Monday, July 7, 2014

ALADDIN: Blu-ray (Walt Disney Pictures 1992) Disney Home Video

So much in the world has changed since the premiere of Walt Disney’s Aladdin (1992). What once appeared as an exotic mirage, very loosely based on pre-Islamic Mesopotamian folklore, richly steeped in western culture’s innate fascination for faraway places and traditions removed from its own, today – regrettably – plays more like farce-laden caprice; a sort of Broadway meets burlesque hybrid with jazzy influences. Somehow, in the intervening decades, Aladdin has succumbed to a grotesque naiveté, painfully out of touch with the life-altering events of September 11th, 2001 and, more recently, the attacks on the American Embassy in Bengasi. Were that we could all take that magic carpet ride back to those simpler times preceding Aladdin’s theatrical release; able to view it again with an uncritical eye, to appreciate the finer arts from composers, Howard Ashman, Allen Menken and Tim Rice; also the glossy animation supervised by co-directors, Ron Clements and John Musker.
I suspect that for a good many, Aladdin’s Arabic-themed ‘charm’ has lost its ethnocentric ‘feel good’, perhaps, the reason it remains the only Disney animated masterpiece from their second renaissance yet to receive a North American Blu-ray release. There’s also placation at work, the same variety that has kept the studio’s Song of the South (1946) off the home video radar. Again, I’ll venture the guess; because in our present-day misguided political correctness, Disney Inc. has decided to expunge any movie from its legacy that does not uphold America’s current worldview of a ‘kinder, gentler, more thoughtful nation.’
Aladdin is, of course, based on the ancient collage of fanciful stories, One Thousand and One Arabian Nights; its authorship and true date unknown, but presumed to have been penned around the 9th century.  Although the patina and placement of these stories is undeniably centered in the Middle East, with memorable passages dedicated to Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad the Sailor, scholars speculate the origins are East Indian; adventurous tales steeped in romantic interludes, bedecked in faux respectability as legends, rechristened as parables and arguably, meant to be anecdotal with thinly disguised references to socio-political intrigues from their own time.
For centuries, Arabian Nights remained paramount in the oral translation; eventually reaching the mid-European ear of Antoine Galland, in his 1704 publication, Les Mille et Une Nuits; and later, August Müller in 1887, who became fascinated by their proverbs and was determined to commit them to paper while stationed in Egypt. There is some debate over either author’s fidelity in their translation of this ‘source material’; best known to western culture as influenced by a decidedly more European perspective and departing from their more primitive beginnings.
In the latter half of the 19th century, western civilization became entranced with such stories; chiefly motivated by Britain’s colonization of half the world and mesmerizing accounts of life on the far side of the world put forth in academic scholarship and imaginative works of creative fiction in popular literature. Then came the movies: the perfect medium to rechristen this history for its own, offering just enough verisimilitude to make it all seem genuine. A TripTik through Hollywood’s history reveals a natural progression; from Rudolph Valentino’s Sheik (1921) to Selznick’s The Garden of Allah (1936), and beyond, to the Kipling-esque adventures of Gunga Din (1939), Kismet (1944) and Kim (1950), advancing into the faux historical epic and even more adventurism a la David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Khartoum (1966).
In embracing Aladdin as an animated feature, co-directors Clements and Musker began with the herculean task to distill and reconstitute the barbaric episodes in the original Arabian Nights into a more family friendly milieu; one trademarked by the Disney tradition and its affinity for warm, fuzzy feel good. Interestingly, all of Disney’s renaissance pictures, beginning with The Little Mermaid (1989) mark a sort of radical departure (as well as something of a return) to the time-honored precepts cultivated by the studio: first, a return to the fairytale – absent from the Disney animated feature since Sleeping Beauty (1959), but second, in their newfound and highly lucrative approach to retelling children’s stories with a sort of off-Broadway razzamatazz unseen in any Disney animated feature before. Chiefly responsible for this shift were composers, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman; the pair having enjoyed incredible success with the stage’s Little Shop of Horrors. It was Ashman who first infused these projects with a newly ensconced flamboyance; a genius to whom, as Aladdin’s postscript dedication reads, so eloquently gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul. By the time Aladdin went into production, Ashman was severely ill. Ultimately, he would succumb to AIDS before completing this score, leaving life partner, Menken to collaborate with Tim Rice on the rest of the songs.  Yet, in viewing Aladdin today, at least from the perspective of its music, it remains a fairly seamless effort; Rice ably complementing the richness in Menken’s orchestrations with clever lyrics that seem to have been inspired by Ashman’s ghost.  
