A Study in Disney: ‘Aladdin’ (1992)

| January 12, 2022

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

It was always Robin Williams.

Everyone knows that Disney’s version of Aladdin is work of brilliant animation, great comedy and great characters, encompassing thousands of hours of hard work both from actors, artists, musicians and technicians.  But, let’s face it, when it comes right back down to it, it will always be The Robin Williams Show.  He seemed to have been born to the form, a comedian of brilliant comic instincts that almost seemed to happen at random.  Sometimes in live action, his voice seemed to restrict and reject the gravity of the real world.  That’s why he seemed tailor-made for cartoons.

Most people of a certain age were first introduced to Robin Williams on an episode of “Happy Days” called “My Favorite Orkan.”  In it he played Mork from the planet Ork who lands in Ritchie Cunningham’s living room with a comic energy doesn’t seem possible.  It is sort of fitting that the first time most of us saw Robin Williams, he was playing an alien.  No one had never seen anything like it before.  Oh, maybe the Groucho Marx, and maybe there’s something of his energy and timing in the work of Buster Keaton, but Williams moved with an energy all his own – like a fly that generated jokes, impressions, one-liners and funny noises.  The funny thing is, he never lost that.  When he burst into Ritchie’s living room he did so with a comic zeal that he maintained for the next 35 years.

Surprisingly, Williams was new to animated features by 1992.  Besides the Genie he had also provided the voice of Batty Koda, a fruit bat who was the victim of animal testing in 20th Century Fox’s environmental cautioner Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.  That performance was fine but it was largely grounded in the character’s manic instincts and, in truth, did not really fit with the film’s tone.

The Genie didn’t have that problem.  Released from the terra firma of the real world and the special limitations of a “realistic” character, he could use his vocal talents to match the free-form of the character – he could bend and twist and mold himself into whatever shape the character wanted.  The shapes matched Williams’ vocal speed and it made for a high-energy performance.

One of the best elements to Aladdin are the character designs.  The artists clearly were not going for realism here, they were going for a style that was more cartoony, based largely on the work of Al Hirschfeld.  Aladdin distinguishes itself by having a style more reminiscent of old Warner Bros. cartoons with the characters bending and stretching inside the frame more than those in The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.   That’s because those films seemed a bit more grounded.  Yes, they took place in fantasy worlds but they were grounded within the rules of movie logic.  With Aladdin, that’s not the case, there are characters here who stretch and bend in cartoonish fashion.

Much of that cartoonish style seems built to fit the ever-changing Genie character who is not only able to stretch and mold and bend into different shapes and different characters, but he also bends into shapes and characters that, for one, would not have been known at the time and, for another, would not exist within the movie if it were more grounded in reality. 

This, of course, has led to questions of not only how the Genie would know about people who would not exist for several centuries.  He bends into the shapes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jack Nicholson, Arsenio Hall, Groucho Marx and William F. Buckley but how does he know these people?  How does he know about cars, airplanes, game shows, slot machines?   These are questions that swirl around the film’s logic but would only crash into it if the story were based on real world logic.  The movie is molded to fit The Genie’s insane machinations and comic alignments.

Aladdin is a movie that suggests a time period without really being restricted to its rules.  Historical ground is a nice suggestion here but it is only a template.  We can see that it obviously takes place on the Arabian Peninsula possibly sometime in the 3rd century but it is not bound to that.  If it were restricted to the rules of time and gravity then it wouldn’t work as well.  This movie does not set out to be a historical text book, rather it wants to be a high-energy lavish musical-comedy with Arabia as a colorful backdrop.  It has the elements of a Broadway musical in which the songs and the characters are much more important than the story.

The songs work beautifully when they try to be Broadway showstoppers.  “Prince Ali” and “One Jump Ahead” and especially “Friend Like Me” match the film’s manic energy, but when it tries for a love story, it kind of falls apart.

Aladdin and Jasmine aren’t really fleshed out people so much as types – Disney-types – whose wants and desires are rather standard.  This is a bit of a let-down coming off of Beauty and the Beast where the romance was drawn from the idea of breaking down of perceptions brought on by society, and from their individual personalities.  Beast was ostracized because of how he looked and Belle was ostracized because she was a woman whose worldly glance isn’t centered on the parameters that society imposed upon her.  Belle and Beast came together slowly through the constant changes in their own perceptions and difficult feelings toward one another.  In Aladdin, the love story is much more about the idea of being in love.  It splits the love story and tries to find mutual ground between Aladdin (who is poor) and Jasmine (who is rich but has no choices) but there’s no real drive pushing them there.  The conflict in their relationship is that he is pretending to be a wealthy prince even though they’ve spent enough time together that he would know that she would love him for himself.  Why does he need the ruse?  They’ve already spent a day and an evening getting to know one another, the ruse isn’t necessary.  The Sultan is understanding enough about his daughter’s desires to marry for love that he can change the law so she can marry whomever she chooses . . . and, in fact . . . he does!  It drops on the story as a Deus ex Machina.

The central love story sags but it is propped up by the comedy which comes from a gaggle of wonderful supporting characters who are much more interesting than the leads (this has been a Disney standard since Snow White).  The villain Jafar – whose boney frame and outrageous outfit make him look like an insect.  His toady Iago, is played by the very Brooklyn Gilbert Gottfried in possibly his best performance.  The Sultan is cute and funny.  Even the non-speaking characters are given a larger dimension then is required: the greedy monkey Abu, the sensitive tiger Rajah and the flying carpet who is a wonderful use of animation without words – expressing himself only with tassels and folds.

But again, it always comes down to Robin Williams.  This is an actor given the perfect medium for his gifts and a movie that works best being molded around them.  He is credited with much of the film’s success, but in a larger sense in bringing animation back into the public eye.  Prior to the Disney Renaissance, animated features were attended by and aimed at children.  The Little Mermaid showed that animation was still a viable art form.  Beauty and the Beast brought respectability to the form from the artistic community.  But Aladdin would prove that an animated film could play to a mass audience older than elementary school.  Teenagers and young adults discovered this movie and suddenly the stigma of animated films as “kiddie stuff” seemed to melt away.  Today a lot of adults and teenagers go and see animated films with or without children (I certainly do) and that largely has to do with the fact that the Disney Renaissance provided the form with a measure of sophistication, a manner of speaking to both kids and adults that never felt like pandering on either side.  That’s a magic trick that only true visionary artists could pull off.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.