“A lightning storm of comic genius” is how Steven Spielberg famously described the indefatigable talent of Robin Williams. In a way, it was lightning in a bottle, with an explosive energy animating and almost seeming to burst from his mercurial features and compact, hirsute frame.
Only Williams’ role as the Genie of the Lamp let the lightning out of the bottle. Disney’s Aladdin does more than give Williams an opportunity to let loose the comic giant inside him: It offers the Disney animators perhaps their greatest creative challenge, and inspiration, in over half a century.
There’s a lot to like about Aladdin besides the animation and Williams’ performance—it’s the best morality tale of the Disney renaissance, for one thing, and one of the few in which the hero’s moral successes or failures drive the action—but nothing in Aladdin excites me as an animation fan so much as what happens onscreen in the first of the Genie’s two big musical numbers, “Friend Like Me.”
Not since the days of Fantasia and Dumbo’s “Pink Elephants” segment has any Disney feature used the power of animation in such formally creative ways. Williams isn’t the sole inspiring force; as with Fantasia and “Pink Elephants,” music is key, too. Howard Ashman’s energetic lyrics and Alan Menkin’s raucous music merge with Williams’ manic vocal delivery to inspire a parade of surreal imagery liberated by the Genie’s magical powers from even token constraints of realism.
Transmogrifying into, among other things, fireworks, a turkey dinner, a rabbit pulling himself from a hat, and a certified document attesting his own genie status, the Genie plays with scale as well as space, at one point strutting out of his own mouth on a tongue staircase and hoofing with his own detached, giant hands. This is what animation does best, and no post-war Disney feature does it better than Aladdin. (The Lion King tried to recapture a bit of this in “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” It doesn’t work, particularly after the realism of “The Circle of Life.”)
There are even visual allusions to Fantasia, with dancing elephants (“Dance of the Hours”) and a trio of illusory dancing girls who materialize out of fire (“Bald Mountain”). Echoes of other Disney icons run through the film: The Genie transforms Aladdin’s monkey, Abu, into a riding elephant like Cinderella’s fairy godmother turning her mice into carriage horses, and Pinocchio, Goofy, Sebastian, and the Beast all put in fleeting appearances.
After a prologue with a merchant storyteller (Williams again), Aladdin gets off to a bit of a bumpy start. First we meet the evil grand vizier Jafar (Jonathan Freeman) making his first, unsuccessful attempt to acquire the Genie’s lamp from the Cave of Wonders, where he learns the lamp can only be retrieved by a chosen one, a “diamond in the rough.” This, of course, is Aladdin, whom we meet in the marketplace in the film’s worst musical sequence, “One Jump Ahead” (with lyrics not by Ashman, who died during development).
The problem with the first scene is the whole “diamond in the rough,” Chosen One motif. This was never a great idea for this story, although the subsequent proliferation of Chosen One stories (the Star Wars prequels, Harry Potter, Kung Fu Panda, etc.) hasn’t helped. When Aladdin enters the cave, it’s a test to see if he will touch any of the forbidden treasure or proceed straight to the lamp. But poor Gazeem, Jafar’s first patsy, isn’t even given a chance to fail the test; he’s summarily munched, because he isn’t the “diamond in the rough.”
The problem with the “One Jump Ahead” sequence is it’s neither very creative lyrically or visually. Aladdin spends the song fleeing burly guards over the theft of a loaf of bread, but the antics are merely fast-paced, not clever. The choreography in Beauty and the Beast’s establishing song “Little Town,” where people are merely wandering about, is a pleasure to watch. “One Jump Ahead” is an action sequence, and even though in 1992 I had never heard of Jackie Chan, as soon as I saw him in 1995, I knew this was what “One Jump Ahead” should have been.
Fortunately Aladdin really is a diamond in the rough, as he proves by giving away his stolen bread to a pair of urchins even hungrier than he is, then intervening to save them from a flogging by a haughty prince seeking Princess Jasmine’s hand in marriage.
