As a kid, my favorite Disney film was Aladdin.
Looking back, it’s not surprising. Aladdin courts more of a male audience than a lot of the other Disney films of the era. It leans heavily on action, comedy, and razzmatazz animation. It has colorful characters and catchy songs and a generally upbeat tone.
Few films wore out my old VCR the way Aladdin did, given how often I would replay the video and rewind it to catch “Friend Like Me” just one more time. For years, I considered it the peak of Disney’s incredibly fertile ‘90s run, incredible as much of its competition had been.
So what changed?
Don’t get me wrong, I still love Aladdin. It’s a wickedly fun movie, with some of the most memorable characters the modern Mouse House has created. Yet over the years, it’s slid downward in my Renaissance estimation – below Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I still get a kick out of watching Disney’s Arabian delight, but it now sits somewhere in the middle of the 1990s pantheon.
In fact, looking back, I think a good chunk of my childhood love for the film could be attributed to just one of the its many characters. And if you’ve seen the film – heck, even if you’re one of the eight people on Earth who hasn’t – you can probably guess which one.
The Genie is among the most popular and beloved characters in Disney history – a mystic being with an endless array of quips and quirks and late-20th century pop-culture references at his disposal. As voiced with gusto by the great (and forever-missed) Robin Williams, the Genie is the rare animated character able to appeal in equal doses to older viewers (who can appreciate his riffs on celebrities like Peter Lorre, William F. Buckley, and Rodney Dangerfield) and the small fry (who may not be familiar with the names, but can still giggle at the cartoony impressions). The Genie’s animation (supervised by Eric Goldberg, in his promising Disney debut) is a thrill to watch, his elastic face morphing seamlessly from one transformation to another. From the moment he’s let loose from his lamp, the Genie fills the screen with electrifying energy.
He is, to put it plainly, the best thing about Aladdin, and one of the most memorable sidekicks in the Disney pantheon. And Aladdin, we should note, gives him no shortage of competition for that title – the film has perhaps more distinct sidekicks than any other in the studio’s oeuvre. There’s the lithe and squeaky-pitched Aby, the digitally-animated Magic Carpet, and the hotheaded wisgeguy Iago. (You could even make the case for Rajah filling the “animal sidekick” role, though without the benefits of anthropomorphization.) Disney films have always relied on funny side characters to lighten the drama and keep youngsters entertained, but hardy a scene in Aladdin goes by without one of the humorous side characters getting in a visual or verbal punchline.
This is not to suggest, though, that this comic relief fails to provide adequate comedy – far from it, in fact. Even beyond the Genie’s bottomless bag of tricks, Gilbert Gottfried hams it up as Iago, and gets some of the film’s best one-liners. Abu and the Magic Carpet also develop a fun rapport, even if neither utters a legible word during the film, and the use of digital animation enjoyably turns the latter character into cinema’s most quintessentially expressive rug. There’s plenty of good humor in Aladdin, and very few of the jokes miss their mark.
But the emphasis on side players does, unfortunately, leave the film’s central characters looking rather bland. (And before you hit “Submit” on the angry comment you had prepared before this review was even posted, take a moment to hear me out.)
Aladdin himself, at the film’s outset, has all the elements of a Disney hero in the making. He’s a penniless teenage orphan constantly outrunning the law, which gives him (1) sympathy points and (2) a potential reformation arc. The film soon completes the characterization trifecta by declaring him the Chosen One – a “diamond in the rough” worthy to enter the Cave of Wonders.
But despite the early promise of a compelling character arc, Aladdin spends nearly the entire film stuck in neutral. Despite his thieving ways, he is shown from the start to be a good-hearted man – giving his stolen bread to a pair of hungry children, rescuing the disguised Jasmine from an inflamed shopkeeper – and the film offers him little room for development. Shortly after discovering the lamp, Aladdin promises to use his third wish to grant the Genie his freedom, and nothing in the story much threatens to upend his vow before he fulfills it at the movie’s end.
Jasmine doesn’t fare much better. As with Aladdin, she’s given a potentially compelling arc – she’s a princess who goes against the grain by falling for a “street rat” – but the drama is given little room to breathe. She justifiably points out that the suitors she is brought would make poor husbands, and her father does little to stand in her way. (Amusingly, the end of the film goes as far as to point out how easy it is for the two leads to wed – as her father puts it, “Well, am I Sultan or an I Sultan?) The romantic drama between Jasmine and Aladdin is played as safely and conventionally as possible, never more noticeably than when the Genie informs Aladdin that he can’t use his powers to make people fall in love.
The highlight of the Aladdin/Jasmine, pairing, of course, is the now-famous sequence where the two jump aboard the Magic Carpet and glide over the streets of Arabia, crooning the lyrics of “A Whole New World.” It’s a wonderful and gorgeously animated scene that largely takes a break from the comedy, bridging the gap between the nation’s rich and poor as they reflect on the visual beauty of the world they share. Disney films netted plenty of Best Song Oscars during the ‘90s, and while I don’t agree with all those wins (not to name any names, but they won’t be in my heart and I can’t feel the love tonight), “A Whole New World” is a remarkable musical number in a film full of them. (“Prince Ali” and the aforementioned “Friend Like Me” are worth a mention as well.)
But beyond their tuneful highlight, Aladdin and Jasmine take on rather generic hero-and-damsel roles, too often serving merely as sounding boards for the comical supporting cast. The film’s chief dramatic fulcrum, then, is Jafar, one of the most menacing and memorable villains of the Renaissance.
Jafar may be a manipulative snake, but the film plays up his malice to a degree that perfectly complements his chutzpah with the film’s flighty tone. His brazen scheming, outlandish as it may be, gives the film an outsized villain to match its outsized intentions.
Especially entertaining is to watch Jafar climb ever higher on his self-made pedestal, using the Genie’s allotted three wishes to ascend from advisor to ruler to sorcerer to genie. This last transformation allows the film to deliver a gratifying punchline – in his most powerful form, Jafar is at his most vulnerable, hoist with his own petard and sucked into his own lamp. It’s a creative ending for the film’s villain (and one that avoids the typical “Disney death” trope), and nicely balanced in the film’s finale when that other Genie is finally released from his own lamp.
And the Genie’s freedom makes a pleasant coda, even if it doesn’t feel quite as satisfying as it could have. After spending much of its running time opting for visual and comedic flair, there’s no doubt that the film will end by setting the big blue guy free from his bracelets. (He does take a moment to deliver one last jab at the audience, and perhaps to subtly underscore the film’s role as a feature-length diversion – “Made ya look!”)
I come not to bury Aladdin, which is why I’ve spent a fair deal of this review praising it. Thanks in part to childhood nostalgia, the film still has a place in my youthful heart, and I find plenty to enjoy in watching it to this day. But had I my own magic lamp, I’d wish this entry in the Disney Renaissance had as much substance as some of its peers.
(Okay, not really. I’d probably wish for money and stuff.)