The early 1990’s were a particularly heady time for Disney animation. Only a few short years before the feasibility of the art had been brought into question at the studio: what, with several high profile box office flops. These had strained the studio’s coffers, as well as the patience of its newly appointed executive brain trust. The new breed of artists who had replaced Walt’s nine old men were moved off the back lot and effectively ostracized as the company entered a new era of corporate restructuring; the artisans squeezed into a ramshackle of trailers, presumably, to be given their last rights or an extremely limited amount of time in which to perform a miracle to put them back into good graces.
Miraculously, it happened; the animators building on the momentum of The Little Mermaid and Beauty & The Beast, and launching headstrong and heart-sure into Aladdin. Alas, Clements and Musker’s zeal for the project may have been a shay premature. For upon showing Disney exec’ Jeffrey Katzenberg their assembled rough cut of stills, basically telling the whole story from start to finish in storyboard format, the pair were met with a critical note of disapproval and basically told to begin anew and from scratch in their reconceptualization of the story; a moment forever thereafter inscribed in Musker and Clements’ day planners as ‘Black Friday’.
It was a daunting demand, particularly since Katzenberg had no intention of pushing back Aladdin’s release date. Aladdin’s permutations were considerable too. Gone from the re-envisioning was Aladdin’s mother, a central figure in the original story, also necessitating the cutting of an Ashman/Menken song – ‘Proud of Your Boy’; since Aladdin, now an orphan, had no one to please but himself. The character of Aladdin also advanced in years. In the original Arabian Nights saga, he is the tender age of fourteen; Musker and Clements maintaining his youth until Katzenberg pointed out that no royal princess, particularly one as headstrong as Jasmine, and reaching the age for marrying, would find such an urchin interesting, either as a confidant, and definitely not as a suitor. Katzenberg suggested a more traditional approach to the character; rechristened as a self-sufficient, handsome con-artist who appeals to Jasmine’s sense of adventure, reportedly telling Musker and Clements, ‘more Tom Cruise; less Michael J. Fox.’
Disney’s Aladdin bears only a passing resemblance to its rich textual heritage. In the collected stories of the Arabian Nights, the Grand Vizier is not the villain, but rather a person of many interests, chiefly for the future prosperity of his own family. He desires the Princess, not in marriage to himself, but for his own son. There is no magic carpet; no friendship with a mischievous monkey; no grand displays of pomp and circumstance as Aladdin prepares to woo the Princess. And the book’s Jasmine is hardly the self-determined, proto-feminist firecracker Musker and Clements have made her out to be. Perhaps one should never forget movies in general, and Disney animated movies in particular, are always a product of their time; altered in support of their own marketability as entertainment meant to appeal to the masses of a predominantly western perspective and culture. The trappings may be Middle Eastern, but the sentiment is decidedly American.  
Yet, perhaps the greatest alterations made from literature to screen were in service of the genie. In the original, the genie of the lamp is a stern all-seeing/all-powerful oracle who desires nothing more than to fulfill his master’s unlimited wishes before returning to the lamp for his periodic respites. For obvious reasons of concision, Musker and Clements elected to limit the amount of wish fulfilment down to three distinct wishes, thereby creating immediacy for Aladdin to prove his true character to the Princess Jasmine. Musker and Clements, along with co-writers, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio also decided to give the genie a modus operendi; namely to imbue the character with the very American principle to desire his own freedom above all else. Finally, Musker and Clements made an inspired decision when casting comedian Robin Williams to vocalize the genie; Williams’ rapid fire comedy proving the perfect fit for this boisterous blue spirit of the lamp. Williams’ adlibs also proved a magic elixir, allowing the animators some incredible leeway in their imaginative visualizations.
Indeed, the one forgivable criticism the film received back in 1992 was directed at Musker and Clements’ choice to riff off then present-day pop culture for many of the Genie’s sight gags. When Robin Williams’ veers wildly into impersonations of Arsenio Hall, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jack Nicholson, Rodney Dangerfield, Dick Clark and Ed Sullivan – among others – the animation transforms the genie’s physical features into likenesses of these famous counterparts.  The references are humorous to be sure. But they also take the audience out of the context of the story. Arguably, the greatest strength in Walt’s own animated classics is, none makes reference to the outside world from their own time; existing in a sort of timeless creative vacuum apart from the generation that conceived them. And grounding Aladdin in pop references from the latter half of the 20th century, at least in hindsight, may ultimately dampen its appeal for future generations. Will anyone in, say, 2080 get the jokes or even remember who the characterizations are supposed to be?   
