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‘Disney, you’ve had a Best Picture nomination – what are you going to do next?!’
Aladdin is the film that follows not only Disney’s, but one of cinema’s major milestones – it follows the first animated feature film to get an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, Beauty and the Beast. Could they top it? But more importantly, did they even want to top it?
Aladdin itself originates from ‘Aladdin and the Magic Lamp’ from ‘One Thousand and One Nights’. It was not originally part of ‘Nights’, but was edited into the collection by Antoine Galland, a French translator who claims that he heard the story, along with ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ and ‘The Seven Voyages of Sindbad’, from a Syrian storyteller in Aleppo. Ironically enough, despite being part of a Middle Eastern collection of tales, the Aladdin story is set predominantly in China.
(Special Note from Melissa: But perhaps that has all the authority of Shakespeare setting Measure for Measure in Vienna, when it is clearly London … and in fact any of his plays set in European cities)
Aladdin, like Beauty and the Beast had very rocky beginnings. It was originally the dream-child of Howard Ashman, who had been in a local theatre production of Aladdin when he was a child, in the title role. Ashman wanted to write and direct the film; he pitched it in 1988 and wrote a 40-page treatment, writing songs with Alan Menken. He re-imagined the Aladdin story as a campy 1930s-style musical in a Hollywood-ised version of Baghdad, paying homage to the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope road movie musicals. The story featured a villain named Wazir, his parrot sidekick Sindbad, and Aladdin had three pals called Babkak, Omar, and Kassim. Princess Jasmine was a shallow, spoiled brat that Aladdin falls for, all the while a girl-next-door tomboy inspired by Judy Garland would be his true love in the end. There were two genies; the ring genie sung Arabian Nights, while the genie of the lamp was an amalgamation of Cab Calloway and Fats Waller.
Both Ashman and Menken were super jazzed up about this project (we could tell as they sound very giddy in the demos). Unfortunately for the two of them, the studio dismissed Ashman’s treatment, and they were removed from Aladdin to rescue Beauty and the Beast, which at that point was in dire straits. Beauty and the Beast’s screenwriter, Linda Woolverton, took on Ashman’s treatment and incorporated some elements of The Thief of Baghdad into the screenplay (because Disney had purchased the remake rights …), adding a villain named Jafar, a thief named Abu and a handmaiden for Jasmine. It had no songs … that would have been tragic. It got tossed around to different screenwriters, but in the end, John Musker and Ron Clements picked it as their follow-up to The Little Mermaid. They had a choice between Aladdin, Swan Lake and King of the Jungle.
Well … they all happened … one even at another studio
Ashman was glad that Musker and Clements had revived his baby, and while only two of his songs from the original treatment ended up in the film, Arabian Nights and Friend Like Me, when the dynamic duo were brought on board, Ashman and Menken wrote two new songs, Prince Ali and Humiliate the Boy … we’ll come back to these in Music. Unfortunately, Ashman never saw Aladdin through; when he wrote those two songs, he was already extremely ill, and he died shortly after the first story reel presentation – he passed away in March 1991. Tim Rice was brought in to be Alan Menken’s new lyricist.
The infamous story reel presentation became known as Black Friday – another case of déjà vu from Beauty and the Beast, Katzenberg hated the reels and told them to start again … again – ‘Guys, I gotta tell you, I was so disengaged that all through the movie, I was working on the guest list for my wife’s surprise birthday party!’
So, they had to start again, the mood was apparently ‘funereal’ and Katzenberg refused to change the release date of 25 November 1992. Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio were brought in to rework the screenplay, meaning that the four of them get screenwriting credits for the final film. From Black Friday, they had eight days to make a new outline. PRESSURE! Eight days later, Katzenberg accepted the new treatment, and the film got made … thankfully.
A lot changed from that original treatment from 1988; it very well could have been an incredibly different film. We’re happy with the way Aladdin turned out, but it is hard not to wonder what could have been … However, what did it end up being? Likely Disney’s most postmodern-esque, most self-aware film in the canon so far – this is the moment when the creators felt brave enough to challenge its own medium and style, and even poke tongue-in-cheek fun at both themselves and Disney itself.
How did they do? Let’s find out!
But first … the let’s enter the Cave of Wonders … also known as Original Trailer Time.
- Wait a minute! That’s not Aladdin music … did we put the right trailer on?
- Hmm … 3 years ago … last year … what happened 2 years ago Original Trailer Man?Ah yes, using the glory of their previous recent hits, not including The Rescuers Down Under of course … it may as well be lifted out of the Renaissance altogether
- ‘A beautiful girl looked into the heart of a beast and found the man of her dreams’ … on the strength of that tagline, you may have avoided Beauty and the Beast altogether!
- ‘Come with us and enter a whole new world’ … how clever
- One of Robin Williams’s conditions was not to be heavily used in advertising … um about that …
- Someone very crudely shoehorned in the title mid-sentence – so fast and shoddy it feels like subliminal messaging
- ‘A whole new world of excitement’ … thanks we got it!
- Poor Alan Menken – never gets named in these trailers!
