Aladdin: Arabian Anarchy


In 1992, Disney was on a roll. After the success of The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991), the studio had entered a renaissance and more hits were to come. Still, when Howard Ashman suggested adapting a Middle Eastern folk tale called ”Aladdin”, featured in ”Arabian Nights” as a musical, and came up with the idea of turning the Genie into a Fats Waller-type character, Disney wasn’t sold.

Ashman remained with the studio, writing songs together with Alan Menken. In 1991, he was dying of AIDS but lived long enough to see his idea turn into a movie; the Little Mermaid directors, Ron Clements and John Musker, had selected ”Aladdin” as their next project. A few of the songs that Ashman worked on made it into the movie.

In the city of Agrabah many centuries ago, young Aladdin is trying to survive as a petty thief together with his pet monkey. One day he meets a young woman and doesn’t realize that she is Princess Jasmine who’s snuck out of the palace after refusing to marry a suitor. The couple share an adventure and fall in love, but Aladdin is caught by palace guards. Jafar, the evil advisor to the sultan, tells Jasmine that Aladdin has been executed. In fact, he’s been thrown in prison because Jafar has a secret plan that involves him. Jafar is looking for a magic lamp hidden inside the Cave of Wonders, but only ”a diamond in the rough” is allowed to enter. Jafar recognizes Aladdin as a suitable candidate and disguises himself as an old man who’s also been imprisoned. After helping Aladdin escape, they head to the Cave of Wonders where Aladdin enters. He finds a magic carpet and the lamp…

Snagging Robin Williams
This is the Disney movie that opened up the possibility of hiring major Hollywood stars to voice characters. The dream of snagging Robin Williams for the part of the Genie was alive throughout the process. Eric Goldberg, one of the studio’s finest animators, created a reel where he drew the Genie over one of Williams’s standup acts and the star was so impressed and amused that he agreed to the project. Williams was given a lot of leeway, did many improvisations and impressions, some of which worked their way into the film. You might ask yourself what role a Jack Nicholson impression has in a movie based on a tale from ”Arabian Nights”, but you’ll just have to go with the flow – there’s animated anarchy at work here, just like in an old Warner cartoon starring Daffy Duck.

Williams is hilarious, but there’s so much more than that. The visuals take us to an imaginary Arabia far removed from the real thing; early examples of CGI bring life to the Cave of Wonders and the magic carpet, a sort of smooth flow that isn’t quite possible to achieve in traditional animation. The fantasy and the action is front and center during some of the film’s best musical numbers, such as ”One Jump Ahead” that illustrates Aladdin’s life in the streets as a thief, and the enormous hit ”A Whole New World”, a romantic magic-carpet ride if there ever was one. The formula is undeniably familiar, as in most Disney films, but superbly decorated.

The fairy tale is irresistibly romantic and having a thief who gets Cinderella-type assistance from a cheeky genie is a stroke of brilliance; the villain, Jafar, and his annoying parrot (very aptly voiced by Gilbert Gottfried) provide quite a challenge for them both.

Some in the audience might note the debt Aladdin owes to Alexander Korda’s fantasy The Thief of Baghdad (1940), and that’s certainly in order. Borrowing from the best is part of how Disney was able to reinvent itself in the late ’80s.

Aladdin 1992-U.S. Animated. 90 min. Color. Produced and directed by Ron Clements, John Musker. Screenplay: Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio. Music: Alan Menken. Songs: Alan Menken, Tim Rice (”One Jump Ahead”, ”A Whole New World”). Voices of Scott Weinger (Aladdin), Robin Williams (The Genie/The Peddler), Linda Larkin (Jasmine), Jonathan Freeman, Frank Welker, Gilbert Gottfried.

Trivia: Patrick Stewart was allegedly considered as Jafar. Later a stage musical. Followed by two direct-to-video sequels, starting with The Return of Jafar (1994), and a TV series, Aladdin (1994-1995). Remade as a live-action film, Aladdin (2019). 

Oscars: Best Original Score, Original Song (”A Whole New World”). Golden Globes: Best Original Score, Original Song (”A Whole New World”).

Quote: “Oi! Ten thousand years will give you such a crick in the neck.” (Williams)

Last word: “We were working on ‘Aladdin’ while ‘Beauty and the Beast’ was being worked on. Our movie was very much a comedy, and ‘Beauty and the Beast’, they had the work-in-progress screening at the New York Film Festival, I think. It became a cause celebre and everyone loved this… it was very romantic, sincere, and passionate. We thought, ‘Uh-oh, we’re doing this comedy that pushes the fourth wall and has a dozen winks at the audience? How are they going to react to this after this wonderful, beautiful, sincere love story. Will people buy it?'” (Musker, Entertainment Weekly)



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