Aladdin opens with an air of mystery; also with the last song Howard Ashman composed before his untimely passing; ‘Arabian Nights’. A colorful entrée, meant to whet the public’s appetite for all the exoticism yet to follow, ‘Arabian Nights’ also incurred considerable outrage from Muslim communities over the inclusion of 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”. Only two weeks into Aladdin’s theatrical engagement, all theaters exhibiting the movie were sent a replacement first reel with an overdub; the revised lyric now stating “…where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense…it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” Interestingly, CD’s of the original motion picture soundtrack retained the original lyric, presumably because of the prohibitive expense to recall and have them destroyed.
We are introduced to Kazim, the merchant (also voiced by Robin Williams), who introduces us to the story of the lamp, also the lamp itself which has since found its way into the common marketplace. The plot regresses to the not so distant past, on a starry night in the desert where the Grand Vizier, Jafar (Jonathan Freeman) is awaiting the arrival of a ruthless beggar, Gazeem (Charlie Adler) to deliver into his hands half of a sacred golden scarab for which Jafar already possess the other piece. Fitted together, the scarab comes to life, leading Jafar and Gazeem to the sacred ‘Cave of Wonders’ where untold treasures and the genie of the lamp reside. However, only he who is pure of heart may enter. Alas, neither Jafar nor Gazeem are worthy; Gazeem paying with his life and Jafar returning to the palace, defeated in his desire to possess the lamp for his own.
Resenting his servitude to the rather portly and thoroughly bumbling Sultanate of Agrabah (Douglas Seale), Jafar plots to learn the whereabouts of this ‘diamond in the rough’; the only person who will be able to enter the cave and collect its treasure. Lashing his trusted companion, the devious parrot, Iago (Gilbert Gottfried) to a spinning wheel that opens a sort of porthole into the future, Jafar learns of Aladdin (voiced by Scott Weinger/sung by Brad Kane), a worthless street urchin and thief who, nevertheless, possesses certain qualities that make him the ideal candidate to enter the cave.  To set his diabolical plot into motion, Jafar has Aladdin arrested, supposedly for kidnapping the Princess Jasmine (voiced by Linda Larkin/sung by Lea Salonga). Actually, she escaped the confines of the palace on her own, with only a mild assist from her pet tiger, Rajah. Nevertheless, after a spirited chase through the market square, Aladdin is apprehended and thrown into a dungeon. When Jasmine hurries to Jafar to clarify the situation and make her demands for Aladdin’s release, she is informed his sentence has already been carried out: death by beheading. This, of course, is a lie. For Jafar, disguised as a feeble-limbed beggar, has already enticed the riffraff to accompany him into the desert to the Cave of Wonders.
Once inside, Aladdin is instructed to touch none of its treasures; only to retrieve the rather modest-looking lamp perched high atop a mountainside. Alas, Aladdin’s trusted friend, the greedy chimpanzee, Abu, is unable to heed this warning; reaching for a delectable oversized ruby. The cave thunders with considerable wrath, Aladdin and Abu escaping its fiery assault on a magic carpet. At the last possible moment, falling debris knocks the carpet out from under Aladdin, leaving him perilously dangling from the cave’s crumbling steps. The beggar barters with Aladdin: the lamp for saving his life. However, once the lamp is in the beggar’s possession, Jafar attempts to stab Aladdin with a dagger. Instead, the walls of the cave collapse all around them, Jafar narrowly escaping, but leaving Aladdin and Abu buried alive beneath the sands. Abu reveals to Aladdin that he has stolen back the lamp. Unknowing of its power within, Aladdin casually rubs its copper exterior; astonished when a bona fide genie appears, promising him three wishes.