- They certainly give a lot away in this trailer – we even get a shot of the genie hugging everyone at the end of the film!
- They’re really downplaying Abu and Iago in this trailer … hmm we wonder why? We don’t even hear a syllable from Gilbert Gottfried
As a protagonist, Aladdin is breaking new ground in the canon, and yet at the same time, it is a very familiar character. At last, a handsome, young male is the film’s lead role, despite over 50 years of Disney animators desperately trying to avoid it. As we’ve discussed multiple times, Disney animators did not like animating ‘prince’ characters because from their point of view, they were ‘dull’ to animate, and no one wanted to be lumbered with that job. It is likely that because lead character animators over the years were nearly always heterosexual men, men would prefer to draw either interesting looking characters, from animals, to hybrid creatures, to comic characters, to villains, or characters that they could be attracted to like beautiful women. Drawing the beautiful man likely did not seem as appealing. If there had been more women on the team, would they have not taken umbrage with animating the attractive young male character, like the male animator would not mind drawing the attractive young female?
At this stage, star player, Glen Keane was assigned the role of Aladdin. While we may initially perceive this as a ‘give the job nobody wants to the star animator because he can make it fabulous’, it actually didn’t quite work out that way. Aladdin was initially pitched as a boy rather than a young man – perhaps more 12-14 rather than 17-18. He was designed more like a short, scrappy, scrawny little guy – looking more like a street urchin than a buff teenager. Here’s the thing – Disney love boy protagonists – Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Arthur, Mowgli, Taran, Cody and even boy animals like Bambi, Dumbo, Todd, Copper and Oliver. The team were excited by another boy character like Aladdin, and he was initially modelled on Michael J Fox, incredibly popular from the Back to the Future trilogy and Family Ties (especially at this point in the late 1980s early 1990s), and only 5 foot 4 inches in height. Aladdin could have been pitched like Marty McFly in the Middle East.
On Black Friday, Katzenberg said that he did not buy the young, scrawny Aladdin, and thought that he was way out of Jasmine’s league, arguing that you wouldn’t pair Michael J Fox with Julia Roberts in Hollywood but you would match her with Tom Cruise – make him more Tom Cruise!
(Special Note from Melissa: Katzenberg didn’t think a Michael J Fox-like Aladdin had enough appeal to women … well … I can’t speak for the Michael J Fox-like Aladdin, but I do know that Michael J Fox from Back to the Future was my teenage crush …)
Although they did keep some McFly-isms in there
And because ‘Friend Like Me’ was one of the first sequences to be animated, petite, skinnier, younger Aladdin can still be seen in multiple shots:
They did just that, but they were not initially happy about it, because like Andreas Deja being initially annoyed when told by Katzenberg that Gaston was not handsome enough, drawing Aladdin like Tom Cruise did not seem as fun a job. So, Keane did not end up with the project that he applied for in the first place, but putting the handsome young male in the hands of one of Disney’s most talented character animators at this point, really worked out, as Aladdin is one of the most expressive prince-like characters that we’ve had so far in the canon.
Nine Old Men animators … it is completely fine for the leading man to make these kind of faces
Besides Keane had fun creating Aladdin’s movement by watching MC Hammer music videos
Aladdin has lot in common with previous Disney princesses – he has his own Cinderella story like … well Cinderella, but he has most in common with the latest Disney ladies in Belle and Ariel. All three of these characters want more out of life – they are the archetypal 1980s aspirational young people (despite two of the films being released in the early 1990s).
‘I’ve got gadgets and gizmos aplenty / I’ve got whosits and whatsits galore … but who cares / no big deal / I want more’
‘I want much more than this provincial life / I want adventure in the great wide somewhere / I want it more than I can tell / And for once it might be grand / To have someone understand / I want so much more than they’ve got planned’
‘Riff raff / street rat / I don’t buy that / If only they’d look closer … They’d find that / There’s so much more to me … Someday Abu things are going to change, we’ll be rich, we’ll live in a palace, and never have any problems at all’
(Special Note from Both: Aladdin, how do you plan on that happening? Getting rich and living in a palace? Being poor, you’d more likely be aiming for having any money or shelter at all)
Teen films of the time were all about the aspirational teenager:
Including Marty McFly himself
There were a lot of rich girl/poor boy or rich boy/poor girl stories in 1980s and early 1990s cinema – Pretty in Pink, Some Kind of Wonderful, Pretty Woman, etc.
Although Aladdin gets by as a thieving, charming trickster, he aspires for more – he believes that he is beyond his status as a ‘worthless’ street rat. The first time we meet Aladdin, he’s running from the authorities after stealing a loaf of bread.
What is it with authorities and BREAD?!
And yet we first see signs that he is a ‘diamond in the rough’ when he gives his bread that he risked his neck for, to two hungry children, and stands up for the kids when one of Jasmine’s suitors cracks a whip at them. Later he saves Jasmine from facing the ‘stealing penalty’ through his trickster means – by pretending that she is his mentally challenged sister – as terrible as that sounds, it does work.
