Aladdin

Aladdin (1992)

Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements

Synopsis

Jafar, the evil Grand Vizier for the Sultan of Agrabah, has spent years searching for the fabled Cave of Wonders.  However, upon finally obtaining his goal, he discovers that only a special person, the “diamond in the rough”, is permitted to enter safely.  That person happens to be Aladdin, a good-hearted thief living on the streets of the city.  One day, while stealing from vendors in the marketplace, he encounters Jasmine, the daughter of the Sultan, who had snuck out of the palace disguised as a commoner in protest against her father’s decree that she has to get married.  Aladdin saves her from an angry merchant, and is saved from the guards in turn by Jasmine revealing her true identity.  He still gets arrested anyway, though, at Jafar’s orders.

In the palace dungeons, Aladdin is freed by an old man who does so in return for Aladdin’s help retrieving treasure from the Cave of Wonders.  He is warned by the Cave to touch nothing but the lamp that the old man wants, but his monkey Abu grabs a large ruby anyway, causing the cave to collapse.  Aladdin barely escapes, but the old man turns out to be Jafar and betrays him, sealing him in the cave.  Unfortunately for Jafar, Abu had grabbed the lamp first. 

The lamp turns out to contain the distilled essence of Robin Williams, also known as the Genie, who helps Aladdin escape and turns him into a prince so that he can win Jasmine’s hand in marriage.  She’s cold to him until he takes her on a ride on his magic carpet, during which she figures out that he’s the boy she met in the marketplace.  After arriving back at the palace, Jafar has his goons jump Aladdin and throw him overboard in the sea.  He uses his second wish to survive, and confronts Jafar, who has hypnotized the Sultan.  Jafar gets away, but his hold over the Sultan is broken and (still believing Aladdin to be a prince) he approves of his marriage to Jasmine.

Unfortunately, Jafar is able to steal the lamp from Aladdin, and uses his first wish to make himself Sultan.  When the Genie refuses to make Jasmine fall in love with him, he instead wishes to be the greatest sorcerer in the world.  Aladdin faces down with him, but isn’t able to beat Jafar’s magic…until he convinces Jafar that he’s still second best, to the Genie.  Jafar wishes to become a genie himself, which ends up trapping him inside a lamp.  Aladdin keeps his promise to the Genie by setting him free with his final wish, and the Sultan changes Agrabah law so that Jasmine can marry a commoner.

Production Notes

The idea for a musical version of Aladdin was actually first pitched by Howard Ashman himself, while he was working on the music for The Little Mermaid.  He wrote an entire treatment for the film, planning for the music to be in a 1930s jazz style with a Cab Calloway-esque Genie.  The Disney execs didn’t like it, however, and didn’t proceed with the project.  Later, while working on Beauty and the Beast, he tried again, this time getting the writer of Beauty and the Beast and the directors of The Little Mermaid on board.  However, he only managed to get three songs finished before he died.

Musker and Clements continued on without him, and submitted their own storyboards and screenplay to Jeffrey Katzenberg in April 1991.  It didn’t go well.  He insisted that they rework the entire story from scratch, ditching a lot of Ashman’s ideas.  And he didn’t give them any extra time to do it in, leaving the November 1992 release date where it was.  The screenwriting duo of Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio (who’d go on to write Shrek and the Pirates of the Caribbean films) were brought in to help with the rewrites, and the movie got the greenlight for animation in October.  There wasn’t enough time to put together a big crew, so the animators ended up doing most of their work independently of each other, in whatever studio they happened to be in at the time.  They’d often have to call each other cross-country to consult when working on scenes with multiple characters in the shot.

Robin Williams had always been their first choice for the Genie, even before they’d started casting the voices.  Fortunately, he agreed to do it, and recorded his part on off days while filming Hook.  It being Robin Williams, they let him improvise most of his dialogue (an extreme rarity for animation) and chose the best parts to animate.  Since Williams was one of the highest-paid comedians in Hollywood at the time, he agreed to do the movie for Screen Actor’s Guild minimum salary – $75,000 – if they agreed not to market the movie based on his involvement.  They went back on that promise, instead making it the biggest case of stunt casting in Disney history to that point.  Williams refused to work with Disney again after this until they issued a public apology (which didn’t happen until after Katzenberg had left the studio).

They even tried sending him a Picasso as a piece offering. He hated it.

