“Wonderful! Magnificent! Glorious!… Punctual!” – Genie
Aladdin, another effort from the Ron and Jon team, is actually one of the most important films in modern animation history, when you really look at it. Though animated films before had used famous actor for major roles, (a notable example we’ve looked at is Bob Newhart as Barnard in The Rescuers), Aladdin was one of the first major animated films to use a major star as an attraction to see the film. In this case, a major part of Aladdin’s marketing campaign and its appeal was the casting of Robin Williams in the role of The Genie. Of course, if you look at the modern animation landscape, you will see that the famous actor gambit is one of the major forces within the animation community today. Disney itself has moved in and out of this gambit for years.
Aladdin is the story of our title character, Aladdin, a “street rat” who survives the daily life on the streets of Agrabah. One day, he has a chance encounter with Jasmine, daughter of the Sultan, who has run away because her father has forced her into marriage with men she doesn’t like. Their bonding is interrupted when the Palace Guards capture Aladdin by the order of Jafar, the Sultan’s advisor, who knows that Aladdin is his key into the mythical Cave of Wonders. Jafar convinces Jasmine that Aladdin is dead, then disguises himself as an old man to lead Aladdin to the Cave of Wonders There, Aladdin finds the lamp, and prevents the backstabbing Jafar from obtaining it. Aladdin meets the Genie, and uses the Genie’s powers to turn him into a prince. Aladdin must now try once again to win the heart of Jasmine, while Jafar, still lurking in the background, attempts to overthrow the Sultan, and ultimately, gain complete power.
Aladdin is, straight up, one of the most humorous films in the entire Disney canon. Even Chuck Jones, the famous director of Looney Tunes shorts, called it the funniest animated film ever, and he only worked for Disney for 4 months! And he didn’t even like it! Anyways, Aladdin blows out of the gate with the comedy from the moment it begins, and rarely lets up. The comedy is in your face and subtle, shown through the script and the animation, and every character has a least one moment to shine. It’s great.
I do want to go a bit further on some of these points, and we’ll start with how the animation in this film is amazing. Visual gags are a huge part of what makes Aladdin amazing, from the many faces of the Genie, to Genie pulling Sebastian out of a cookbook, to the visuals of the songs, to the way Iago imitates Jafar as he congratulates himself for taking the lamp. All of these, and a whole lot more, feature truly stupendous design and animation, and add so much to the humor. The film overall also has a bit of a more cartoonish look than other 1990s Disney films, which adds even more to the comedic proceedings.
And the script. Or possibly the lack of script, as it were, but we’ll get to that one point in just a bit. One thing that strikes me most about Aladdin when watching it now is how well the pop culture references hold up. The problem with many pop culture heavy movies currently is the fact that the pop culture referencing is all so modern that the film loses any meaning it had within a year (See: Epic Movie, Date Movie, Disaster Movie or save some time and don’t see them). Aladdin’s pop culture references were made to be timeless. Many of The Genie’s references are not actually to the modern culture but to culture that spans across time, from Groucho Marx to Rodney Dangerfield. These are not just references to the time but through recognizable people throughout history. And of course, the film has many other great moments of comedy that don’t involve referencing to the modern reality from both The Genie and from its other characters. Credit to Robin Williams and to the directors and writers here.
Oh! I just mentioned Robin Williams! He should have been the first strength mentioned, but oh well. Let’s talk about Robin. Williams gives one of the classic voice performances in the history of animation here as the Genie. If Robin Williams didn’t make it in stand up or film acting, he could have certainly become a star voice actor. The range this guy has! The impersonations this guy can do! The stuff he can come up with on the fly! It’s striking. Robin Williams actually improvised most of the lines you see in the film. So much so, that the Academy refused to nominate Aladdin for its screenplay because the finished film was so different from the original script. All for the better though. The Genie is hilarious as he is, as Robin Williams intended him to be.
Now, one could argue that Robin Williams’ performance as The Genie could fall into the “Celebrity Voice Acting” trap that I established all the way back at the Home on the Range ranking. And yes, you can hear a ton of Robin Williams in the Genie. But The Genie is never truly just Robin Williams being Robin Williams. While it is, Robin is actually able to build the character that is The Genie around his shtick, rather than relying on it. Robin is such a good actor, and he allows us to experience The Genie’s hopes and dreams, his sorrow and pain. While you hear Robin Williams in The Genie, you sometimes forget that you are listening to Robin Williams. That’s what makes a celebrity voice acting role good, when you forget that there is an actor behind that animation. And that is what Robin and the filmmakers are able to do.
Part of the reason that The Genie is able to become his own character is the way the film builds the relationship between The Genie and Aladdin. Aladdin and Genie have one of the all time greatest bromances in Disney History, and you can feel the love from the moment the pair meet. Aladdin and Genie just hit it off extremely well, and Aladdin’s straight man to Genie’s crazy guy makes this relationship. You can feel the connection, the playfulness between the two, the respect, and later anger, that the two have for each other. Man, I’m making this relationship sound romantic. It isn’t, but it is still, in nature, a great relationship, and one that helps both characters.