Sounds like a Zack Morris scheme
In early drafts of Aladdin, he was fully aware from the get go that Jasmine was a princess; this was changed because they didn’t want audiences to think that Aladdin was a gold-digger – he genuinely cares for her. In fact, despite Aladdin’s initial longing for wealth and living in the lap of luxury, when the Genie asks him what he wants, his first thought is ‘Well there’s this girl …’
‘Wow … massive’
However, like Ariel’s desire to be human ideally matches up with her falling for Prince Eric, Aladdin’s desire to be wealthy matches up with him falling for Jasmine – his first wish, in order to be legally allowed to court Jasmine, is to become a Prince … and that naturally comes with a luxurious package.
His relationship with the Genie is a buddy comedy bromance that we haven’t really seen before in this form – the closest that we have had to this relationship is likely Baloo and Mowgli in The Jungle Book and perhaps even a little of Jiminy Cricket and Pinocchio and Merlin and Arthur (perhaps it is no coincidence that like Merlin, the Genie is blue). Unlike Ariel, Aladdin is lucky because he has the fortune of a magical benefactor who is not trying to screw him over, but genuinely wants good things for him. The diamond in the rough that Aladdin is (or to be honest, just being a decent person), and unlike any master that the Genie has had before, Aladdin asks him what he would wish for, and concludes that he’ll use his third wish to set the Genie free.
While Aladdin appears confident, his insecurities flood out of him throughout the film. Despite him having chemistry with Jasmine in their first scenes, he is convinced that she will ‘laugh at him’ or that he’d lose her if she finds out that he is a poor boy, unaware that she was devastated when she thought that he was dead. He is terrified of being himself. Despite being a good trickster, Aladdin is not a great liar – his ‘isms’ comes out (‘Do you trust me?’), he falls into Jasmine’s trap as he starts talking about Abu when she leads him into it, and he puts on this bizarre ‘act’ as the ‘smooth, cool, confident’ Prince Ali even though he exuded natural confidence before. For example, he puts on a voice that funnily enough sounds like a woman putting on a man’s voice in a play with the over-emphasis on sounding ‘manly’.
Noted … We’ll get to you soon
Aladdin’s insecurities nearly cause his downfall as he carries on lying – pretending that he is Prince Ali, even when he is given an ideal opportunity to tell the truth. He even gets cold feet when he realises that by marrying Jasmine, he by proxy will become the next Sultan of Agrabah … the dream is coming true, but becoming the Sultan feels like too much responsibility – remember he wished for wealth and luxury, not ruling a kingdom!
He may also be feeling guilt that, like the trickster he is, he has unintentionally ‘tricked’ his way into becoming the next Sultan. However, it means that he takes back setting the Genie free, afraid of losing that third wish – leading to Jafar causing havoc and Die Hard-ing his way through Agrabah with a Chernabog-like Genie …
Good job idiot … seriously what was Aladdin even going to do with that third wish?
Consequently rather than having the opportunity to tell the truth, Aladdin is exposed for the fraud that he is and is blasted to the ends of the earth. However, he is able to redeem himself by coming back and defeating Jafar, of course through the only way a trickster can, by outwitting him – at least he stays true to his character to the end! His trickster ways truly get him through the film, not only as a thief. He tricks Genie into getting them out of the cave without having to ‘waste’ a wish, and again, in the climax, he tricks Jafar into becoming a genie – it is the only way in which a smart trickster like Aladdin could defeat the most powerful sorcerer in the world.
Charming, yet insecure and with a good heart, Aladdin is an enjoyable character that we did get behind. He may be a 1980s-like aspirational teenager type with an air of Marty McFly and Zack Morris with Tom Cruise’s physique, but that was the popular norm of the time, and overall, his good heart sees him through – he sets the Genie free and expresses that he has to stop pretending to be something that he’s not. However, Aladdin’s selflessness and gumption leads to the Sultan changing the law, when he realises that a non-blue-blooded boy may just be the perfect Sultan and husband for his daughter (how Gilbert and Sullivan-ly convenient … probably would saved everyone a lot of trouble – ‘Oh wait a minute, I’m in charge I CAN ABOLISH LAWS! HAHA!’) – he gives Jasmine the right to choose her spouse, and of course, she chooses him. Aladdin, despite being a young Middle Eastern man, experiences the ‘American Dream’ in a rags-to-riches underdog story, and yet he discovers that being his raggedy self means a lot more than masquerading as Prince Ali. Aladdin could have been close to being too much of a product of his time, but luckily the film spares us from him using pop culture or contemporary vernacular that would have heavily dated the film.
