Growing up, the “Aladdin” franchise was one of the ones I was most familiar with when it came to the big four of the Disney Renaissance (though there still wasn’t much experience there), and I’ve always been fond of it. “Aladdin” is of course the story of how a young Arabian street rat comes into possession of a magical lamp and a Genie that will grant him three fantastical wishes. Now, if there’s two things Disney has always loved, it’s magic and royalty, so “Aladdin” was the perfect chance for the company to go nuts with one of their musicals, riding high off the financial success of “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty And The Beast”. Remember when I said not too long ago that “Oliver and Company” was very much an 80’s movie? “Aladdin” is a 90’s movie through and through, from the first act continually emphasizing how cool and rebellious it’s lead is, to the usual Disney renaissance tropes being present, to the celebrity casting, to Genie delightfully asking rug man to give him some casa as soon as he appears.
The middle eastern city of Agrabah is a large departure from Disney’s usual settings, and intrigues as a location that’s teeming with life. Something I like about the “Aladdin” universe is just how casually dangerous it feels. The world Aladdin and Jasmine live in is humorous but it’s also very cruel, strict and classicist, and stepping one toe out of line can have serious consequences, best demonstrated when some pompous prince tries to whip children or when Jasmine almost gets her hand chopped off for stealing an apple. I’m really not sure when “Aladdin” is supposed to take place, but assuming it’s set about a thousand or so years ago, that sounds about right. The film comments a lot on the social divide in Agrabah and how restricting and regressive it is, with each of the major characters feeling hopelessly trapped in the roles they were born into, without ever feeling preachy and heavy-handed. With that much having been said, I think “Aladdin” is easily the weakest film of the big four. “Aladdin’s” plot can feel generic at times because like I said, all the Disney Renaissance tropes and tricks are present in this movie that would be gradually overused later (like the underdog hero, the rebellious princess, the comedy sidekicks and the power-hungry villain), and they feel less endearing here than they do in “The Little Mermaid‘, “Beauty and the Beast“, and “The Lion King“. There’s also the liar-revealed boyfriend subplot with Aladdin and Jasmine that’s played entirely straight in the last act. But being the weakest of four great movies means you’re still really good.
Young Aladdin is a cunning, mischievous, frustrated street rat, who spends his days jaunting around Agrabah and stealing what he needs to survive with his monkey buddy, Abu. Aladdin is crafty, noble in a way, and self-reliant, but he’s not content with the life of a fugitive. He wants to live a comfortable life, be something worthwhile and be recognized as something other than a lowly peasant. After spending a romantic day out with his spirited crush, Princess Jasmine, who he’s forbidden to be with, Aladdin comes across a genie in a lamp who can grant his heart’s desire. Aladdin decides to use his three Genie wishes to climb the social ladder and win a shot with the princess. Like a few previous Disney leads, Aladdin is a thief and a rogue but the film is always mindful to stress his kind heart, his intellect and his lack of luck being born into poverty so as not to make him unsympathetic. Aladdin’s character arc of continually lying to Jasmine as ‘Prince Ali’, despite his friends warning him not to, is pretty predictable, but something that keeps it from feeling overly so is how deep it cuts and how painful it can be to watch at it’s peak. There’s a stretch of the film where Aladdin actually attains all his goals and things are set to wrap up nicely, but he’s still not happy. Quite the opposite, actually.
Struggling with one’s identity seems to be the primary, overarching theme of the Disney renaissance. Ariel and Belle struggled to stay true to themselves in settings where the people closest to them would seemingly never accept them. Simba had to cast off years of guilt, shame and self-loathing to move on with his life and become the king his people needed him to be. Quasimodo had to learn to love himself after being told poisonous lies all his life by his father figure. Tarzan felt torn between the worlds of humans and apes, wondering if he belonged in neither of them. Mulan summed up the identity crisis motif perfectly when she sang ‘When will my reflection show who I am inside?!’ in her movie. In Aladdin’s case, being on the receiving end of years of classicism and constant disdain has pretty much destroyed his sense of self-worth, and instilled him with some shame and self-loathing that the Genie can’t help him with. If anything, the Genie’s magical assistance only makes thing worse, because it reinforces the idea in his head that he’s nothing special on his own. He’s become addicted to having the Genie as a crutch, and in his quest to become something he’s not he’s changed inside and out, compromising his principles and becoming selfish and vain. Al finally realizes he needs to give up the charade and start mending his relationships, but of course he comes to this realization too late. Aladdin learns his lesson by having to rely on nobody but himself to beat Jafar, utilizing all of his unique skills, and he earns his happy ending after making some sacrifices.