A bit later, when Jasmine (Linda Larkin) ventures from the palace in disguise, Aladdin saves her from losing a hand to an angry merchant who accuses her of stealing. He’s kind of a stand-up guy—and Jasmine plays along, proving herself the “quick study” she says she is. Their flirtation might be the most natural boy-girl relationship in the Disney canon to date.
When the Genie appears, though, it becomes a completely different film. In addition to ripping through a string of celebrity impersonations—Ed Sullivan, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Groucho Marx, William F. Buckley, Peter Lorre—Williams becomes a sheep, a flight attendant, an effete tailor, a bohemian Frenchman, a pair of TV anchors, a bumblebee, a cheerleader, and much more. The Genie also becomes a pair of lips, a submarine, and a lamp shade—though I doubt even Williams can ad-lib an impression of a lamp shade, so credit for that one presumably goes to the writers or animators.
As Aladdin, transformed by the Genie into “Prince Ali Ababwa,” seeks to win Jasmine’s hand, the film turns into a morality tale with two challenges. First, will Aladdin “be a straight shooter” with the lady and tell her the truth about his identity, as the Genie urges? He may be a “diamond in the rough,” but dare he reveal his roughness to the princess?
Second, will Aladdin keep his promise to use his third wish to free the Genie? In both cases Aladdin gives into insecurity and fails the test, or at least hesitates until it’s too late. The first fail doesn’t matter much—Jasmine forgives him easily—but the second fail has catastrophic consequences, putting nearly unlimited power into Jafar’s hands after he had been defeated.
What makes the emphasis on Aladdin’s moral failure is all the more remarkable is how rare this motif is in American animation—outside of Pixar. Where Pixar films feature flawed protagonists whose errant decisions have real consequences that must be faced up to, in most Hollywood animation, including Disney, the hero’s choices are always fundamentally vindicated in the end. Aladdin isn’t the only hero of the Disney renaissance to utter the words “It’s all my fault,” but it’s the only time the words have moral weight.
In the end Aladdin redeems himself by defeating Jafar—one of Disney’s better, more memorable villains, especially among male villains—not with the Genie’s power, but by relying on his own “street rat” wits. It’s not a perfect ending, but it’s vastly more satisfying than, say, the finale of The Little Mermaid, which also granted the villain awesome magical powers, but had no clue what to do next.
Aladdin offers a rare example of matter-of-fact and even positive religious references in a latter-day Disney cartoon. The religion is Islam, of course, but still it’s striking to have Jasmine’s father, the Sultan (Douglas Seale), utter a joyful “Praise Allah!” upon realizing that his daughter has at last chosen a suitor—the most overtly religious of a number of references to Allah. (For the record, Allah is also the name of God for Arabic-speaking Christians.)
Aladdin has been accused of “whitewashing” an Arabian story, making the villainous and evil characters hook-nosed, bearded caricatures, whereas Aladdin looks like Tom Cruise (deliberately so), and Jasmine looks like, well, a Disney princess in “bedlah babe” couture (more on this in a moment).
Actually the original story of Aladdin is set in China, but the film’s aesthetic draws more on India than the Middle East: The look of Agrabah is inspired by the Taj Mahal; the street performers in the opening song are all doing tricks of Indian origin (the Indian rope trick, the bed of nails, fire eating, etc.); Princess Jasmine has a tiger (not a Middle-Eastern animal) that is actually named Rajah, etc.
Jasmine’s bedlah outfit represents a style associated with belly dancers rather than princesses and appears to be rooted more in Victorian imagination than Middle-Eastern cultural history (it may well have Indian roots as well). Obviously a culturally accurate abaya or cloak wouldn’t fly in an American cartoon; some cultural adaptation is necessary in retelling a story for a new audience.
All this, and I haven’t even mentioned Magic Carpet: not only one of Disney’s most unique and expressive sidekicks, but their first (more or less) computer-animated character. Or the other memorable songs besides “Friend Like Me”—“Prince Ali” and “A Whole New World”—all in all, the best musical lineup of the Disney renaissance except, of course, Beauty and the Beast. If the latter is the great gem of latter-day Disney—the real diamond—Aladdin is at least the ruby.
Note on age appropriateness: Aladdin is fine family viewing, though some scary bits might be a bit much for very sensitive youngsters.