Here’s looking at you Fern Gully
There is a huge loss to Aladdin’s character that is hard for us to ignore. While Aladdin is an orphan in the final film …
Which this ‘delightful’ woman takes pride in pointing out:
About as much tact as Owen Wilson in Shanghai Knights:
‘Yeah you ever heard of those, they’re parents. We have parents who love us. You don’t, ’cause you’re a little orphan’
In the original drafts, and in the infamous Black Friday storyboard presentation – Aladdin had a mother. A widowed single mother, she wanted better for Aladdin and didn’t approve of his thievery. Aladdin’s motivation in these original drafts and storyboards was to make his mother proud of him – as opposed to the more shallow-sounding ‘We’ll be rich and live in a palace one day’ goal. These feelings were presented in a song that is incredibly loved at Disney called Proud of Your Boy, which Alan Menken and Howard Ashman wrote together, and apparently was one of Ashman’s most personal songs. Katzenberg hated many things in that presentation, but more than anything, he wanted rid of the mother (‘She’s a zero!! Eighty-six the mom!’ … Katzenberg had such a charming way of phrasing himself) … so Proud of Your Boy and Aladdin’s goal to make his parent proud of him was out the window. Proud of Your Boy may have had an impact on Aladdin that Part of Your World has on our perception of Ariel. Without Part of Your World showing the ‘deepest and most desperate desires’ (thank you Dumbledore) of Ariel’s heart, for us, she may have seemed selfish, spoiled and awful. Having the opportunity to see these characters’ inner most desires (their own ‘Mirror of Erised’) through the ‘I Want’ song means a great deal. Without Aladdin’s desire to make his Mother proud, Aladdin himself doesn’t touch the heart as much as he could have done. The closest he gets to that is through his relationship with the Genie.
‘It does not do to dwell on dreams Aladdin (especially concerning PARENTS!) … and forget to live (and BE RICH AND LIVE IN A PALACE)’
They had managed to figure out how to insert Proud of Your Boy back into Aladdin for the Broadway musical version without having to resurrect the mother character. Aladdin in the stage adaptation is still an orphan, but he wants to make his deceased parents, especially his mum, proud. It’s just a shame that the team did not figure this out sooner. It seems to be a pattern that the production teams during the Renaissance era would run into brick walls, unable to figure out a solution to a creative idea, and then working it out for the stage version years later, e.g. Human Again, Proud of Your Boy, Madness of King Scar, etc. Are the fast turnarounds causing serious problems for the creative teams, in which they don’t have time to problem solve and instead have to just bin fantastic possibilities?
‘I think it’s time to say goodbye to Prince Abubu’
Jafar feels like an amalgamation of many previous Disney villains; there are traces of characters such as Maleficent (in fact Andreas Deja based Jafar on Marc Davis’s design for Maleficent … apparently other influences were Captain Hook, Conrad Veidt and … Nancy Reagan), Rattigan, Cruella De Vil, the Wicked Queen, Shere Khan and others running through his character, yet he simultaneously feels like something entirely new. Although he spends most of the film as a scheming manipulator, carefully planning his next move from behind closed doors – once he gets what he wants he revels in it, demonstrating extreme cruelty against those to whom he’s been feigning loyalty. Suave and psychotic, a delightful combination for a Disney villain, Jafar is one of the most entertaining and campy villains in the canon.
(Special Note from Melissa: Quite possibly one of my favourite shots in the film)
Something that we both noticed upon re-watching the film was just how prominently featured Jafar is throughout; he might even be the most heavily featured villain to date. Quite often the villain will make intermittent appearances throughout the film, but Jafar is featured in just about every other scene: very like the character of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. He is one of the first characters that we see; we see him before Aladdin, and long before Jasmine, the Sultan and of course the Genie. The scenes cut back and forth mainly between Aladdin’s story and Jafar’s story. His hunger for power, particularly against the buffoonery of the Sultan, drives his motivation, from searching high and low for the magic lamp (even if it means the deaths of others) to going full-steam with his wishes when he is the master of the lamp – 1. Be Sultan, 2. Be the most powerful sorcerer in the world, 3. Be an all-powerful Genie – woah wait what?!
He also takes on a few forms, with a withered old beggar man, clearly alluding to the Wicked Queen’s old crone persona:
As well as a GIANT SNAKE, a la Maleficent’s dragon:
Kathy Zielinski animated Jafar’s snake and old beggar forms. She was heavily pregnant during the process and went into labour immediately after handing in this scene above of Jafar ‘bursting’ into his snake form …
Like some villains before him, he is not as clever as he thinks he is (probably as next to the Sultan he feels like a mastermind), and ultimately he ends up outsmarted; figuratively speaking he winds up with an ear full of cider and a gullet full. Not wanting to be ‘second-rate’ (pun completely intended) to the Genie, he wishes to be an all-powerful genie, and ends up eternally trapped in a tiny lamp with Gilbert Gottfried … forever … not your best move Jafar.
I wish I’d thought this through
He also joins the ranks of villains that make themselves massive in the climax … seriously stop it Disney villains – you may feel like blowing yourselves up to the size of your egos, but it never works. Even his choice to assassinate ‘Prince Ali’ by ordering him thrown off a cliff and drowned is a terrible idea; at this point in the film, he has no idea that this mysterious prince is Aladdin – this prince’s hypothetical country would have been MAD that their prince visited Agrabah and never came back – it could have started a bloody WAR! What was he thinking??? He has no sense of the long term game and acts very impulsively … in fact, who does he remind us of?
