In 1992, Disney Entered A 'Whole New World'
For better or worse, the current state of cinema's animated output can be traced back to 1992's blockbuster film Aladdin. Not only was it a groundbreaking film with its breakneck pace, marvelous songs, and increased use of computer-aided animation, but it also established the "star turn" in animated films, with its zany genie voiced by the late Robin Williams. There was so much talk of an Academy Award nomination for Williams that year that I continually have to remind myself that he didn't actually get the nod. But Williams' performance led to Hollywood's acceptance of animated films as a respectable gig; actors are often marketed as the "star" of an animated feature even though they don’t appear on screen.
Aladdin spent years in development before finally making it to the big screen, suffering numerous setbacks along the way. Originally, our hero was to have been a much younger boy, his aspiration to please his mother. At one point, after a treatment of the story and several songs had been written, the production team was ordered to scrap their plans and start over. A deleted song from the earlier version of the story, "Proud of Your Boy," written by the late Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, is included on the new Blu-ray of Aladdin, and it's a wonderful song that has also since been added to the Broadway stage version of the story. Lyricist Ashman died of complications from AIDS during the film's production, and Tim Rice was brought in to complete the other unfinished songs with Menken, including the Oscar-winning "A Whole New World."
Of course Aladdin is based on one of the stories from the Arabian Nights. In the Disney version, Aladdin tries to win the heart of Princess Jasmine with the help of the Genie of the Lamp (Williams), all while dodging the Sultan's evil vizier, Jafar. After the aforementioned rewrite of the film, decisions were made to have Aladdin be an orphan, and a petty thief with a good heart, to make Jasmine a strong-willed girl, and to make each of their characters a little bit older, to better establish a romantic relationship between the two. The role of the Genie was also expanded once Williams signed on, and it's clear that the animators and directors loved his shtick.
Williams' many improvisations and impressions (among them Arsenio Hall, Jack Nicholson, William F. Buckley, and Ed Sullivan) are so memorable, that his performance threatens to overwhelm Aladdin and Jasmine's story. Just look at the Blu-ray cover. Who gets the most prominent "box space?" The genie. But Aladdin and Jasmine are given life through their respective voice actors (Scott Weinger, Linda Larkin), and through their animators. A scene with Jasmine and Aladdin watching a fireworks display contains genuine warmth and humanity as the animators include subtle body movements that emphasize how the two are testing each other. And as animator Eric Goldberg states on the Blu-ray’s commentary track, their eventual kiss may be "the hottest ever animated in a Disney film."
Aladdin is full of visual flourishes. A magic carpet is given life despite having no arms, no legs, and no face. Animators studied MC Hammer to get the right look for Aladdin's baggy pants. The art of Al Hirschfeld served as an inspiration for the design of the Genie. Several Disney in-jokes reference Pinocchio, Mickey Mouse, The Little Mermaid, and those famous Walt Disney World commercials that ended with "[Famous person], you've just [won a major prize]…what are you going to do now?"
However, one drawback with the film is the somewhat stereotypical depiction of Arabia and its people. According to the animators, Aladdin was modeled on Tom Cruise, and Jasmine on an animator's sister. The other characters are large and/or fat (the Sultan, guards, older women in the marketplace), sultry (veiled dancing women, G-rated versions of course), or mustachioed hooked-nose Arab men. Aladdin, by comparison, is remarkably clean-shaven despite his life on the streets of Agrabah.
On the flip side of character development, watching Aladdin this time I was struck by how much of a leap forward the character of Jasmine was for the Disney storytellers. In Disney’s previous film, Beauty and the Beast, Belle is a happy bookworm uninterested in marriage to the town big shot. When her father is in trouble, she sacrifices herself for him and willingly submits to being held captive by the Beast. Maybe she’s too dazzled by dancing plates to notice Stockholm syndrome setting in. Don’t get me wrong, I love Beauty and the Beast, but in Aladdin, Jasmine takes no guff, announcing “I am not a prize to be won!” to her father, Aladdin/Prince Ali, and the evil Jafar. She stands up for herself and others. Jasmine is smart, too, picking up on clues that reveal Prince Ali is really Aladdin. It’s also worth noting that Princess Jasmine was the first non-white heroine in a Disney movie, paving the way for Pocahontas, Mulan, and Princess Tiana (The Princess and the Frog).
A re-watch of Aladdin is necessarily clouded by the still recent passing of Robin Williams. His talent was incredible, and one of the special features on the new Blu-ray offers about seven more minutes of zany audio outtakes. I’m pretty sure he recorded enough material to make two films.
Williams’ presence is so strong that I watched with great interest another special feature on the disc that traces the now-inevitable development of the hit film into a Broadway musical. Knowing they couldn’t visually emulate Williams’ rapid fire impersonations onstage, the producers went in a different direction, casting James Monroe Iglehart as a genie modeled to some extent on 1930s-era bandleader Cab Calloway. The idea works splendidly. The production wasn’t without its troubles, though. Before reaching Broadway in 2014, Aladdin got mixed reviews at a trial run in Toronto. It was revamped extensively, and was eventually nominated for five Tony Awards. Iglehart won for Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
Alas, Aladdin the musical hasn’t started making its tour around the country, so unless you can get to New York, Blu-ray is still your best option to revisit what for Disney in 1992 was a whole new world.
Portions of this article were adapted from my 2004 review of the DVD edition of Aladdin.