There are a few provisos to consider. First, the genie cannot kill anyone. Second, he cannot make anyone fall in love. Third, he is adverse to bringing people back from the dead; the animators amusingly conjuring to ‘life’ a ghoulishly green facsimile of Peter Lorre to punctuate this latter stipulation. Using his cunning, Aladdin cons the genie into freeing all three of them from the Cave of Wonders without actually wishing for it. The genie advises there will be no more freebees, then sets about to discover what Aladdin’s three wishes will be. Asked by Aladdin what his wishes would be if the situation were reversed, the genie confesses his one and only desire: to be free and not the slave of whomever is next in line to rub the lamp. Aladdin promises he will use the last of his three wishes to liberate the genie. But first, Aladdin desires to be made a prince.
Rechristened Prince Ali of Ababua by the genie’s magical powers, Aladdin parades into town, accompanied by a phantasmagoric menagerie of riches, servants and animals. These impress the Sultan, though not Jasmine; who believes Ali to be just another social climber of great ego but little merit as a man. Jafar is determined to put an end to Ali’s enterprising courtship; hoping to hypnotize the Sultan into offering his consent to him to marry Jasmine and therefore become the Sultan of Agrabah. From the moment he has entered the palace, Aladdin has bungled his chances to get to know Jasmine better. The genie, disguised as a bumble bee, implores Aladdin to be himself. Alas, Aladdin is intent on maintaining his mask of pretend to woo his beloved. He does, however, make one fatal error that causes Jasmine to recall him as the selfsame peasant boy who attempted her valiant rescue in the market square; the boy closer to her own heart anyway. After Aladdin takes Jasmine on a magic carpet ride, the pair returns to the palace; Jasmine deeply in love and set to proclaim her plans to wed Aladdin at the earliest possible moment. Alas, Jafar has managed to hypnotize the Sultan, who now declares he has selected Jafar to rule in his stead with Jasmine as his bride.
Jafar further removes the only real thorn left in his side, knocking Aladdin unconscious and throwing his weighted body into the ocean, presumably to drown. Thankfully, the lamp is concealed inside Aladdin’s turban; the genie interrupted in his bath and forced to use up Aladdin’s second wish to save his life. Returning to the palace in outrage, Aladdin confronts Jafar in Jasmine and the Sultan’s presence; breaking Jafar’s hypnotic spell. For the moment, Jafar manages a daring escape, though not before he realizes who Aladdin is and sees he still has the lamp in his possession.  Believing that without the genie he is doomed to remain a nobody, Aladdin reneges on his promise to liberate the genie from his lamp. The two have a falling out over this and, in the meantime, Iago steals the lamp, bringing it to Jafar.  Now, the genie’s new master, Jafar commands to be supreme ruler of the land, imprisoning the Sultan, encasing Jasmine in an hourglass soon to bury her alive, and transforming Abu into a toy monkey. Remembering what the genie earlier told him, Aladdin informs Jafar that unless he becomes a genie himself, his power will always remain second in the land.
Jafar uses his last wish to be transformed into an all-powerful genie.  Alas, in doing so he has forgotten as a genie he will not be in control of his own abilities, but subservient to others to do their bidding and satisfy their edicts. Jafar is henceforth imprisoned inside the lamp; his spells broken and the kingdom of Agrabah freed from his oppressions and tyranny. The genie exiles Jafar to a frozen wasteland for ten thousand years, where, surely, he will never be discovered. The Sultan rejoices and pledges Jasmine’s hand in marriage to Aladdin. With his final wish, Aladdin remains true to his word, affording the genie his freedom.  At liberty to choose his own destiny for the very first time, the genie gleefully trades in the lamp for a gaudy Hawaiian shirt, shorts and sandals, announcing his planned trip to Disney World – a riff on the company’s own shameless commercial endorsements to promote their theme parks.
Aladdin is a fairly charming and thoroughly escapist diversion. As a bona fide Disney classic, however, it falls decidedly short. Imbued with some of the most ingenious sight gags from its’ own time, ironically, these have prematurely aged and dated the movie ever since. It must be said that Aladdin would be nothing at all without Robin Williams’ genie; the real star of this program. Esthetically, the genie’s design owes a great deal to legendary caricaturist, Al Hirschfeld, whose stylized renderings of famous persons, often using one or two fluid lines, made perfect sense for the ever shape-shifting vaporous spirit of the lamp. In breaking with the time-honored tradition of the diabolical villainess (almost every Disney antagonist is a woman), the animators came to an inspired second choice in the evil, Jafar; motivated by classic Hollywood character actor, Conrad Veidt (whom many will most readily recall as Maj. Strasser in Casablanca 1942).