Jafar needs to get owned by Charles Dance:
His not being as smart as he thinks he is makes him a flawed character and ultimately compelling as his machinations certainly are nasty. We are strangely amused that he is absolutely certain that he is not a diamond in the rough (but he isn’t exactly a risk-taker). He only considers marrying Jasmine when the magic lamp quest fails, re-writing laws, hypnotising the Sultan, expressing sexist behaviour towards her ironically while trying to flatter her and even requesting that his third wish be for Jasmine to fall ‘desperately’ in love with him – constantly misguided. But again, like him knowing that he could in no way be a diamond in the rough, it is hilarious when Jasmine pretends to be infatuated with Jafar, and he genuinely is flabbergasted for a few seconds.
(Special Note from Melissa: Again another one of my favourite shots! Viewers are generally looking at Genie during this shot, I caught myself looking at Jafar instead and split my sides laughing)
A range of actors were considered for Jafar, including Tim Curry, Kelsey Grammer, John Hurt, Christopher Lloyd, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Stewart calls being unable to play Jafar one of his biggest acting regrets. Theatre performer, Jonathan Freeman voices Jafar and, much like Peter Ustinov, Vincent Price and Pat Carroll before him, he is clearly having an absolute blast playing the villain. Freeman’s vocal performance is often very low and calm (to contrast with the vocal bombast of Gilbert Gottfried) but when he lets loose there is such flamboyance in his delivery as Jafar’s evil machinations become more extreme. He delivers his lines with such infectious glee that it is impossible not to enjoy his scenes. Freeman claims that the voice for Jafar was a combination of Boris Karloff and funnily enough, Disney villain alumnus Price …
Who also voiced the vizier villain in The Thief and the Cobbler … which came out the same year … and he recorded his lines in 1967 to 1973 … oh dear that poor film had problems
Freeman is an excellent performer and it is a shame that he only got a reprise song in the film (he performs it brilliantly, making the most of its brevity); they tried so hard for Jafar to have a solo but two songs ended up on the cutting room floor. Freeman became so attached to the role of Jafar that apparently no one else has ever voiced him on-screen, and he even originated the role on Broadway.
Overall he is a sinister, deliciously evil villain who is not as clever as he thinks he is, is campily performed and animated with gusto and he is a combination of classiness and vileness all at once.
The film is more Aladdin’s story, so for once, the Disney princess plays more of a secondary role to the male protagonist, and yet at the same time, she has a lot of screen time. Jasmine is a princess who has similar desires to previous young women in the canon in that she wants adventure. The difference is that Jasmine is a princess by birth and has been aware of it all of her life. She has never wanted for anything in terms of possessions and living in luxury, but she feels isolated from the world and is lonely for company. She has no friends except for her pet tiger, and she has never been outside the palace walls. While Aladdin is more like a memento from the 1980s, Jasmine feels more like a representative of what’s to come in the 1990s – she’s the unhappy rich girl who wants friends and adventure.
She discovers that she wants to live like common people, she wants to do whatever common people do …
Wants to sleep with common people
As they discover later in their meet cute, both Jasmine and Aladdin feel ‘trapped’ in their current situations and openly acknowledge it. Other than physical attraction …
… they find that they do have a connection and share chemistry.
A LOT of chemistry
Jasmine’s desire to see outside the palace walls is achieved through her first adventure when she runs away to wander through a souk, but her second adventure on the magic carpet is much more glamorous and fulfilling as she ‘sees the world’ … at least places that will feature in upcoming 1990s animated films.
The Prince of Egypt
Aladdin (and the Magic Carpet … credit where credit’s due) helps to make her dream become a reality. They share quite a journey together – longer than the usual for Disney couples – and in the end, when the law is changed, Jasmine proposes to Aladdin, choosing him for her groom, making Aladdin’s dream of becoming rich and living in a palace a reality … Why does Aladdin’s dream always sound shallow when written down?
‘Go – live your dream’
‘Your dream stinks … I was talking to her’
Again, Jasmine was originally written like an unpleasant, manipulative brat who Aladdin would fall for, only for him to realise that he truly loved his childhood friend, a girl-next-door Judy Garland type. This changed over time because certain people didn’t like the idea of an unlikeable, heinous princess. Jasmine in the final cut isn’t shallow; she is never turned off Aladdin by his social status – she is only ever turned off when he behaves like a numpty. She makes it clear that she wants to marry for love and deliberately messes with her unlikeable suitors, and later tricks both Aladdin and Jafar. Jasmine could beat Aladdin at his own game in terms of fooling people; in all of her scenes, she normally has the upper hand.
Jasmine has a powerful presence – she demonstrates strength as she insists that the law is wrong, she commands herself excellently in front of the guards, and the same later when addressing Jafar in a range of scenes. One of her qualities that really stands out is that she frequently gets angry, much more than any of the previous leading ladies. Animators of the past have had the fear of making their leading ladies look unattractive if they are animated to look angry or annoyed.
They don’t hold back with Jasmine
Jasmine’s fury at the Sultan, Jafar and Aladdin talking about her like she’s a prize is very self-assured and strong in particular.
