The opening sequence of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has widely been reported as being Steven Spielberg's excuse, per a suggestion by George Lucas, to fulfill one of his dreams – making a great Hollywood musical. But the seed of this idea sprouted itself throughout the rest of the film's aesthetic. Up until the most recent entry in the franchise, Temple of Doom has been widely bashed by fans and critics as being the weakest of the trilogy – nigh unworthy of sitting on the shelf next to Raiders. I find this unfair. It may not live up to Raiders (tell me a single movie that does), but the differences between the two movies are what makes Temple of Doom excel over your traditional summer blockbuster. The movie is bigger than its predecessor, and I don't mean in the way modern sequels are bigger. It's not that it has bigger setpieces (it does), but the production design and cinematography make its visual appeal push beyond what came before to become more stylized. Much like the great musicals of Golden Age Hollywood, Temple of Doom throws realism out the window in favor of an unabashed glorification towards its own story via an extremely theatrical aesthetic.
The greatest conceit of Raiders of the Lost Ark was in taking the energy and fun of 1930s adventure serials, but elevating them to modern movie standards. Spielberg made the action real and the characters nuanced. He threw out the camp in favor of real stakes that let the film transcend its influences. Temple of Doom, however, is a step back towards its roots. I don't mean this in a bad way. The film begins in Shanghai’s adorably-named Club Obi Wan with the aforementioned musical number. Within seconds Willie Scott – played by the future Mrs. Spielberg, Kate Capshaw – takes us from the cramped tropicana stage, through the smoking dragon's mouth behind her into an enormous open room to perform a classic Busby Berkeley-inspired dance routine.
This is a place of pure fantasy. Nothing about this dance number is real. For starters, there is no longer any way for the audience of the club to be witnessing this, and it's hard not to mention the strange choice to transform all of Willie's backup dancers from the local ethnicity into a flock of leggy blondes. They're not sticking with the theme of the setting! Even the editing defies continuity set up with the first film – at one point all of the dancers do the splits and editor Michael Kahn reverses that shot so they float back up to their feet. This would not be out of the ordinary for your typical Hollywood musical, but this is an Indiana Jones picture. Sure, you can chock it up to the style of the sequence, but these are conscious decisions by the filmmakers for the very opening sequence that set expectations for the rest of the picture. Even before we meet the titular star we have all come here to see, Spielberg is telling us his frame of mind while creating his first sequel – “Anything Goes.”
So what about Indy's introduction? The first time we ever saw him on screen, he was dirty, smart and persevering. But he still got bested by his arch-nemesis, Belloq. That's what made him sympathetic and why we loved him. He was so awesome! But some jerkwad was even better. This time around, Indy is clean-cut in the spotless white tux he borrowed from Humphrey Bogart, making a deal for diamonds before getting poisoned. If I had never seen the first picture, I would swear I was watching a James Bond movie. Luckily, I love James Bond movies. All hell breaks loose while Indy manages to get both the antidote and the girl. A far cry from losing the idol to his nemesis. This is not the complex Indy of Raiders, but more the cliché of Indy. Technically, this is a worse characterization of the man, but I love the feeling of myth it gives to the film. Being a prequel, I like to think of Temple of Doom as a tale Sallah is telling to his children. It isn't something that necessarily happened, but it is the legend of Indy.
If we think of Raiders as an outdoor picture, then Temple of Doom is the inside movie. It almost entirely takes place on the beautiful sets built by production designer Elliot Scott, as opposed to the sweeping location photography of the first movie. This automatically takes away the feeling of realism, but at the same time opens up possibilities to show things we have never seen before. The sacrificial cavern below Pankot Palace is as iconic as it is scary. Mola Ram, played by Amrish Puri, stands on his stage giving an over-the-top performance to his audience of followers who all wave their hands in unison like backup dancers. Looming over them is a grotesque statue of Kali with inexplicably glowing eyes. Why? Because it looks cool, but more importantly so Indy, Willie and Short Round can see it from their balcony seats (because the whole set is like a broadway theater, come on).
Soon after, Indy is caught and must fight to free not only his friends but the child slaves who inhabit the temple. This is one of my favorite sequences in the whole film, purely for its staging, lighting and use of slapstick.
Indy appears in the lit fog, which we will soon learn makes absolutely no sense as to why it's there. In a few minutes we will see our heroes ride their E-ticket roller coaster through the cavern for miles – there is no sunlight coming from that shaft. But this is what they would do on Broadway. Not only is it dramatic, but it's a way of showing freedom just out of reach to the chain-gang of kids. It's not realistic, but it's theatrical. It’s drama through pure cinema.
Indy, always thinking of the children, defeats the thugs. And just like Willie's synchronized dancing blondes, every child runs up to him in unison. Spielberg could have told the same story with much more traditional staging and coverage. But this is the “bigger” way of showing the change of emotion in the children. Not with a close-up on the key going into the locks; no, this is how you get the nosebleed seats to understand the story visually.
Finally, we come to the one man who might be able to stop Indy — the big fat warden of the slaves. This scene is not unlike the fist-fight Indy has on the Nazi flying wing in his previous adventure. He still fights a man twice his size who seems impervious to his punches. But this time, I never actually fear for Indy's life. Does that make it a worse action sequence? Well, yes, but it succeeds on a different level. It starts with a silly throw-away gag of a nameless bystandard who gets hit with a mallet, only to fall down like the Coyote in a Road Runner cartoon. I half expect birds to fly around his head. And even the big thug's punches don't seem to physically connect with Indy half the time. But for some reason this doesn't really bother me. Having professionally designed action sequences for a living, I am a pretty big stickler for action. So rewatching the film, I wondered why I still enjoyed this one. That’s when I realized — this scene is another dance number. Each character has a partner – Indy with Big Thugee, Short Round with the Maharajah, and Willie with, umm, some useless rocks (I guess she is like an audience throwing tomatoes — okay, my analogy doesn’t 100% work, but neither does Willie). We circle back and forth across the stage as the Maharajah uses his voodoo doll to “cut in” (both the dance term and editorially) on the action with Indy. The scene may lack real danger to our hero, but I love the choreography of staging going from Indy and the Big Thuggee, to the Maharajah, to Short Round, and back to Indy. There's a balletic flow to the editing that rivals that of any Fred Astaire dance number.
There is a lot more I love about this movie, but its specifically the differences between it and Raiders that really make it special. It might not live up to one of the greatest movies of all time, but it sure as hell complements it. Raiders of the Lost Ark shows us Indiana Jones, the man – flawed, beaten down, but able to triumph over the bad guy. Temple of Doom shows us the myth. This is the superhero version of Indy. Just like a Broadway adaptation of your favorite movie, it doesn't have the subtle nuance that you have come to love, but that's because it can't. It has to be bigger and louder to fill a room with its energy. And say what you will about it, but this movie fills every frame with theatrical cinema. That’s more than I can say for most movies.