After Beauty and the Beast was became the first animated feature film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar last year (Disney's hypesters have done everything possible to make the public remember this), the Disney Studios have once again proven that when it comes to making audience-pleasing animated films, they are second to none. These days, the only standards they can top are their own. But how do you top a film that everyone has gone out of their way to rain praise upon, calling it the best animated feature since the days of Bambi and Pinocchio?
Once again, the Disney folks have made the right choice: you don't. Instead of going for heart-warming romance this time, they've toned down the myth-making and have instead aimed for a much more down-to-earth target, namely laughter. We now have Aladdin the latest addition to the ever-growing list of successful Disney animated films - and Disney money-makers. But this time it's not going to be romance or realistic characters or even the always-impressive animation that will win over the audiences. The success of Aladdin is going to be summarized in two words: Robin Williams.
Williams runs away with the entire movie, lock, stock, and barrel. He plays the voice of the Genie, a non-stop cloud of blue energy who saves the day, helps Aladdin get the girl, lets the Disney animators get away with more sight gags and throwaway bits since The Naked Gun and keeps the audience rolling in the aisles. There are other good characters in this movie, such as a wisecracking parrot (played by another comedian, Gilbert Gottfreid), a flying carpet, and a little monkey sidekick, but this movie belongs to Williams.
The Disney animators deserve an award for being able to keep up with Williams' 90 m.p.h. dialogue, with impressions, puns, and yuks galore. The Genie puts the pedal to the metal (like Williams himself - he even looks like Williams), shape-changing into an infinite variety of forms to keep up with the jokes. Look fast and you'll see references to the Marx Brothers, Delta Airlines, Ed Sullivan, The Little Mermaid, Pinocchio, Walt Disney World … in fact, the Genie's routines are so packed with Disney in-jokes that if they weren't so funny, one would think Disney was shamelessly plugging its theme parks. I suppose a cynic would say that this is exactly what's going on, but I don't think so. Williams is obviously having a ball here, biting the hand that feeds him and satirizing the famous Disney merchandising machine with his constant references to 20th Century icons.
However, these in-jokes and allusions to the modern era do have one other effect on the movie that is noticeably missing from other Disney animated films: they date it. It's been pointed out that the Disney films can credit their everlasting popularity to their timelessness. The problem with contemporary films is that in twenty or thirty years time they can look terribly dated, and no one will want to watch them anymore. (West Side Story is a notable example of this - singing and dancing 1950s street gangs look absolutely ridiculous when viewed from a 1990s perspective.) Aladdin obviously doesn't worry as much about being an "immortal Disney classic," going instead for the immediate laughs.
Perhaps this is the influence of Jeff Katzenberg, the Disney head honcho (second only to Michael Eisner) who has been re-shaping the animation studio in his own image. Like most of the Hollywood moguls today, Katzenberg seems concerned with what sells now and what can make the quickest profits; he doesn't think about the future. Since Aladdin will be released on video for the 1993 Christmas season - you can count on it - we may not be seeing a theatrical re-release of this film the way we've seen revivals of 101 Dalmatians, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, and the other Disney classics (all of which have now also been released on video); but in the long run, Katzenberg may regret his decision to make Aladdin a "1990s" film. Still, this is a topic to be discussed at a future date. What matters right now is that Aladdin is a very funny film.
However it does have its flaws: primarily the fact that it is nothing besides a funny film. The hero and heroine, Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, are carbon copies of Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid and Belle from Beauty and the Beast (during one musical number Jasmine sounds exactly like Belle - or Ariel); and the villain, Jafar, comes a long list of Stereotypical Disney Villains: he's evil, threatening, clever, and he's got a talking animal sidekick as well. The story is, of course, predictable - in fact, it's almost a carbon copy of the classic Max Fleischer cartoon, Popeye Meets Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp. Aladdin is a fun-loving, clever thief and Jasmine is another 1990s-era heroine who Thinks For Herself (until Aladdin comes to her rescue), while Jafar puts in a passable, entertaining performance.
But aside from the Genie, it's the sidekicks who get all the attention and all of the laughs. Jafar's loyal stooge, a loudmouthed talking parrot, steals every scene he's in - he's almost as effective as the Genie in his own way. He's loud, annoying, and rude; so of course we love watching him get dumped on again and again. Likewise, there's Abu, Aladdin's loyal pet monkey, who makes fun of Aladdin's crush on the Princess and who has big eyes that show his emotions - and elecits even more laughs from the audience.
And there's a magic carpet as well, with no voice - but whose personality shines through nonetheless. The carpet is a triumph of animation, as it expresses its feelings better than Aladdin himself does. Its intricate detail comes once again from computer animation.
And once again, computer animation is used in a Disney film to augment the hand-drawn method and make it even more impressive. More emphasis on hand-painted backgrounds is used this time, and in the beginning of the film during the scenes in the (unnamed) desert city, the animation does not seem quite up to Disney standards - it's good, but it's "ordinary." (Perhaps I'm spoiled by computer animation.) Once we enter the Sultan's Palace, however, the film becomes a feast for the eyes to behold. There's a Cave of Wonders that is truly wonderful, with treasures galore and awe-inspiring animation to boot. One scene being pushed in the television commercials shows Aladdin on the flying carpet, moving through a series of caves that reminds one of a video game; seeing this sequence on the big screen is exciting and delightful. Computer animation is seamlessly blended with the hand drawings this time; it's the best combination of the two styles of animation since The Rescuers Down Under.
There are several songs in the movie as well, though none of them are very memorable. Ever since the success of The Little Mermaid, Disney has been milking the success of its song-writing crew (even using Howard Ashman-Alan Menken songs in their live-action musical Newsies earlier this year) and using the same song-writing team over and over. While the songs of Mermaid were a delight, I didn't think the music of Beauty and the Beast was quite as good - and here, it's simply generic. Music and comedy don't mix very well; one is reminded of the films of the Marx Brothers, when each movie would come to a standstill while one song-and-dance number was performed, and the audience would patiently wait for the song to end so that they could continue laughing. It's the same way here; the best song of the movie is "You've Never Had A Friend Like Me," sung by the Genie as he dazzles us (and makes us laugh) with a phantasmagoria of shapes, sizes, impressions and gags galore. The song's entertainment comes not from the music (which is by Alan Menken and Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Weber's co-conspirator), but from Robin Williams.
However, no one is going to complain about the weak main characters, or any flaws in the animation, or the musical numbers. Aladdin aims to do one thing only - to make you laugh - and it succeeds admirably. After a year where the biggest movies have been either disappointments (Batman Returns, Bram Stoker's Dracula) or deep, serious "epics" (Unforgiven, Malcolm X), here's a movie that's just a lot of fun.
Forget Home Alone 2, and go see Aladdin!
One of the two screenwriters on this one is an asshole.
Only notable for the alledged Robin Williams line, "All good kiddies take off their clothes" – a mass hallucination suffered by extreme fascist right-wing fundy kooks. The actual dialogue is "Good kitty, now shoo! Take off! Too close!" (Genie to a tiger).