Yes the three of you SHOULD feel awkward
She doesn’t take any of Aladdin’s crap during his ‘act’, calling him out on being a jerk and/or lying to her, even when she has had a romantic date with him – she didn’t let it cloud her judgement. She is defiant towards her father on multiple occasions but the film later reveals that she can cry on his shoulder, so it is not a completely cold relationship. A strong-willed young woman, she has the quality of an activist in her (particularly when she speaks up against Aladdin’s arrest and later his ‘death’); she’d likely be a better ruler than her father. She may have been completely clueless and naïve about handling money, but we blame her father more for that – she should have been taught! She’s an heiress to the throne – she should know about financial situations!
In a nutshell, she wasn’t very convincing as a common person, and hilariously after an emotional goodbye to Rajah, she ends up back home the next day. Word of advice to Jasmine:
There are some problems with Jasmine however that are hard to ignore. Why is a Middle Eastern princess dressed like a harem girl? She’s a princess! Were they burned out by how covered up Belle was? Apparently others involved in the project were not happy with Jasmine’s midriff showing – it didn’t seem appropriate or accurate. But they were outvoted …
Also when she pretends to be infatuated with Jafar in order for Aladdin to get the lamp, was using her sexuality as a tactic smart or degrading? Or both?
What an image …
Jasmine does seem to have less agency in the finale which is a bit of a shame. Apparently, she was originally going to break out of the hourglass herself by using a jewel in her headpiece to smash through it. However, Aladdin needed to be in a position in which no one could help him out – with Jafar having ‘removed’ all of his possible assistants from the picture (with horrendous puns). Ultimately in the end, Jasmine is the one who proposes to Aladdin. The film concludes with Aladdin, not a prince but looking dapper in fancier clothes, and Jasmine, on another magic carpet ride. Jasmine wins her right to choose and she is allowed outside of the palace walls, while Aladdin … while he has money and status, remembers the value of his quality from the beginning (when he gave his bread to the children), to put others before his own wants, which he nearly lost sight of.
It would be impossible to discuss Aladdin without talking about the Genie. The character is a real landmark, not just for Disney but for animated films in general. The closest thing that the studio has had to this type of character before is Merlin from The Sword in the Stone as the character makes reference to future events which transcend the era in which the story takes place, and is also capable of free-form metamorphosis and has magical powers. The Genie demonstrates the leaps and bounds that the studio has made since the 1960s, feeling much more magical and otherworldly – taking full advantage of the animation medium.
It is one of many roles which Robin Williams became synonymous with, especially due to his fast-talking, highly improvisational style – however, Howard Ashman’s original idea for the Genie was very different to the one we eventually got. Initially the character was going to be a Cab Calloway/Fats Waller-esque type, demonstrated in Ashman’s original demo of ‘Friend Like Me’.
(Special Note from Both: It’s awesome. We’ll discuss it later)
However, Ron Clements (among others at Disney we’re sure) was concerned of the backlash that the film could receive for presenting a character like the Genie as a Calloway/Waller type, due to connotations of slavery represented through an enslaved character with a black entertainer persona, meaning that this characterisation was lost in the end.
It was one of the many reasons why critics were miffed by 1990s film genie Kazaam … one of many we’re sure
Although Martin Short, John Goodman, Albert Brooks, John Candy, Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy were all allegedly considered for the role, Clements and Musker developed an idea of a Robin Williams-esque Genie, re-writing the character with Williams in mind, and were delighted when he accepted the role. Ashman sort of came around to the idea, when they explained that the Genie, with Williams’s voice, would still have the showman characterisation. Williams accepted when Eric Goldberg animated the Genie doing several minutes of Williams’s stand-up routines – he was thrilled and accepted immediately. From Williams’s recording, he offered the crew around 16 hours of material to choose from – some from the original script and the rest ad-libbed.
We were concerned about something before re-watching Aladdin, which was whether the Genie would ‘hold up’ since we last watched it, or would it be jarring. Luckily, he does ‘hold up’ – it works as the Genie is a magical creature, divorced from the narrative place and time, meaning that his knowledge of pop culture does work – the writers did joke at what a ‘coincidence’ it was that the Genie’s ‘future’ knowledge is focused mainly on 20th century pop culture, most of all the 1960s, most of the animators’ time of youth. Some of the Genie’s references were even obscure back in 1992, children and even adults will not always ‘get’ the reference, and yet it is still enjoyable, because the Genie himself is a likeable character. The reason why the Genie works so wonderfully as a character and is such a success is a combination of the character animation, the writing, the editing (again Williams provided them with 16 HOURS of footage – they had to edit the best material for the film) and of course Williams’s performance. The reason why we have felt the need to point this out is that Williams tends to get the most praise, and it truly is a joint effort. Remember, Williams and voice acting did not always mean a successful result:
Despite having seen this film many times, we were surprised that the Genie doesn’t really appear for the first time until over a third of the film has passed. He is such a bombast of energy when he does appear! It is indicated through the dialogue that all of the Genie’s previous masters have merely exploited his magical prowess, then allowed him to simply return to his imprisonment – but his relationship with Aladdin is different, and the two become very good friends. This friendship definitely goes beyond Aladdin’s promise to set the Genie free, as demonstrated by the Genie saving Aladdin from drowning.