Throughout the film, Aladdin’s faithful companion and his best friend of several years is the greedy, resourceful, hyperactive little monkey Abu – a fellow street rat. He’s stroppy and irritable, but Abu can be quite helpful, since he’s about as clever as Aladdin and he gets the boy out of several pinches. He can also be somewhat troublesome, since this monkey just does not listen. Abu’s stubbornness and his greed nearly gets them killed a few times. He’s Aladdin’s bro though and very loyal. Abu winds up spending a good chunk of a movie as an elephant (not by choice), and he has a significantly smaller role in the second half of the film, since the dual introduction of the Genie and the carpet leaves him with little else to do as a sidekick. Aladdin often travels on his signature, sentient magic carpet, which he finds in the same cavern as the Genie’s lamp. The magic carpet is something of a throwback to the older days of Disney animation. Carpet is a silent character, and whatever emotions he feels are conveyed entirely through his actions and his little tassels. It’s not only an effective method, it’s also really cute.
Jasmine is the third in a line of Disney Renaissance Princesses who want to be free to live their own life and not be constrained by what small-minded men want for them. Jasmine is the most aggressive and authoritative one so far though, which helps to set her apart from Ariel and Belle. To her frustration, Princess Jasmine has never been allowed outside the place walls and thus is quite sheltered (which gets her into trouble as soon as she enters the city’s marketplace), but she’s also very athletic and quick-witted. Jasmine is kindhearted and she cares about her people, but she’s also very hotheaded and tends to speak boldly and truthfully. Jasmine has grown tired of having to entertain arrogant princes who not only feel entitled to her but are also only interested in her for her money and her daddy’s money. Like a lot of 90’s Disney characters, Jasmine wants her some real love (when Aladdin, in his insecurity, tries to be the pompous prince he thinks she would be interested in, she’s turned right off and she only shows interest when she starts to suspect Prince Ali and her humble street crush Aladdin are the same person). It’s a pleasure seeing her day-to-day, palace life with her domesticated tiger, Rajah, and the disagreements she has with her staunchly traditional but not unreasonable father, the Sultan. On the side, a power struggle forms between Jasmine and Jafar, since (unbeknownst to our heroes) he wants the throne and Jasmine and her father are in a way of him claiming power. Jasmine’s character arc takes a surprisingly dark turn early on, when Jafar convinces her she accidentally got the boy she liked killed and she spends a good chunk of the film riddled with remorse about that (thankfully, that boy was Aladdin, who is very much not dead).
The Genie of the lamp is, hands down, the best character in this movie. Take a flamboyant, off-the-wall, extroverted showman, shove him inside a lamp for a couple of thousand years until he starts going stir crazy and you get Robin Williams’ Genie. He’s nuts in all the right ways, thanks in part of Robin Williams doing plenty of improv during the recording sessions for the movie. Genie is a magical being – someone who lives outside of time, loves doing impressions and showing off – and the movie never misses a chance to stress how weird he is and how much he clashes with the film’s setting. But unlike a lot of manipulative genies in folklore, this one has a gentle nature and a surprisingly affecting heart’s desire that grounds him as a character and humanizes him. He’s not just a wish-fulfiller, he’s also a slave – forced to grant wishes for eternity, having no real autonomy, and having to wait large amounts of time between masters (he doesn’t even get paid for this job). He longs for freedom to see the world and do what he pleases, and he hopes Aladdin, the plucky boy he develops a soft spot for, will finally be the one to set him free. Since Genie is one of the most sympathetic characters in this movie, the ending, where Aladdin finally grants his wish, never ceases to make me shed happy tears. From his little stunned “what?”, because he honestly never believed a human could be that selfless, to the way he goes wild after the shackles fall off, it’s all just perfect (the fact that Robin Williams has passed on in the twenty years since this movie only adds to the poignancy of all the friends splitting up at the end).
