October 20, 2013
There's an old saying in sport that you're only as good as the last game you played. After the success of Beauty and the Beast, the Disney Renaissance would seem to have been cemented - and in terms of public consciousness, this may be true. But that doesn't mean that everything ... Disney put out in the aftermath deserves such a glowing reputation. While Aladdin is by no means a bad film, it isn't quite as good as memory tells us.
When I reviewed Sleeping Beauty, I praised the film as an example of 'pantomime done right'. In other words, the film-makers understood the conventions of pantomime and their relationship to fairy tales, embracing the conventions of these genres to tell their story in the best possible manner. Like Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella before it, Aladdin is at its heart a pantomime, possessing a plot with familiar, much-loved motions, a cheery, family-friendly moral, and a cast of stock characters, some from Disney convention, others from deeper within the genre's history.
Aladdin is our archetypal romantic hero, someone who isn't that bright and doesn't really do anything to spur the plot on: instead, he spends his time reacting to things that are thrust upon him, whether it's his love at first sight with Jasmine or his discovery of the Genie in the cave. Jasmine is a princess with a well-meaning father who urgently wants her to marry - but she wants to marry for love, while he doesn't particularly mind. As with Sleeping Beauty, the main conflict of the story is between the villain and the heroes' sidekicks: in this case Jafar wants to be Sultan and the Genie works through Aladdin so the latter can marry Jasmine.
Like any good pantomime, Aladdin has moments of genuine darkness or creepiness which punctuate an often frothy story. Some of the darker moments are really well-rendered: the collapse of the Cave of Wonders, with Aladdin flying the magic carpet, is a really tense little set-piece. Likewise Jafar's transformations are well-paced and very well-drawn, with the snake transformation reflecting the climax of the Bumble Boogie segment of Melody Time. The story wouldn't have been improved by the whole thing being this dark, but these moments do add welcome variety to what is otherwise a well-worn story.
Even if it had nothing else going for it, Aladdin does succeed in taking these archetypal characters and making them memorable. Jafar and Iago are good, memorable villains with a believable motivation and a memorable method of carrying out their evil schemes. While Jafar is a classic pantomime villain, meant to be both scary and ridiculous, Iago is more straight-up comic relief, and it really works. Jasmine is one of the better Disney princesses: she's no Belle, and she does spend a lot of her time complaining, but she is more independent and less self-pitying than Ariel or Cinderella.
But by far the most memorable character, for reasons both good and bad, is the Genie as played by Robin Williams. This is ironic considering that Williams took the role on the conditions that he wouldn't be the main focus of the promotion: keen to give Toys an equal chance at the box office, he was paid SAG scale (relatively little) for his voice work and his contract stipulated that the character's image would not take up more than 25% of any advertising. But Jeffrey Katzenberg, the film's executive producer, went back on his word and made Williams' appearance one of the major selling points. As a result Williams refused to return for the straight-to-video sequel The Return of Jafar, being replaced by Dan Castelleneta from The Simpsons.
The role of the Genie in Aladdin is significant for several reasons. It was a watershed for mainstream animation, in that it ushered in a practice of having celebrities or famous comedians voicing a fast-talking sidekick for the lead. It's also one of the most divisive aspects of the film: since the animators worked to Williams' improvisations rather than have him read from a script, several critics saw his performance as unchecked narcissistic indulgence. But most importantly, whether you agree with this assessment or not, Williams' performances leads us on to the biggest problem with the film.
I spoke in my reviews of Beauty and the Beast and The Rescuers Down Under about Disney actively celebrating its past. In my reviews of later Disney films, such as Tarzan, I also spoke of how this celebration was eventually consolidated into a series of overly rigid conventions, eventually resulting in such miserable dreck as Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Put simply, there's a very fine line between celebrating your past and shoving it in your audience's faces with a smug grin on your face, and Aladdin crosses this line. You could go to so far to say that in this film are the first few traces of the cynicism that would later engulf the Renaissance.
Part of the problem is that Williams keeps doing jokes that only adults will get; without wishing to appear insulting, I suspect there are few young children out there who would recognise Ed Sullivan, Peter Lorre, Rodney Dangerfield or Jack Nicholson. But equally problematic are the obvious references to Disney's own back catalogue. It's one thing to have elephants pop up and merge with one another a la Dumbo; it's quite another to have obvious cameos from Pinocchio and Sebastian from The Little Mermaid. These things smack of someone trying to flog their other products in the midst of telling you a story, one of the few things in which Katzenberg truly excels.
What makes this so frustrating on a narrative level is that Aladdin would have worked just as well without all the blatant references and pop culture jokes. If directors Ron Clements and John Musker had put their foot down, or been allowed to play it straight, the film would have had a greater sense of innocence about it which would have aided both the fairy tale feel and the pace of the storytelling. As it is, whole sections of the film are strung out and dragged down by Disney being just a little bit smug about its own success.
There are other problems besides this, which relate to the visuals of the film. There has been a great deal of speculation about the relationship between Aladdin and The Thief and the Cobbler, Richard Williams' unfinished masterpiece which saw the light of day in 1993 in a poorly-edited and retooled version by Miramax. Since Disney completed Aladdin before the Miramax cut existed, it's hard to know how much one work may have borrowed from the other. You could certain argue that the works have similarities, both in their character composition and their designs - for instance, Jafar's resemblance to the villainous Zig-Zag.
More substantial (and problematic) is the cultural depiction of the Middle East. This is a problem that many pantomime versions of Aladdin or Ali Baba face, and being a pantomime we know from the start that historical fidelity is not high on the agenda. But the film does drift into insensitive territory at times, making stereotypical jokes about cutting off people's hands and, Jasmine aside, coming up short in its depiction of women. We could also cry racism on the voice casting: all the heroes are given American accents and are whiter in complexion, while the disposable bad guys have cod Arabic accents and darker skin.
Even with all these problems, however, it is still just about possible to enjoy Aladdin as a breezy pantomime musical. The music is much more brash than Beauty and the Beast, trading the gentle grace of 'Beauty and the Beast' for the quick-fire wordplay of 'Friend Like Me'. This song is the stand-out, with great choreography which plays to Williams' vocal style and fittingly disorientates the hero. 'Prince Ali isn't quite as memorable but is still very pleasant, and even the overplayed 'A Whole New World' since has a childlike quality to it. Aladdin's singing voice isn't all that great, but in general the cast (both sung and spoken) is very strong.
Aladdin is an enjoyable but problematic entry into the Disney canon, which raises questions about the Renaissance as much as it commercially underpins it. It has too many issues, whether visual or narrative, to be given a completely clean bill of health, but as a piece of pantomime storytelling it makes up for it with good humour and strong performances. While it's definitely a comedown from Beauty and the Beast, you won't be wishing it would disappear any time soon.