There are so many different ways to start the introduction to a movie like this, so let’s begin with Aladdin’s backstory. Aladdin is based on Aladdin and the Magic Lamp from One Thousand and One Nights, sometimes called Arabian Nights. It’s a collection of folk stories based on ancient Arabia and other surrounding regions from a variety of sources. It’s probably the most well-known tale within the compilation, yet at the same time it was only added to the collection by a French archeologist in the 18th century. No Arabic source for the story has ever been found, making the original source of this story a complete mystery. In fact, the original story takes place more in China than it does in the Middle East, except that the Sultan still exists as a character instead of an emperor.
Directed by the Ron Clements and John Musker duo, who also directed The Little Mermaid, the movie began production when lyricist Howard Ashman pitched the movie. Ashman also wrote most of the songs for both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. He wrote most of the songs for Aladdin as well, but sadly passed away before the movie’s release from AIDS complications. He was only 40. The movie faced several major rewrites not long before primary production began, including expanding on Princess Jasmine’s character, removing Aladdin’s mother and removing some of the songs to make more room for the story.
Aladdin released as scheduled in 1992, and earned a very impressive $504 million on a $28 million budget. Strangely enough, it opened second behind Home Alone 2, and didn’t reach the number 1 spot until its 8th week in theatres. It remains the third highest grossing traditionally animated movie of all time, only behind The Lion King and The Simpsons movie. Critics praised it, although it did face some criticisms even from those who enjoyed it. It won two Academy Awards, one for Best Original Song with “A Whole New World, and one for Best Original Score. These are the same two awards that Beauty and the Beast won, not to mention that The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea” also won the best original song award. “A Friend Like Me”, another song from Aladdin, was also nominated for best original song. That’s how much of a role Disney was on in the early 90’s – it took both of those awards two years in a row, with multiple song nominations each time. It also won a special achievement award, but more on that later.
This is another one of the Disney movies I grew up on, as did a number of my friends. I remember it being very popular for several years after its release. It spawned two straight to video sequels, which I also enjoyed as a kid. I didn’t really like Return of Jafar when I saw it a few years ago, and I haven’t found the desire to watch the other just yet. Aladdin also spawned a TV series that lasted 4 seasons that takes place between the two sequel movies. I’ve never seen the series and judging by Return of Jafar, I have no desire to, but it did have a lot of fans. It spawned several good video games. There is a Broadway version out there. There are also plans for a live action remake, as well as a potential Genie origin story.
The movie stars Aladdin, who is the first Disney character who became a prince by marrying an official member of the Disney Princess line, instead of the other way around like Cinderella and Belle. He’s an orphan street rat who needs to steal food to stay alive. He’s often chased by the Agrabah soldiers, but he’s smart enough to stay ahead of them. Despite his struggles, he’s generous, willing to give food to starving children he comes across. He’s kind hearted, willing to protect those in trouble despite the risks and he’s a quick thinker. He’s a great lead character.
Early in the movie he meets a woman in the streets who runs into trouble. He outwits the stall owner to save her, and ends up showing her his home. Right away they start to fall for each other. When the soldiers arrive, the girl reveals herself to be Princess Jasmine. Despite her orders, the soldiers lock Aladdin up. This is of course a ruse to get him to collect a hidden treasure from the Cave of Wonders – the magic lamp with the genie.
The rest of the movie is a combination of a love story between Aladdin and Jasmine, Jafar’s attempt to usurp the Sultan’s throne and Aladdin learning to be himself. It’s a great balance between a romance, political intrigue and a character driven story. It teaches morals of telling the truth, and it also twists the genie wishing by showing how it can go very wrong in multiple ways.
Jasmine is very well developed over the first half of the story, being very resistant to the various suitors who try to marry her, yet she’s not quite rebellious. She just doesn’t see herself as a prize to be won, but would rather marry someone who truly cares about her. She doesn’t do as much in the second half of the movie, but then again this is Aladdin’s story. Jasmine’s father is a bit of an overly kind, easy going fool for a royal leader, but that may be partly because of Jafar’s manipulation.
Jafar is a great villain. He’s analytical, manipulative and power hungry. His main downside is that he’s not all that subtle, but the fact that he can hypnotize people with his staff helps. His aid, Iago the parrot, is also a great villain. Unlike a lot of villain duos in earlier Disney movies where the main villain mistreats the other, or the aid simply doesn’t talk, Jafar and Iago are a pair. Iago is devious himself, and Jafar clearly appreciates his parrot’s ideas. That’s not to say they never argue, but they’re a team.
But the real star of this movie is the genie, voiced by none other than the late Robin Williams. A lot of his dialogue was ad-libbed, cutting him loose with a general direction to take the dialogue. The result is quite possibly the funniest character in Disney history. He’s very energetic, throws all sorts of bizarre references that make no sense in ancient Arabia at all and is clearly loving the role. His song, “A Friend Like Me”, perfectly captures Williams’ comedic genius. He’s not a good singer but his voice is passable, and his energy and passion makes it good enough to warrant that academy nomination I mentioned. That’s where the Special Achievement Oscar came in – Robin Williams’ performance earned it. It also began the trend where major celebrities voice animated roles instead of trained voice actors. That’s not always a good thing, but in this case it works marvelously.
With all that said, the Genie is also the movie’s biggest weakness. By no means is Williams annoying, but there are times when his comedy distracts from the movie’s drama. There’s a moment where Aladdin is feeling guilty about how he didn’t tell Jasmine the truth about how he’s only a prince because the genie granted that wish for him. In an unintentional fit of anger, he pushes his friends away. It would be a very emotional moment if not for Williams’ brief comedy routine. This happens a couple of times. With that said, when the genie gets his own dramatic moments, Williams sells those moments.
Another complaint I have about this movie is that Aladdin really isn’t clear what time period it’s supposed to take place. Most characters’ costumes and the soldiers’ weapons seem to be from the pre-Islamic Persian Empire, which lasted from 500 BC to the 651 AD, but the architectural design looks more Islamic. The Sultan rank during some periods was more of a military captain rank instead of anything resembling royalty. That’s not to mention that Sultana, not princess, is the female form of the word. There’s one line that refers to first century fashion, suggesting it takes place one or two hundred years after that, and thus well before Islam began. Then again, the movie’s visual style resembles Vegas more than anything else, especially once the genie shows up, so it’s not a huge problem. It is however a good reason why, when Disney remakes Aladdin, it definitely shouldn’t be a beat for beat remake like Beauty and the Beast. It’ll be much harder to sell this visual style in live action than it is in an animated movie.
All complaints aside, this is a really good movie. It combines elements of adventure, romance, political drama and comedy, and for the most part they work very well together. The lead characters make a great couple. The genie is awesome. Jafar is a great villain on multiple levels. The action is exciting. I didn’t talk much about the animation because it’s great, but it didn’t make any huge innovations. It’s just that, because Williams went a bit overboard with the comedy at times, it distracts from some otherwise dramatic scenes. It never quite tugged at my heartstrings like some of the other movies did. That’s a very minor complaint for such a fun movie. There were a couple controversies regarding a couple lines from Aladdin’s initial release, but they’ve since been removed from pretty much any video release you can find today. This movie is yet another easy recommendation for both kids and adults who enjoy family friendly adventure films.
Next up is The Lion King, which remains the most profitable traditionally animated movie of all time, followed by Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.