Disney’s Aladdin (1992) is a grandly amusing, if off kilter, recanting of Arabian Nights – a collection of short oral stories first compiled into book form in the year 1000. That the finished film from directors Ron Clements and John Musker bears only a passing resemblance to its textual heritage is perhaps predictable enough, given the Disney legacy for manipulating even the most time honored source materials.
In the book Arabian Nights, the Grand Vizier is not a villain per say, but rather a person of interests for the future prosperity of his own family. He desires the Princess, not in marriage to himself, but for his son. There is no magic carpet; no friendship with a mischievous monkey; no grand display of pomp and circumstance. Furthermore, the literary Aladdin is not an orphan.
Though his father dies early on in the text, his mother survives to act as a mediator between Aladdin and the palace. Finally, the Genie in the book does not desire his own freedom from the lamp, and, is able to grant Aladdin an infinite number of wishes – not the magical three ascribed in the Disney film.
In revising the text to make it more pliable for the Disney touch, the screenplay by Ted Elliott augments the original concepts with invariable cute and cuddly Disney imagery. The film opens on Aladdin (voiced by Scott Weinger/sung by Brad Kane) – a street savvy urchin who aspires to court life inside the Sultan of Agrabah’s (Douglas Seale) palace. Meanwhile, the Princess Jasmine (voiced by Linda Larkin/sung by Lea Salonga) wants to escape her cloistered existence and venture out into the real world. After sneaking away from the palace, Jasmine and Aladdin meet cute in the market square.
Eventually captured by the Grand Vizier Jafar (Jonathan Freeman), Aladdin is ushered into service in search of a mystical Cave of Wonders and its magic lamp. However, Jafar’s plan goes awry and Aladdin winds up with the lamp and its’ Genie (Robin Williams) – a gregarious masculine spin-off on Cinderella’s kindly Fairy Godmother.
In their preliminary storyboard screening sessions the Disney artisans were suddenly faced with a hard truth – that no one involved on the project cared much for the direction it had developed. Hence, screen scenarists Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot were thrust into a heated reworking of the material. In just eight days the project was turned around, with then studio chief Jeffrey Katzenburg encouraging the transformation of the child Aladdin into a more studly man about town.
To develop the thematic character styling, animators turned to legendary caricaturist, Al Hirschfeld whose stylized essence of a person through fluid lines was heavily borrowed for the creation of the Genie. But the animators also turned to classic Hollywood's Conrad Veidt as their inspiration for Jafar.
Midway through composing the songs, Howard Ashman died leaving his long time collaborator Alan Menken to write three additional melodies with Tim Rice. For musical inspiration, Ashman and Menken decided on an eclectic blend of traditional Middle Eastern, American jazz and swing. Unfortunately, one of their lyrics met with considerable outrage from the Muslim community. In the song ‘Arabian Nights’ that opens the story, a lyric that once read “…where they cut of your nose if they don’t like your face, it’s barbaric but, hey, it’s home” was later revised to “…where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense…”
Aladdin is often lumped into the renaissance Disney classics with Lion King and Beauty and the Beast but it's actually more second tier than that. What is perhaps most engaging about the finished film is Robin Williams’ vocal characterization of the Genie. Indeed, it is the standout performance – over the top comedic, raucous and with more than an ounce of William’s particular brand of petty larceny.
So too is Jonathan Freeman’s larger than life vocal styling of the villain a strength. But the film suffers greatly from an ineffectual set up and rather lackluster development of the two central characters, Aladdin and Princess Jasmine. They meet, fall in love, are torn asunder and eventually reunited. But the focus of the story is arguably never on them. Instead we wait for the Genie to reappear. The narrative indulges in a verbal tennis match between scenes with the Genie and scenes with Jafar, eventually bringing these two together for a grand showdown. In the final analysis, Aladdin was a colossal hit with audiences, winning Oscars for Best Original Song – ‘A Whole New World’ and Score.
Disney DVD’s 2-disc deluxe edition delivers an appropriately vibrant visual presentation. Colors are eye-popping and resplendent. Contrast levels are superbly rendered. There are no age related or digital artifacts to speak of. The audio is brand new home theater remix of the original and is quite aggressive in its sonic spread.
Extras on disc 2 are a bit laborious to get through with film historian Leonard Maltin serving as a guide through a disjointed Q&A session in front of a live audience that is frequently interrupted by some unnecessary mugging from cast and crew. There are also extensive pencil tests, stills, trivia and games to muddle through.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)