Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Modern Classic Movie Review: Aladdin

It had been a very long time since I’d last seen Disney’s Aladdin. I was inspired to take another look at it because of the tragically too soon death of Robin Williams a few months ago. I’m not sure there’s any other Disney animated film that leans so heavily on the voice talent of one particular actor the way Aladdin does. That’s not to say it has nothing else going for it, but Williams’ voice work as the genie is so memorable, it’s hard not to think of the film as a Robin Williams vehicle rather than one in  long and proud tradition of animated feature films.

Like most of the Disney animated features, the story (screenplay by Ron Clements and John Musker) is lifted from a classic tale and made it more palatable and cuddly-cute for kids. Aladdin is a street thief who, through a stroke of luck, comes into possession of a lamp that contains a genie who will grant him three wishes. He covets Princess Jasmine who, in a very early 90s, post-feminism Disney kind of way, doesn’t want her future to be determined by her father. The parade of pompous suitors is deplorable to her, but custom is custom in ancient Baghdad, and the daughter of a Sultan must marry a prince.

Aladdin arrived in 1992 during Disney’s animation renaissance, sandwiched between Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Aladdin takes as its structure the form of a Broadway musical. It opens Grand Hotel-style with a narrator singing about the desert and those Arabina Nights, setting a somewhat deeper and darker tone musically almost the same way Ursula’s big number did in The Little Mermaid. From there the story leads us from one big production number to another including the manic genie introduction number, “Friend Like Me” and the love ballad “A Whole New World.” Musker and Clements have been Disney’s go-to team for animated musicals and Aladdin is one of the best examples in their arsenal of incorporating songs into a story.

As is Disney’s style, the screenplay cobbles together a blandly unmemorable hero for the character of Aladdin (voiced by Scott Weinger). Even Jasmine (Linda Larkin) fails to impress. In the pantheon of Disney princesses, Jasmine is one of the weakest. Their voice characterizations offer little and it seems the Disney producers responsible for the casting knew what little they had in those characters because they spent the casting budget on the more interesting sidekicks. The villain is, as usual, much more memorable than the hero and the princess. Jafar is a power-hungry maniacal villain voiced by Jonathan Freeman. But it’s his pet bird Iago, voiced by the shrill, grating, and irritating Gilbert Gottfried, that gets the best lines and most comical moments. And Williams brought the absolute best of what he does. He left nothing out. His Genie offers a compendium of great Robin Williams bits, voices, impressions, and antics and it’s mesmerizing.

The color palette is replete with deep rich blues and dark reds. It’s one of the best looking of the Disney animations from the period. And Alan Menken truly nailed it with his musical score and original songs. Howard Ashman and Tim Rice provided the lyrics. The songs may not measure up to the splendor of the much-lauded numbers from Beauty and the Beast, also by Menken and Ashman, but they are zippy and fun.

Some of the criticism that was leveled at Aladdin early on I think is generally fair. It’s hard to ignore the fact that Aladdin and Jasmine are both pale-skinned and have distinctly Caucasian features while Jafar was animated with grotesquely caricatured Arab features. Weinger and Larkin also have American accents while the guards and henchmen who stand as obstacles to the hero’s journey are voiced by actors donning phony accents. Imagine if The Princess and the Frog, which took place in New Orleans and featured African American characters, had supplied a white woman’s voice to the heroine while casting black actors as sidekicks and villains. You see the problem now. These facts besmirch (not quite on the same level as Song of the South) what is an otherwise excellent entertainment, but don’t strip it off the map completely.

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