Jafar is the darker counterpart to our heroes, who all either want to climb the social ladder benevolently or break out of the restricting roles they feel enslaved to. Jafar wants power and status, and he’ll do anything he needs to or wants to to get it. The sultan’s vizier is a droll, ruthless, and manipulative antagonist who tries to appeal genial to his boss, but is truthfully very cold to everyone who is not his familiar. He spends much of the movie working behind the scenes, planting suggestions in the Sultan’s head that he hopes will benefit him, before he finally reveals the true depths of his lust and depravity for power in the climax, once he’s been outed by Aladdin and he has nothing else to lose (the utterly insane and maniacal slasher laugh Jafar unleashes after “Prince Ali (Reprise)” gives me the chills every time). Jafar develops a great deal of hatred for Aladdin, who he views as a ragged, meddlesome street rat who keeps interfering with his plans at each turn, so he decides to add humiliating and killing Aladdin to his life goals. Jafar also possesses the ability to make you feel very uncomfortable when you least expect it, like when he disguises himself as an old man or when he starts creeping on Jasmine, who’s a teenager and seriously takes one for the team by kissing him. Like Scar after him, I appreciate that Jafar’s brought down by his own personal character flaws. We lose a lot of good Disney villains to blind rage (like Cruella De Vil, Sykes, Ursula, Shan Yu, Clayton, etc), but it’s fitting for this sort of movie that it’s Jafar’s greed and vanity that gets the better of him.
Jafar is aided by his sadistic, sarcastic, loud-mouthed and two-faced familiar, Iago, and together the mage and parrot make quite the scheming duo: essentially they’re the evil counterparts to Aladdin and Abu. While Jafar is the planner and researcher, Iago does much of the grunt work and dirty work to help them achieve their goals. He also gets smacked around and mistreated a lot by many of the other characters in the movie, which he does not appreciate. He’s a very opinionated bird, and he spends much of the movie either complaining or snarking at other people’s expense. Like his master (partner?), he’s quite ruthless and he craves power, so he helps Jafar try to take the throne and bump off their enemies. At the end of the film, Jafar and Iago are trapped in a genie’s lamp for seemingly forever, and it’s nicely ensured that they’re going to drive each other crazy with their bickering. Iago the parrot is voiced by a very distinctive and recognizable Gilbert Gottfried, and honestly the bird is much funnier than he ought to be with his antics. Iago would gain an expanded role in later installments of the “Aladdin” franchise, starting with his heel-face turn in “The Return Of Jafar”, and it’s easy to see why that happened. There was still plenty of potential to be mined with this character and I’m glad Disney didn’t waste him.
The 2-D animation standards in “Aladdin” are as high as you would expect from a film produced at the height of the Disney Renaissance. There’s the depth and grandeur of the locations like the Sultan’s palace, all the detail put into the rich grains of sand in Agrabah’s desert, the way the golden, glittering treasures in the Cave of Wonders really pop out, and the razor sharp movements of serpent Jafar when he tries Aladdin. It’s all lovely work. I think it helps that again, Agrabah is such a creative location. Disney clearly went all out in romanticizing the Middle East in this film, and it dazzles. What’s especially striking though is “Aladdin’s” vivid color palette (which you’ll have noticed by now in the screencaps). You have all sorts of fiery hot reds, deep, deep blues and beautiful shades of purple in-between, contrasting each other throughout the entire movie; and it adds to the unreal, fairy tale vibe of the story being told. Interestingly enough, “Aladdin” has both good and bad examples of 3-D animation being integrated into a 2-D animated film. On the one hand, the CGI for the Cave of Wonders looks really, really awful, both inside and outside the jaguar cave, but on the other hand, the animation for the magic carpet is so well done, from his design to the carpet’s movements, that you honestly can’t even tell it’s a computer-generated character. It’s quite the achievement.
“Aladdin” has a very strong and distinctive soundtrack from Alan Menken and Tim Rice (you would expect nothing less at this point). Like “Fathoms Below” and “Frozen Heart”, “Arabian Nights” is the stirring opening number that you’ll wish was much longer than it was because it’s the song where the film’s gritty desert style shines through the most. “One Jump Ahead” is the only song I really dislike. It tries way too hard to be zany and random and it just winds up being obnoxious. The melancholy reprise from Aladdin shortly after fares better. “Friend Like Me” is a jazzy, big-band masterclass number of Genie showing-off his powers and the movie’s most energetic scene in terms of visuals. It’s wonderful, especially when Robin Williams get so into it his vocals starts to become unintelligible. “Prince Ali” is a good, peppy and ridiculous boast, continuing the trend of Genie craziness, but I think I like Jafar’s smug, smarmy reprise even more. “A Whole New World” is my favorite Disney love song (and there was a lot of tough competition). The blissful, carefree duet Brad Kane and Lea Salonga have, layered over the smooth rhythm of a piano and combined with the breaktaking visuals of Agrabah at night, produce what I think is the epitome of Disney escapism. You’d best believe Alan Menken’s instrumental reworkings of the song are just as beautiful, and the pop cover duet in the end credits isn’t too shabby either.
