03 September 2012

Disney Daze: Week 31: Aladdin

In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released animated features, one per week.

Howard Ashman, lyricist integral to the flourishing Disney Renaissance, was the one who pitched the idea of translating the fairy tale of Aladdin and the magic lamp from One Thousand and One Nights into an animated feature. The film would be the first feature under the Disney princess umbrella to feature a decidedly non-Anglo cast. This would prove controversial to some who nitpicked the finished film, citing a generic white-washing of the protagonists. Due to his untimely death, Ashman would not live to see Aladdin hit the silver screen, nor the resulting controversy. Only three of his completed songs would make the finished picture with three more tunes written by his colleague Alan Menken and his new collaborator, lyricist Tim Rice.

The animators have an absolute field day in Aladdin. The opening action-packed chase through the crowded Arabian streets is a fanciful frenzy full of spirited leaps and crafty elusions. Withstanding one's tolerance for the mile-a-minute shtick of Robin Williams, the animation tasked with keeping up with his explosive hamming of the Genie is fluid and must have been an blast to draw. Same goes for the splendid realization of Aladdin's magic carpet, whose anthropomorphized introduction hearkens back to classic Disney shorts of yore, where every traditionally inanimate object had the ability to dance and twirl. The leaping, bowing, hand-shaking carpet has more life in it than most characters on the silver screen, hand-drawn or otherwise.

The true tour-de-force of animation in the film takes place shortly after Aladdin's introduction to the magic carpet in the Cave of Wonders. Aladdin has been sent into the cave to retrieve the Genie's lamp by the scheming Jafar. The sequence culminates in an Indiana Jones-esque escape attempt as the cave comes crumbling down all around Aladdin who narrowly avoids death on his enchanted rug. The scene may be the best blend of hand-drawn characters and computer-generated backgrounds ever committed to film. Bubbling, boiling lava belches up molten flames that barely miss our fleeing heroes, while ever-narrower rock passageways threaten to close them in. The scene is fantastically realized and breathlessly paced. A better action sequence in a Disney feature would be difficult to conjure up.

The villain Jafar is a splendid addition to Disney's deep rogue's gallery. His machinations are deliciously malevolent and sinister. The manipulations he bestows on the entranced Sultan by way of his hypnotic staff are genuinely creepy. His best moments come, as to be expected, at the film's dramatic climax where he first wishes himself to be sultan, than a sorcerer, and finally a genie. The animators once again throw all of their talent into these transformations, rising Jafar up to the heavens and having him literally toying with the cosmos. Jonathan Freeman's vocalizing of Jafar's dastardly dominance is effective and used solely in the purpose of the character, unlike say, the performance of his hence-parrot Iago. Jafar's serpentine battle with Aladdin may be a bit too short-lived to truly make an impact but several of the images inspire lingering terror.

The songs in Aladdin run the gamut from catchy and inspired (the infectious "Prince Ali") to generic and forgettable ("One Jump Ahead"). The central theme, the treacly, overwrought "A Whole New World" is fun mostly for its outrageous excessiveness. The song manages to push past obvious crescendoes and on to ever higher plateaux of histrionics. Unfolding as our two lovers circumnavigate the globe on their magic carpet, it is all so ridiculous, and yet quite entertaining. The visuals do really help here with some great point-of-view shots as Aladdin and Jasmine burst through clouds and careen towards moonlit rivers. It also appears that they briefly pause in the idyllic pastoral setting that housed the centaurs and imps of Fantasia. A much more subtle and enjoyable reference than the labored hijinks of Robin Williams.

Aladdin is arguably the most influential Disney film of the last twenty years for two very unfortunate reasons. With the casting of comedians Robin Williams and Gilbert Gottfried, who were hired more for their established personalities than their vocal talents, countless animated features that arrived in Aladdin's wake, like the Ice Age and Madagasacar franchises, were packed to the gills with celebrity voices, all involved just to put a recognizable brand on the poster. Williams's bombastic portrayal of the Genie would itself usher in an animated age littered with pop culture references, where a viewer's knowledge of an impression would be deemed an adequate substitute for a real joke. This chuckle of recognition would permeate the cinematic landscape, driving such box office powerhouses as Dreamworks' Shrek, a film which was produced by Jeffrey Katzenberg after his defection from Disney.

These two elements are by far the worst parts of Aladdin, which otherwise follows the trusted template set forth by The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. A host of Broadway-caliber songs propel a simple story of love overcoming adversity with a beautiful palette of richly drawn animation. The film was a hit with critics and filmgoers alike and would become the highest grossing feature of 1992. From the vantage point of the future, Aladdin still gives us plenty to enjoy. It contains both an engaging, entertaining story and a wealth of wonderful animation. I just wish it wasn't so frequently annoying. 

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