original prototype for films that reflect or document real life, and those inspired by Georges Méliès' "A Trip To The Moon," which operates in the realm of pure escapism and artifice. There may be no greater example of the latter than Alexander Korda's awe-inspiring 1940 production of The Thief Of Bagdad, a Middle Eastern fantasia that springs from the screen like an illustrated storybook come to life. Sparing no expense, Korda hired top-flight artisans (including co-director Michael Powell, composer Miklós Rózsa, and cutting-edge effects man Lawrence Butler), constructed massive sets in London and Hollywood, and shot in a beautiful three-strip Technicolor. Treating cinema as a giant toy box, Korda resembles a child with an overactive imagination, giddily piling on every exotic and magical conceit the story can handle.

Based on a portion of One Thousand And One Arabian Nights, The Thief Of Bagdad offers young people a charismatic surrogate in Abu (Sabu), a crafty, irreverent little thief who befriends the fallen Prince Ahmad (John Justin) when the two are thrown into the same prison cell. After leading the kingdom into tyranny, the prince's nefarious, power-hungry adviser Jaffar (played by the dark-eyed German silent star Conrad Veidt) has cast him out of Bagdad and bribes the sultan of Basra to relinquish the hand of his beautiful daughter (June Duprez). So Ahmad and Abu escape the scheduled execution and plot to expose Jaffar, win the princess for Ahmad, and restore the kingdom to newfound glory.

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Most of the children of today know this story as Disney's Aladdin, but one of the crucial differences here is that a jive-talking genie isn't the main attraction; it's Sabu, which gives a young audience a much greater point of identification. Apart from the endless visual wonders on display—a mechanical flying horse, a magic carpet, a belligerent genie, a giant spider—Sabu's utter fearlessness and guile in the face of serious predicaments make the film special. For kids who have to find their way through a big, scary world, his adventures remain an inspiration.

Key features: The supplements on this two-disc edition are generous even by Criterion standards, including a tag-team commentary by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, a cool demonstration of the flying-horse effects, and Korda and Powell's 1940 propaganda film The Lion Has Wings.