There’s a lot to like about “Aladdin”, and really only a few things to dislike. While I can’t quite say it’s a personal favorite of mine, I can easily see why it’s so well-loved and it’s earned itself a very respectable grade from me.
* “ARABIAN NIGHTS! LIKE ARABIAN DAYS! More often than not, are hotter than hot in a lot of good ways!” You know, the theme song for the Aladdin series cut right to Jasmine looking fetching on that verse, because Disney was feeling mischievous.
* “You are nothing but a worthless street rat. You were a born a street rat, you’ll die a street rat and when you do only your fleas will mourn you!” Damn son, Prince Achmed certainly knows how to put the peasants in their place when they start to get lippy. I always chuckle at how Al was just about to run in there and pounce on him before the gates shut in his face.
* “Please, try to understand, I’ve never done a thing on my own, I’ve never had any real friends” “Girl, what’chu talking bout? I just a bit a dude on the butt for you!” “Except Rajah” “Yeah, that’s better, girl“.
* “I don’t know where she gets it from. Her mother wasn’t nearly so picky” Um, Sultan, you know those implications don’t reflect well on you, right?
* Landing the role of Iago gave Gilbert Gottfried the chance to have a duet with a Disney Princess once. It was as strange as it sounds.
* Jasmine honey, if you want to blend in in the marketplace and pass off as a beggar woman, you might want to take those large, presumably gold earrings off first.
* “So, how’d it go?” “I think she took it rather well”.
* Abu’s killer Jasmine impression.
* “What are you doing?!” “Giving you your reward! Your eternal reward!”
* “Um, excuse me?! Are you looking at me?! Did you rub my lamp, did you wake me up, did you bring me here and all of sudden you’re walking out on me?! I don’t think so, not right now, you’re getting your wishes so SIT DOWN!!!!”
* “Well, don’t I feel sheepish? Alright, you baaaaddd boy, but no more freebies!”
* “It’s all part and parcel with the Genie gig. Phenomenal cosmic power! Itty-bitty little living space!”
* “You will order the princess to marry me!” I… will… order- but you’re so old!” I don’t need to tell you that response was hilarious, but it’s also pretty sweet. The sultan’s concern for his daughter was enough to override the hypnosis for a moment when nothing else did and recognize how creepy Jafar’s suggestion was.
* “He’s generous, so generous!”
* “Tell her the TRUTH!!!”
* “A whole new world, that’s where we’ll be, that’s where we will be! A thrilling chase, a wondrous place, for you and me!”
* Jasmine has such a good time with ‘Prince Ali’ that she forgets to question how he’s still alive, since Jafar told her he had the boy’s head cut off. It’s unknown if Jasmine was ever going to confront Jafar for lying to her, since he got outed as a vile betrayer not long after.
* So Genie can casually use to magic to show-off and do impressions whenever he likes, but he literally can’t do anything to save someone’s life if they’re drowning unless they wish him to? Genie, no offense, but you’re kind of useless.
* Religion is typically something Disney skirts around in their movies, but they do acknowledge it from time to time. Characters can be seen praying in movies like “Mulan“, and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is built on top of Catholicism. I bring this up because I’ve recently begun to wonder if the characters in this movie are meant to Muslims. There’s a cute scene where the Sultan realizes Jasmine has picked Aladdin for a suitor and he giggles “Praise Allah!”.
* “Tonight, the part of Al will be played by a tall, dark, sinister and ugly man”.
* “Al, what are you doing? Why are you bringing me into this?” Ha, Genie, you coward.
* “Al, you’re never gonna find another girl like her in a million years. Believe me, I know, I’ve checked”.
* “Ha, made you look!”
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- Suffer The Little Children by Michael Ferrier.