Aladdin is often lumped in with Disney’s other renaissance classics; The Lion King and Beauty & the Beast among them. But actually, it’s a more second tier affair. The animation of the human characters is perhaps the weakest of any Disney feature, relying almost exclusively on that loose Saturday morning serialized cartoon style prone to broad gestures and grotesque physical stereotypes in place of the studio’s customary approach to achieving an uncanny realism in the human form.  Aladdin too suffers from its ineffectual narrative setup.  The merchant’s prologue, as example, is an awkward way to break into the story as this character is never seen again afterward. Also, the first character the audience is introduced to happens to be the villain rather than the hero. Alas, each takes a proverbial backseat whenever Robin Williams’ overpowering chargé d'affaires is on the screen.
The central focus, so we are repeatedly led to believe, is on the romance between Aladdin and Princess Jasmine; how they met, what made them fall in love, and, how fate is conspiring to tear them asunder, but destiny ultimately reunites. Yet, at every possible turn the screenplay indulges in a sequential tennis match between scenes featuring Robin Williams doing his shtick as the genie and moments where Jafar vacillates in his co-conspiratorial ruminations with Iago. Between these two high points, the romance decidedly falls short and apart; Jasmine becoming slightly shrewish in the process and Aladdin merely fading into the background as her amiable suitor with street smarts.
To be sure, Aladdin does have other virtues to recommend it; the Menkin/Ashman Vegas-styled review; ‘Friend Like Me’ is a veritable potpourri for the Disney animators in which no wickedly humorous camp, lampoon and self-indulgence is spared. Aladdin also features an exquisite ballad, ‘A Whole New World’ – co-written by Menkin and Tim Rice. Alas, the Disney animators have taken a far too literate approach to the lyrics featured herein; using the melody to whisk Aladdin and Jasmine on their magic carpet ride; not only through the moonlit alleys and byways of Agrabah, but also across the desert sands into Egypt, over the stately lush green gardens of Athens and finally, overhead, looking down on China’s Forbidden City. Let us set aside the inevitably impossible distance one would have to cover in a single evening to achieve this Cook’s tour.  Where is the point to the exercise? The ‘whole new world’ spoken of in Rice’s lyrics is cerebral; Aladdin and Jasmine’s awakening in their mutual affection and thus, having caused them to view their futures together as one. Taking the lyrics literally deprives the number of these magical properties rather than augmenting the joyousness to be had in their burgeoning romance.
Evidently, none of this seemed to matter to audiences back in 1992. Arguably, already having built on the momentum generated by The Little Mermaid and Beauty & the Beast, Aladdin was a box office dynamo. Today, it’s still a highly enjoyable movie to behold. But it isn’t quite as good as one fondly remembers.
Disney’s import Blu-ray – released in the U.K. only but Region Free and therefore playable anywhere in the world – is precisely the way one should choose to admire Aladdin on home video. Here is a sumptuous 1080p hi-def transfer for which the studio is mostly famous.  Aladdin on Blu-ray retains the earthy granulated texture of the desert landscapes without ever appearing waxy of digitally manipulated.  Colors are rich and vibrant. Contrast is bang on. Bottom line: a reference quality disc whose only oversight might be that it seems to lack even a hint of indigenous film grain. This too is in keeping with Disney Inc.’s current passion for making even their most gorgeous ancient flowers look as though they’ve been processed in a digital laboratory of zeroes and ones. Aladdin’s image is – in a word – perfect; some will undoubtedly argue, too perfect. Mercifully, the image never falls into that egregious category of looking digitally scrubbed.
Better still, Disney’s 5.1 audio is a masterpiece of engineering; offering a truly robust sound field that will surely not disappoint. Extras have been ported over from Disney’s 2-disc DVD and include the rather laborious and self-congratulatory ‘making of’ documentary. I’m still trying to figure out whether this one was hosted by Leonard Maltin or Gilbert Gottfried. Both intermittently take turns holding a microphone. Neither offers a comprehensive narrative to link together various featurettes that attempt, though never entirely successfully, to cover the movie from its gestation to final cut. Passable – but only just. More entertaining on the whole is the audio commentary from Musker and Clements. We also get deleted scenes and songs, music videos and a theatrical trailer. None of these extras have been upgraded to 1080p so don’t expect perfection and you’ll make out just fine. Pencil tests, stills, trivia and games round out the extras. Bottom line: recommended as second tier Disneyana.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5
EXTRAS

3

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