Critical wisdom holds that the best two films of Disney’s late-century animated renaissance are Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. I enjoy both films — a Disney animated movie has to go terribly wrong to earn my dislike — but I stop short of considering either film the best. Beast has character and story problems (Belle is a bore, and Gaston commits no crime that merits his death), while Lion King strives too hard to be an archetype.
For me, the best film of Disney’s glorious revival is the fun-loving go-getter that arrived in between Beast and Lion King, 1992’s Aladdin.
Perhaps Aladdin doesn’t get as much love as its immediate predecessor and successor because it it didn’t sell itself with grandeur (no CG ballroom, no vast African plains) but with sheer entertainment … and Robin Williams.
Movies that aim to entertain risk having their artistic achievements overlooked, That may be why Aladdin isn’t taken as seriously today as the other Disney film of the early ’90s, but what Aladdin accomplishes is something of an entertainment miracle. It is not a comedy with romantic and adventurous elements. It is not an adventure with some funny scenes and some romantic scenes. Aladdin is simultaneously a comedy, an adventure and a romance. It is an achievement when a movie excels within one of these genres. Aladdin excels at all three, sometimes within a single scene.
This triumph occurred largely because Aladdin was made when the rejuvenated Disney animation studio was at the full fire of its creativity. The filmmaking team was led by John Musker and Ron Clements, the writing, directing and producing duo who were coming off the film that kicked off the Disney revival, the triumphant Little Mermaid. The environment of Aladdin was one where everyone involved in the production wanted to have fun and everyone worked to impress each other. Certainly their enthusiasm had to be stoked by the raging torrent of a dialogue track for the Genie laid down by the brilliant Robin Williams.
Aladdin had some rough times in the beginning. It was the beloved lyricist Howard Ashman, still working on The Little Mermaid at the time, who convinced Disney to make an animated film based on the Arabian Nights tale. Ashman wrote a story treatment and a few songs along with his composing partner Alan Mencken. “Friend Like Me,” conceived as a Fats Waller number, was among those songs. One of the blows to the film — and to the entire Disney animation team — was Ashman’s death during the early stages of Aladdin’s production. Ashman would be replaced by Tim Rice of Jesus Christ Superstar fame.
Another blow came to be called “Black Friday” by the Aladdin staff. The filmmakers showed a full storyboarded version to Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, and he hated it. He ordered significant changes. Get rid of Aladdin’s mother (a character from the Arabian Nights story). Make Princess Jasmine a stronger character. Change the model of Aladdin from Michael J. Fox to Tom Cruise. Katzenberg’s self-aggrandizement became legendary during the production of Lion King and eventually led to his departure from Disney, but the overhaul he ordered on the Aladdin script probably saved the movie.
Typically for a Disney film, only the basic elements of the original story remain: Aladdin, the Genie, the lamp and a princess. In the Arabian Nights tale, Aladdin succeeds because the Genie makes him rich. That moral of money is its own reward wouldn’t fly in a Disney movie (even if it underlines Disney corporate policy) so the filmmakers changed the overriding theme to freedom. Aladdin wants to escape the streets. Jasmine wants to escape the palace. The Genie wants to escape the lamp.
What does survive from the Arabian Night story is Aladdin’s nature as a trickster. He is not as ruthless as his ancient counterpart — Aladdin doesn’t send anyone to his death — but he does con a free wish out of the Genie and, even when the powers of the entire universe seem to be against him at the end, Aladdin uses his wits to defeat Jafar.
While the screenwriters (Musker and Clements share credit with Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, who would later write the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) adapted the original Aladdin story only loosely, they piled in other traditional Arabian Nights elements: flying carpets, sultans, viziers, palaces, grubby cutthroats.
Aladdin is clearly influenced by another Arabian fantasy, the 1940 Thief of Bagdad. Each film features a black-clad, evil vizier named Jafar (although the spelling is different). Each film features a little thief named Abu (although Sabu’s heirs might not be happy his counterpart is a monkey). Each film features a childish sultan who loves toys (although this doesn’t prove fatal in Aladdin). I recently listened to both commentary tracks on the Aladdin DVD. The filmmakers cop to most of their influences, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. (the scene where Aladdin cheats death thanks to a conveniently placed window), but the one movie never mentioned is Thief of Bagdad. Did the filmmakers forget, or were they in denial?
At the center of Aladdin is Williams’ riotous performance as the Genie, and it will go down as one of the late comedian’s finest screen achievements. Williaims’ rapid-fire impersonations allowed animator Eric Golberg, who was in charge of the Genie, to do something what no one at Disney had done before, to shake off the staid traditions of Disney animation for the full-blown madness that Tex Avery, Bob Clampett and others brought to Warner Bros. shorts. The Genie was a shape shifter, instantly transforming into Arnold Schwarzenegger, William F. Buckley Jr. or Groucho Marx whenever Williams changes his voice (I imagine the Arsenio Hall joke was the reference that dated the most quickly).
Williams’ presence alters the film. Knowing that the Genie doesn’t appear until the 30-minute mark, the filmmakers cast Gilbert Gottfried as Iago essentially to serve as Williams’ warm-up act. Let’s give Gottfried his due: Iago is hilarious, the ideal hot-headed foil to icy Jafar (voiced with frigid perfection by stage actor Johnathan Freeman). In any other movie, Iago would be the funniest character hands down.
I suspect that another reason Aladdin doesn’t get the respect it deserves is that many consider it the Robin Williams show. That’s not fair. Williams is brilliant, of course, but his contributions raised everyone’s game. The animation is superb throughout the movie, and there is no better example than the flying carpet. It is not a mere object. The carpet is a key supporting character with a full range of emotions despite not having a head, a face, arms or legs. Essentially, the carpet is a torso. Yet you always know what it is feeling. That is animation art at its most breathtaking.
Aladdin is a joy even when the Genie isn’t on screen, which is actually most of the movie. I smile like a goon every time I watch the “Whole New World” sequence. The number is one of Rice’s contributions to the film, and won the Oscar for best original song. The magic carpet ride that accompanies the song is probably the most swooningly romantic segment Disney has ever done, but next time pay attention to the scene that follows, with Aladdin and Jasmine sitting on the roof above the Forbidden City in China. Notice how they hold hands. Notice the playful nudge Jasmine gives Aladdin with her hip. This is exactly how a couple of teenagers would act on a first date (or at least it’s how you’d want a couple of teenagers to act on a first date). The animators have subtly instilled casual behavior into these characters, making you forget they are a stack of drawings photographed at 24 frames per second.
At the end of the animators’ commentary track on the Aladdin DVD, Andreas Deja, who was the head animator on Jafar, exclaims, “What an exuberant film!” He is correct. Aladdin simply bursts with color, with characters, with laughs, with excitement, with thrills, with romance, with entertainment. All this is stuffed into a mere 90 minutes. It still amazes me that Aladdin does so much so well in so little time. That, my friends, is real Disney magic.