The romantic relationship in this film is not Genie and Aladdin, but rather Aladdin and Jasmine, and this is another classic Renaissance Disney Romance. What is classic about the Aladdin-Jasmine romance is the connection they have even before Aladdin becomes Prince Ali. While “A Whole New World” may be the remembered romance sequence, I think that their first scenes together in the market and on the rooftops are the better romantic sequences in the film and a classic Renaissance Romance scene. This is because I really enjoy the way their relationship is built as a friendship first. Yes, there is always a romantic edge to the relationship, but there is still the friendship budding that starts it out. It certainly is an interesting start, and a great one.
I need to move back towards the praising of characters again before I forget. And I’ll start with who I think is the unsung comedian of the film: Iago. Yes, Iago is completely Gilbert Gottfried, but that’s part of what makes him amazing. It is certainly more of a character than Gottfried ever played before, but he is absolutely hilarious. Iago has some of the absolute funniest lines, and his constant anger and sarcasm just carry some segments of the film to stardom, especially parts of the second act.
Of course, Iago wouldn’t be complete without his owner Jafar to constantly interact and argue with. In a film full of good voice performances, Jonathan Freeman, a noted Broadway Actor, gives another spectacular one, thanks in part to the wonderful script attached to the character. Jafar is such a fun mix of sinister and crazy, and runs the gambit of trying to get power subtlety when he thinks he has lost the lamp, and going all out bonkers when he has the lamp. And Jonathan Freeman helps this come out through his inspired voice performance. Jafar is such a great villain, and fits right into the crazy world that is Aladdin.
And finally, there is Abu and Magic Carpet, the two “silent” characters of the film. Abu, voiced by animal voice master Frank Welker, is a great sidekick to Aladdin, and like Iago, has some really fun moments of animation attached to him, and has some fun interactions throughout the film, though I prefer his monkey form to his elephant form. But Magic Carpet… where do I begin? Only in Animation can a rug have so much personality. Carpet is truly a masterwork, turning an inanimate object into a character that the audience can understand easily through visual. Carpet follows in the footsteps of other great silent characters in Disney history, and is probably the star Silent character of the 1990s.
Magic Carpet also helps to add to one of the film’s great action sequences, the attempted escape from The Cave of Wonders. The action and the choreography of the sequence is fantastic, and the way the sequence is shot, with the point of the view and the cutbacks to Aladdin and Abu, are absolutely wonderful. Another great action sequence that the film has is the final battle with Jafar. Combining the craziness of Jafar with Aladdin fighting like any good Disney Hero would and with Genie doing his antics in the background makes for a great final battle.
And finally, like any good Disney musical, Aladdin has a great soundtrack. The Genie’s two songs, “Friend like Me” and “Prince Ali” are a ton of fun, and Robin Williams does a number with his singing in these songs. “A Whole New World” is one of the classic Disney Romance Songs of the modern era, with some great visuals to go along with it. And the reprise of “Prince Ali” by Jafar is one of the best reprises in the history of Disney’s films. Ever. Jafar’s happy tone and taunting lyrics just make it for me. “Arabian Nights” is the film’s weakest song, but it still manages to open the film in an entertaining manner.
Following in the tradition of The Aristocats and The Princess and the Frog, Aladdin suffers a bit because it’s true protagonists are weaker than the side characters that surround them. Unlike the other two films, however, Aladdin’s gap between the two is relatively small. Aladdin and Jasmine are still great protagonists. Classic Disney protagonists, even. However, when Aladdin as a film needs to slow down and create drama, after the Prince Ali number, the film does suffer a bit because Aladdin and Jasmine don’t pop as much as the other characters do. It doesn’t help that the film forces Aladdin to act like an idiot when he is in Prince Ali form. Again, Aladdin and Jasmine are great, but they are surrounded by a fantastic cast that ultimately eclipses them. And again, it is a small gap, but at this point, it’s going to hurt you.
And that is all I got. One small weakness, but a weakness nonetheless.
BEST MOMENT AND SONG
The film’s best moment is the entirety of the time that Aladdin is in the Cave of Wonders, including the action sequence I mentioned from above. As a whole, from Jafar’s antics to The Magic Carpet to the action, is great.
The best song in the film is Friend like Me. It is the catchiest, it has the most fun visuals, and it’s just a fun song overall. Robin Williams shines here. The Genie’s introduction before the song is also wonderful, and is a perfect example of Robin William’s talent and the film’s humor.
Aladdin is hilarious in nearly every moment. Though I wish Aladdin and Jasmine were a little stronger (a wish that I don’t think Genie can get done for me at this moment), the film as a whole is fantastic, and well deserves its spot in the Top 15. I’m sure many of you have seen it by this point, but if you need a good laugh, go watch it. Robin Williams alone is worth it. We shall march onward and upward. See you at film 14!