The only time I’ve ever really watched “Aladdin” was on a long band trip going to a marching competition. I wasn’t able to really watch the film like I normally would- it was really just something for the band parents on the buses to put in; the camaraderie between the members was what really mattered for a lot of us. I was in my mid-teens and a boy, at the time, so the idea of watching Disney films wasn’t really a high priority for me; of the “Golden Age” films Disney made from “The Little Mermaid” to “The Lion King,” I watched none of them in theatres. When I got more into films in 1994 and ’95, Disney became a regular viewing experience for me, but in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I wasn’t much into those films- they were kids films. Now that I’m so much into films and filmmakings, it’s been time to get reacquainted with these films. It took longer for me to get to “Aladdin,” but it’s delightful blend of humor and musical comedy stays strong after 24 years.
One of the big reasons, of course, that “Aladdin” endures after all these years is the remarkable comedic dexterity of the late Robin Williams as the Genie. It’s fascinating how Williams, despite “Dead Poets Society” and “Good Morning, Vietnam!,” despite “The Birdcage” and “Mork & Mindy,” the Genie is still one of the most beloved characters he ever played, and it’s quite easy to see why the second the character comes into the story. A lot of Williams’s energy in his performances comes from his ability to improvise, so when he’s afforded the freedom of voiceover, that opens up all sorts of possibilities and what resulted was one of the greatest voiceover performances of all-time. Before Williams’s Genie, voiceover was almost exclusively the forte of a specific type of performer, but that a star like Williams would enter the form changed everything, and suddenly, we see people like Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Jeremy Irons and Mel Gibson doing performances in Disney animated films. The star-studded animated film came to life during Jeffrey Katzenberg’s time at Disney during this time, and he brought that mentality to Dreamworks when he was ousted at the Mouse House. The results have been flawed for Dreamworks, but even after he left Disney, what he started continues to this day, and changed what we come to expect in animated films forever. It’s not that surprising, considering Williams’s wonderful performance here, but it’s something I think is forgotten as part of this era of Disney’s legacy.
The film tells the story of a street kid in an Arabian city named Aladdin (Scott Weinger) who is living his life as a petty thief with his pet monkey named Abu when two events happen that will change the course of his life: 1) the advisor to the Sultan, Jafar (Jonathan Freeman), has seen in prophecy that Aladdin is destined to collect a magic lamp from a room of secrets and riches, and 2) the Sultan’s daughter Jasmine (Linda Larkin) escapes the palace and hits the streets, and she happens to meet up with Aladdin. From that moment on, it is love at first sight, although it can never be because Aladdin is a peasant and she must marry a prince. But when Jafar kidnaps Aladdin and gets him to steal the lamp, which contains Williams’s Genie, things begin to look up for him and his chances with Jasmine.
The film lacks the dramatic center of films like “The Lion King,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast,” but directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who co-wrote the script with Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio (“Shrek”), keep the fun moving at a delightful and energetic clip. A lot of that kicks in once Williams enters the film, but the songs by Alan Menkin and lyricists Tim Rice and Howard Ashman (who wrote a couple of songs before passing away) tell this story delightfully well, whether it’s a robust show-stopper like “Friend Like Me,” the romantic “A Whole New World” or a tone setter like “Arabian Nights.” This is what the best Disney films from any era are- entertaining stories told well, with memorable musical interludes and a rich visual palette. It’s probably my least favorite of those four classics between ’89-’94, but it’s still a classic for a very good reason.