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Last week I talked about Beauty and the Beast as Howard Ashman‘s last great contribution to Disney history. But while it was his greatest contribution, it wasn’t his last. It was actually Ashman, alongside collaborator Alan Menken, who amongst completion of The Little Mermaid, came up with the treatment for Disney’s next movie: Aladdin, an adaptation of one of the most well-known tales in the Arabian Nights. They crafted the basic outline for the movie with the help of Linda Woolverton (who had written the script for Beauty and the Beast). Unlike in Beauty and the Beast, though, Ashman’s input in Aladdin was only limited. He died of AIDS complication relatively early in the movie’s production, but not before writing eleven possible songs for the movie (three of them were used). Also amongst completion of The Little Mermaid, its directors were given free reign to choose on which of the studios’ future production they would like to work next. Ron Clements and John Musker also decided to work on Aladdin.
All accounts I am familiar with coincide that, coming from the (marvelous) darkness and complexity of Beauty and the Beast, from the moment of its inception, Aladdin was supposed to be, above all, a comedy. A big influence seems to be Douglas Fairbanks’s The Thief of Bagdad. Looking at the movie it’s easy to see how it would seem as if the filmmakers were aspiring to that swashbuckling adventure’s tone. Aladdin feels more like a cartoon than any of the other Renaissance movies (even the one that starred mice). The character design is stylized and the color palette saturated. Above all, though, the tone of the movie is light and funny. This would be an important development going forward in the history of both Disney, and American mainstream animation.
Even though Ashman, Menken and Woolverton came up with the original idea, the story was largely reworked throughout production, and so, the people who get a screenplay credit in the final film are, Clements, Musker and two newcomer writers. Two gentlemen by the names of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who would go on to write blockbuster hits such as Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s curious and fitting that Elliott and Rossio went on to write Shrek, the ultimate example of the kind of (mediocre) animated movie that gained strength the following decade and remains popular today. If nothing else, because Aladdin, although much better than Shrek and the movies it inspired, seems like its most direct forefather. But we’ll talk about Aladdin’s legacy later, for now, let’s focus on the film itself.
Before we go on, I feel like I must say I’m not a huge fan of Aladdin. Which is to say I like it a lot, but don’t think it’s great. I find it to be the weakest of the four films largely regarded as the Renaissance “Classics” (Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King), but still more than worthy of being in the other three films’ company. I have a series of quibbles that keep me from completely embracing Aladdin, but one thing that’s for sure is that it is a beautiful film to look at. It seems like by this point, the animators were really getting a hang of coming out with a new movie every year, because any of the imperfections in the animation of Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast is gone. The film also features the best use of the CAPS technology so far and with its strong colors and smoothly moving characters, it is the most visually accomplished Disney film since, well, probably since Sleeping Beauty.
Aladdin’s biggest problem is that it goes off on a pretty rough start. Not the prologue involving villain Jafar (more on him later) and the Cave of Wonders, which is a perfectly good introduction to the movie’s themes and tone, but what comes next, when the movie has to flesh out the motivations of its three leads. First off is Aladdin himself, a poor orphaned boy surviving in the streets of the fictional city of Agraba. He hustles his way through life as explained in -sigh- the song “One Jump Ahead”. I’ve just started to talk about the movie, but already am about to go off on a tangent, however, this is important. All the story retooling done after Howard Ashman’s death only left three of the songs he wrote in the movie. For the rest of the musicalization, Alan Menken worked with lyricist Tim Rice, who came up with a couple of numbers, most notably “A Whole New World”. for which they won an Academy Award, and “One Jump Ahead”. If you’ve read the last couple of entries in this series, then you know how much I love Ashman and can probably guess I’m not very enthusiastic about Rice’s work.
The thing is, Rice is lets a lot to be desired as a songwriter. I don’t want to call him a “hack”, because I do like some of the songs he’s written, but there is no question his compositions pale in comparison to the better Disney numbers, especially the outstanding work done by Ashman. As a matter of quick comparison, let’s take the songs they won Oscars for. Ashman’s “Beauty and the Beast” has been somewhat maligned for being too sappy and sentimental, which in many ways it is. It is also, however, a perfect embodiment of what the movie wants to say through it: the inevitability (“tale as old time”), the sudden and unprepared nature of the leads (“barely even friends, then somebody bends”) and the supernatural power of their love. Can you feel the power of lyrics like “certain as the sun, rising in the east”? Now what about “Hold your breath, it’s better” or “when I’m way up here, it’s crystal clear”? The lyrics in “A Whole New World” are not very inventive, to say the least.
I must admit I am a fan of “A Whole New World” despite its silly lyrics and the annoying anachronism in the world-tour sequence it scores. Probably because Alan Menken can bring an effective sense of momentum and urgency through the music. Going back to the main discussion of Aladdin, though, there is absolutely no excuse for the horrible, horrible mediocrity of “One Jump Ahead“. I see what they were going with this number, trying to set up Aladdin and the people of the city just like they did with “Belle” in Beauty and the Beast. But the jazzy music and the slang rhyme don’t come even close to conveying what “Belle” did, or to be any fun. It’s probably on my shortlist for the worst Disney songs (it might even take the prize). It doesn’t help that Aladdin is a pretty bland character, defined more for being a cardboard early nineties young male lead, than for any personal characteristic. He is just a good guy and not very fun.
