Aladdin (1992)

Shining, shimmering, splendid

There’s an interesting case to be made that Aladdin is the most influential non-CGI animated picture of the last 50 years. Or, if not “influential,” at least “prophetic.” I’m not quite enough of a cinema historian to properly make the claim, but here are the points I came up with:

While Aladdin is neither the first, nor the most popular, nor the most critically acclaimed of the “Disney Renaissance” pictures — those are The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast, respectively — it does a few things that hadn’t really been done in the same way before and are now staples of Hollywood animated pictures.

For one, it has a character built around its celebrity voice casting with Robin Williams as The Genie. Williams’ name was not only used in the marketing, but everything about The Genie was built around his persona. We’ve seen this over and over since; frankly, it’s harder to find a mainstream animated film that doesn’t have a lead character built around a certain celebrity’s voice than one that does. Think Eddie Murphy in Shrek, Josh Gad in Frozen, and Justin Timberlake in Trolls.

(I suppose Iago also fits the bill, here, since he was seemingly cast entirely so Gilbert Gottfried could deliver the line “I think I’m gonna have a heart attack and die from that surprise.”)

Aladdin also had tremendous crossover success with a pop single from its soundtrack more than any of the Disney Renaissance pictures that preceded it. “A Whole New World” not only topped the Billboard charts, but won the Grammy for Song of the Year. Nowadays, cultural ubiquity and viral popularity of the soundtracks of animated musicals seem to be an objective of studios outside even the popularity of the film itself. Gotta get those streaming bucks. Plenty well-known pop songs started as credits tracks a popular animated movies (”Happy” by Pharrell Williams, “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake, “Life is a Highway” by Rascall Flatts, for example). And that’s not to mention the astonishing zeitgeist effect of “Let it Go” and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.”

It also is broadly comic, sacrificing some fairy tale magic for a snarky and slightly postmodern sense of humor that make heavy use of cultural references. It’s the proto-Shrek.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that Aladdin, despite being thirty years old, feels remarkably contemporary, even more than plenty of Walt Disney Animation Studio pictures that followed it.

I suppose that this observation is not, really, a comment on the quality of this film, so let me stop beating around the bush: Aladdin is excellent. It has a joyous sense of fun energy that occasionally borders on the chaotic thanks to Robin Williams’ mile-a minute shtick as the pop-culture riffing Genie. The CAPS animation has endured as beautiful and expressive, particularly the colors and everything surrounding the lithe, pointed Jafar.

Williams’ presence has always been a bit divisive among my peers. I’ve typically enjoyed it, though this time I did start to feel a bit exhausted at his relentlessness by the end. Some of his deliveries are amazing and funny; other times it makes you wish the editors had been a bit more aggressive in chopping his ad libs. But, if nothing else, the animation gives his routine life; a Jack Nicholson impersonation is not inherently funny. But when it’s paired with a goofy Nicholson caricature, absurdly out of place in an Arabian Nights story? Okay, I’m smiling, at least.

The adventure story that gives the whole thing shape is fine, though a bit slight and lacking in great characters. Aladdin is not one of Disney’s best protagonists. He’s a bit whiny and unmemorable compared to, e.g., Ariel.

There’s a bit of a wobbly identity to the story. Some moments have the pleasing cadence of a screwball comedy (Howard Ashman’s two terrific, polysyllabic numbers help with this — Robin Williams patters his ass off). Other times, it’s a more straightforward action-comedy tentpole. And it’s really a love story even more than The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast; a romantic comedy, really. Aladdin and Jasmine really do form an excellent on-screen couple. Aladdin never boring, but it does feel like it rushes towards the conclusion as if it ran out of great ideas.

One last point in Aladdin’s favor: Lea Salonga’s singing voice, for which I am a shameless simp. There’s not a better conceivable voice for a princess, powerful and innocent and brave and tender, all at once. Imagine casting her and only writing one song for her; a duet, at that. “A Whole New World” might not be the most sophisticated composition in Disney’s canon, but goddamn if it doesn’t give me chills every single time I’ve listen, a glorious rush of heart-melting romance (with an appropriate dash of lust in the subtext). It’s one of my favorite songs from any movie, I confess. Shining, shimmering, splendid, indeed.

Is It Good?

Exceptionally Good (7/8)

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