Although the character is most frequently used for comic purposes, he also provides one of the film’s emotional anchors. There are some genuinely impactful moments in which Williams tones down the energy to deliver a few lines with heartfelt sincerity. The Genie’s release also becomes a significant plot point – which is quite a rarity for supporting characters in Disney films. It is such an earned ending.
One of the unsung heroes of the film is undoubtedly the magic carpet, who manages to save the lives of the protagonists on several occasions, alongside the Genie acts as one of Aladdin’s advisors, and also plays a significant role within Aladdin and Jasmine’s romantic escape. The carpet is heavily involved in the action of the film, and yet receives very little recognition from the other characters. Despite having no dialogue, no face nor any limbs or appendages, the carpet is incredibly expressive, and able to communicate wonderfully. The character is immediately likeable and sympathetic, and frequently proves its worth. Bravo Randy Cartwright!
(Special Note from Melissa: I adore the carpet – he very well may be my favourite character from the film)
(Special Note from David: Watching the film this time around, I actually found the carpet’s unravelling during the finale quite shocking)
The bumbling authority figure is an area where Disney have stumbled before, and it can often feel like a worn-out trope, so the dialogue and the vocal performance really have to make the character worthwhile. Fortunately, the Sultan manages to be an entertaining character in his own right, with several genuinely amusing lines, but his bumbling mannerisms are effectively played off against Jafar’s measured demeanour. Although really, it’s the equivalent of Maurice being left in charge of a kingdom – how has a coup not started sooner?
Iago, as a character really shouldn’t work, but completely does. Disney have faltered in the past by creating insufferable sidekicks to the main antagonist (i.e. Creeper from The Black Cauldron) although it generally seemed that with these characters we were supposed to find them entertaining, but the execution was way off. With Iago it seems that being intentionally annoying is a fundamental part of his character, and rather than half-heartedly going about this idea, the filmmakers fully committed to it, evidenced by the fact that Gilbert Gottfried was chosen to play the part.
(Special Note from Both: Gottfried does come across as being a good sport about this in interviews)
As a result, Iago is not only entertaining, he has several genuinely hilarious and snarky lines during the film.
Including an ad-lib which made Robin Williams burst out laughing:
It is amazing that Jafar’s parrot was originally written as British, posh and very well-spoken – what a 180 degree turn! The final result makes for a better foil to the baritone notes of Jafar. In terms of character, Iago is actually an effective aide to Jafar, assisting with the villain’s plot on several occasions, including stealing the lamp from Aladdin and coming up with the marriage scheme. He also demonstrates a genuine mean streak in his abuse of the (temporarily former) Sultan once Jafar finds himself in the position of power.
Here is an interesting fact about Aladdin’s supporting cast background: Musker and Clements thought there were too many human characters in the previous scripts, from Ashman’s to Woolverton’s, and well … they just aren’t as fun to draw. So Abu the thief became Abu the thieving monkey, Jasmine’s handmaiden became a tiger named Rajah, and Aladdin’s three pals, Babkak, Omar and Kassim were … given the boot completely.
Officially snubbed guys
Aladdin’s faithful monkey sidekick, Abu is his partner in crime. He regularly proves his usefulness to Aladdin whenever the going gets tough: creating distractions during escapes, or during a thieving operation. Nevertheless, Abu acts selfishly on various occasions – he initially takes exception to Jasmine, and later the carpet – as they seem to be getting between his and Aladdin’s friendship. Even the Genie becomes Aladdin’s new best bud and the bromance is about them, not Aladdin and Abu. Abu’s selfish behaviour and desire to maintain the status quo in his relationship with Aladdin, makes him feel like a throwback to Tinkerbell (although Abu never tries to get Jasmine killed). Abu’s greed and selfishness results in himself and Aladdin becoming trapped in the Cave of Wonders (argh!), but he is able to redeem himself by stealing the lamp away from Jafar during the crucial moment.
You redeemed yourself … just
Plus the poor chap has to go through THIS trauma:
Genie you monster!
The filmmakers said that whenever the film started getting too sentimental or romantic, the go-to move was … cut to the monkey. Risky … considering that monkeys were considered box office poison at one point. Only just a few years before, Back to the Future originally starred a pet monkey instead of a pet dog – the Universal executive’s response? No movie with a chimpanzee ever made money. Well … isn’t it lucky for Disney that Abu isn’t a chimpanzee? Although he is a capuchin, and the Friends creators were very quick to get rid of Ross’s capuchin, Marcel after barely half a season. So … watch out Abu.
‘Hey remember when I had a monkey? Yeah, what was I thinking?’
Artwork and Imagery
At the beginning of this review, we asked whether Disney’s next move, post-Beauty and the Beast would be to follow in its footsteps … in many respects, they have chosen to go in a very different direction, making a bold move from an artistic standpoint. Remember when the animators in the early days wanted to go wild, cartoony and experimental, with pink elephants and Wonderland wackiness and madcap shorts and package film insanity (Three Caballeros we’re looking at YOU!), and were actually a little sad when the Disney style became the ‘Disney style’? It is as if the newer generation of animators were finally unleashed and able to do the cartoony, broader zany style that they’d been dreaming of doing. The animation in the film is noticeably more cartoony than its recent predecessors, and very purposely so. Characters are much more exaggerated in their movement, actions and expressions than what we have seen in a long time.