There is much more attitude present in Princess Jasmine, the female lead of the film. She continues the trend of more “liberated” and modern Disney Princesses that defined this era of animation. She wants to have agency and not be reduced to a girl who must marry a prince. She is a much more dynamic and fun character to watch than Aladdin, but there is the problematic fact that once she falls in love with our male lead, she doesn’t seem to mind her status as someone whose importance lies on getting married anymore. This kind of problem is certainly not exclusive to Jasmine. Many people would point out to Ariel and Belle doing exactly the same, as their narratives are somewhat defined by them getting a man, but I would argue Jasmine’s is the worst case of the three. That is basically to say I buy into Ariel’s longing for a different life and Belle’s slow enchantment by the Beast much more than I do spunky Jasmine’s sudden change in priorities. This could be considered either a matter of preference, or, probably more accurately, a sign that the script for Aladdin isn’t as strong as the others’.
There are many things Aladdin is good at, but story isn’t one of them. The film’s first thirty minutes are dedicated to present the main characters and the plot and it is, by far, the weakest part of the movie. As I mentioned earlier, our introduction to Aladdin is pretty terrible. Our introduction to Jasmine brings a little more life, but it’s still boring. Not even the moment in which they meet each other in the marketplace is much fun. The two things that keep the first thirty minutes from being outright bad are 1. Aladdin’s pet monkey Abu, who I think is a very well designed and funny character (also the only truly funny thing in the film so far) and 2. Jafar, who, it will come as no surprise, is the villain.
There is a long tradition of the villains being more entertaining and fascinating than the heroes in movies in general and in Disney in particular. The ultimate example of this is Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent, and Jafar doesn’t come far behind. Talking about Jafar, let me tell you about the first Disney animator I knew by name: a man by the name of Andreas Deja. Back when I was just a kid, I got to know him as the guy who animated Disney villains, and boy, was he good at it. By this point he had already collaborated on Gaston and was making his solo debut animating Aladdin’s evil antagonist. Jafar is not an incredibly good villain, my main problem with him is that he isn’t all that threatening, especially when put in comparison with other bad guys in the Canon, but then again, he is more than appropriate for the lighter tone of Aladdin. He is wonderfully designed, with that long, almost monolithic body and unamused face. Not to mention the fact that he continues a line of male villains that present a high-class, diva-like personality. That trend started with The Great Mouse Detective‘s Ratigan and Deja really took and ran with it when doing Jafar (spoiler alert, this wouldn’t be the last or best work he would do with such a character).
In any other film, Jafar would be a strong contender for the most memorable and dynamic character in the film, but thirty minutes into Aladdin we are introduced to what is, by and large, the biggest talking point about the movie. I’m talking, of course, about the Genie as voiced by Robin Williams. When it comes to this character, the camps seem to be clearly divided between those who find Williams’s anachronistic and, well, Williams-y performance hilarious, and those who find it very irritating. Now, I personally think the detractors come at the character from a retroactive perspective influenced either by Williams’s horrendous recent career or the amount of annoying celebrity voice-overs the character’s popularity unleashed on contemporary animation. I personally think there is no denying the comedic chops of the performance. This is, after all, Williams at the top of his popularity, and what better channel for a man who has been largely described as a living cartoon to display his abilities than in an actual cartoon?
Williams’s work here is, obviously, highly improvisational and full of pop culture references. This type of comedy, especially in a Disney film, made Aladdin somewhat of an anomaly. It’s more than likely that it was the comedy (it is a strong contender for the title of funniest movie in the Disney Canon), along with the success of the previous movies, that made Aladdin such a huge success. It became the first animated movie to make more than 200 Million dollars in the domestic box-office, becoming the biggest movie of the year. With those kind of numbers, it’s no surprise so many studios (Disney included) tried to replicate the success by embracing more comedic narratives and, worst of all, casting well known celebrities and comedians to voice the characters. You don’t need me to point out at the many terrible movies that have come out in the past years that follow that pattern. It’s true that it sometimes works wonderfully, but for every Ellen DeGeneres in Finding Nemo, you have a dozen Open Seasons or Hotel Transylvanias.
Aladdin no doubt falls in the good category. Very good, actually. It might be hard to remember if you haven’t seen the film in a while, but the Genie is a wonderful character. He is truly hilarious and he works perfectly in the movie, because his supernatural nature lends itself to the atemporal references in Williams’s comedy. He is also the most interestingly animated character in the film. More than any other, he is the most cartoony, with his abstract body, changes sizes, shapes and moving all around. He is a larger than life personality that comes at the precise moment to inject the movie with the energy, momentum and life it lacked in the first half hour.
It might sound weird, but once the Genie shows up, I started having so much fun I just forgave the movies’ inconsistencies. Yes, Aladdin remains largely bland, and yes, it is kind of weird that Jasmine doesn’t recognize him when he pretends to be “Prince Ali”, and yes, the plotting doesn’t feature a lot of character development, but it works. The script unfolds in a reasonable and logical enough way that you can just sit back and enjoy. And that’s exactly what I did. Ultimately, Aladdin isn’t the most ambitious and challenging of movies, but it does set itself a very specific goal: be a funny, entertaining movie. By this point Disney wasn’t willing to go all-out on a completely silly comedy, so it retains a lot of the typical arcs for their lead characters. These arcs are the weakest part of the movie, but then again, we will come back to this in future installments of this series. For now, Aladdin set itself a goal and achieved it handsomely.
Next: Naaaaants Ingonyaaaa… it’s The Lion King.