While Williams might have been annoyed at being the focus of the marketing, Katzenberg clearly knew what he was doing.  Aladdin made $217 million at the box office, the first time an animated movie crossed the $200 million mark, and was the number one movie of 1992.  That hadn’t happened for an animated Disney film since Snow White.  

Review

This is Robin Williams’s movie.  There can be no argument.  He steals every scene he’s in, lock, stock and barrel.  It’s probably his most beloved performance, and almost certainly the primary thing that comes to mind whenever anyone thinks of the movie.

And that’s a shame, too, as there’s a whole lot to like about the rest of the film.  And, to be honest, a bit to be annoyed about, too.  Granted, some of that is much more apparent with almost thirty years of hindsight to look back upon.  Geopolitical events and changes in social mores have made some of the movie’s depiction of a Middle Eastern kingdom a bit more questionable than they were in 1992 (though even then there was enough protest to get a racist lyric removed from the opening song for all further re-releases).  

So, I want to get that out of the way first, and then get to all of the good stuff.  While the movie never uses the word “harem”, we still never really see any women who aren’t segregated off into their own areas. Jasmine is locked away in the palace, and the only other women I can remember seeing is when Aladdin crashes into a room full of them (who immediately come on to him) during his introductory song/chase scene.  It’s a far cry from the adventurous, pro-active Ariel and Belle.  Sure, Jasmine does rebel and runs away from home, but she’s shown to be so sheltered that she has no idea how to behave in the outside world, and nearly gets her hand cut off for thievery the first time she enters the marketplace.  She may be brave and assertive, especially when it comes to her father and Jafar, but it seems like the movie takes deliberate steps to undercut that when possible.

The fact that the “evil enslaved” costume that Jafar puts her in at the end is pretty much just a palette swap of her usual clothes doesn’t help, either

Personally, while I’m a little annoyed at Jasmine’s relative lack of agency when compared to other recent Disney heroines, I’m not as annoyed at its portrayal of a medieval-esque Middle Eastern kingdom as, say, the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee was.   I don’t know if it’s just that Agrabah bears about as much resemblance to the actual medieval Middle East as Disney’s Robin Hood does to medieval England, but it never really bothered me all that much.  Maybe it helps that everything is so ridiculously over the top, even before the Genie shows up, that it’s hard to take all that seriously.

Robin Williams might be what everyone remembers from the film, but Disney managed to surround him with a lot of great talent for the other characters.  Aladdin himself might be seen as a minor case of stunt casting in his own right (his voice actor, Scott Weinger, was a regular on Full House), but I feel like he’s a perfect mix of intelligent and bumbling.  And Jonathan Freeman continues the Renaissance’s success streak with villains.  Jafar positively oozes menace every time he’s on the screen.  I even don’t mind Gilbert Gottfried’s Iago all too much.  Sure, his voice can be extremely grating at times, but he serves as an evil counterpoint to the zaniness of the Genie on the good guy side.

Despite leading with Williams, I actually haven’t talked about the Genie all that much.  Because what is there to say that hasn’t been said already?  The role is the pure, unadulterated distillation of Williams’s entire stand-up career into a single entity, firing off dozens of rapid fire impressions (many of which are purely for the parents in the audience). 

I think 10-year-old me got maybe one of these references

Williams was pretty much a live-action cartoon character to begin with, and with the Genie he was finally able to break free of the bounds of reality that had always constrained him.  After this performance, animated comedy would never be the same again.

Verdict

Of the four unquestioned masterpieces of the Renaissance, this is probably the one that I watched the most times as a kid.  I was ten years old when it came out, which is the exact right age for the wackiness of the Genie to hit home.  I can’t say that it’s my favorite of them now, but it will always have a place in my heart.   We’ll just pretend that the live-action remake never happened.

Animation: A (Eric Goldberg’s animation for the Genie is almost worth the price of admission on its own, but the rest of the movie is wonderfully fluid and colorful)

Main Characters: A- (Jasmine isn’t quite as good of a female lead as either Belle or Ariel, but she’s also not the title character.  Speaking of which, is he the first competent male lead we’ve had since Basil in The Great Mouse Detective?)

Supporting Characters: A (The Genie doesn’t show up until almost the halfway point in the movie, so he’s technically a supporting character.  But even if every other supporting character in the movie sucked, this would still be an A)

Villains: A- (Just watch the live-action Aladdin to see how different Jafar would be without Jonathan Freeman’s performance.)

Songs: A- (I had to dock it a little bit for there not being a true villain song, but otherwise the music’s great)

Overall: A-

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