In an article from 1992 in the LA Times, Charles Soloman wrote: ‘Like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the contemporary Disney animated features “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” looked back to the richly detailed style of the great 19th- and early 20th-Century European storybook illustrators. But when Disney artists sought inspiration for their new feature “Aladdin,” they turned to a very different source: the elegantly minimal caricatures of Al Hirschfeld …’
Yes, the animators were inspired largely by the style of famed New Yorker caricaturist, Al Hirshfield. Production designer, Richard Vander Wende, felt that there were similarities between Hirshfield’s style and the swooping lines of Persian miniatures and Arabic calligraphy. The Genie was particularly inspired by Hirshfield, which makes perfect sense as the Genie is a master of impressions, and thus, a master of ‘caricaturing’ famous cultural figures. The design for the Genie is rather unique amongst the Disney canon, because although there have been several notable metamorphosing characters before (several villains have undergone iconic transformations) there has never been a character who changes shape so frequently and fluidly, allowing the opportunity for wonderful creative freedom for the animators, primarily lead animator, Eric Goldberg.
(Special Note from Both: The closest thing we’ve had is the wizard’s duel sequence in The Sword in the Stone but that was just a single scene, and also during the time when the studio was rather limited in their resources)
However, in contrast to the broader style of the characters, the designs of locations and backgrounds are very grand and impressive. The opening title sequence really exemplifies this stylistic approach: the design of the desert looks really vast and expansive, appearing to pay homage to classic movies, whilst the character making his way through the desert has a much more cartoony look about him. As we arrive in Agrabah, the backgrounds look visually stunning, whilst the characters noticeably pop out of those backdrops. It’s a combination of elegant and broad artistic styles fusing together.
Here are some particularly beautiful shots:
Animator, Rasoul Azadani was the layout supervisor for Aladdin, and he modelled the fictional Agrabah on his native Iran, particularly his hometown of Isfahan, paying a visit there during production for inspiration and taking 2000 photographs. It truly pays off in the final film, as the Middle Eastern architecture gorgeously shines through.
The colour scheme is very bold throughout, much more than in previous films: shades of blue, red and gold dominate almost every frame of the film, reminding us very much of the 1950s Restoration/Romantic era films. The palette was allegedly inspired by old Persian miniatures and Victorian paintings of the Middle East.
CGI continues to be more and more integrated into Disney’s films, and it is becoming even more skilfully handled with the Cave of Wonders sequences and the Carpet in particular. In fact, what they do with the Carpet is incredibly masterful. Randy Cartwright would fold a piece of cloth to help him animate the Carpet, describing it as ‘sort of like acting by origami’, and once the animation was done, the patterned surface was digitally applied. It looks terrific! It’s hard not to notice some of the CGI in certain scenes, but it doesn’t feel very jarring … for now.
The Alan Menken/Howard Ashman musical formula had built up quite a head of steam during their time at the studio, but due to Ashman’s untimely passing, this would be the final film to feature his lyrics, and even though he had written enough songs to fill the soundtrack, not all of his material was used. This film marks the debut appearance of lyricist Tim Rice; he had been working on The Lion King at the time for a few months (likely when it was still called King of the Jungle), and when Ashman passed away, Rice was asked to temporarily move over from the lion project to help Menken complete the Aladdin soundtrack.
Let’s begin with Menken’s underscore first. As usual, Menken employs some gorgeous themes, such as Aladdin’s theme (the ‘Riff Raff, Street Rat’ refrain), and the ‘Whole New World’ refrain (especially during the strings dominated kiss scene). The Arabian themes that run through the film’s underscore are what really sets it apart from previous scores, and they contribute greatly to the film’s atmosphere – glorious. The underscore during The Cave of Wonders sequence is excellent in how it builds and builds to point where it just evokes Classic Hollywood adventure. What’s wrong with the score then? Well … the Genie has a musical theme that runs through the whole film that isn’ t connected to a song, but it does have a generic ‘whimsical’ tune that feels like it could belong to any 90s family film rather than Aladdin, more specifically any whimsical 90s family Robin Williams film. Menken considered it as his point to be his most accomplished and complex score, and although we really like it, it’s not our favourite of the three.
Now on to songs!
When Ashman was working on the concept for Aladdin back in 1988, he and Menken wrote six songs, ‘Arabian Nights’ (along with many reprises), ‘Proud of Your Boy’, ‘Friend Like Me’, ‘Call Me a Princess’, ‘Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim’, and ‘High Adventure’. Later when the film’s direction and screenplay was in the hands of Ron Clements and John Musker, Ashman wrote two new songs for Aladdin, as story changes had been made, ‘Prince Ali’ and ‘Humiliate the Boy’. Three of Ashman and Menken’s songs were used, and three more were written by Menken and Rice, ‘One Jump Ahead’, ‘A Whole New World’, and ‘Prince Ali (Reprise)’ (‘Count On Me’ by Menken and ‘Why Me’ by Menken and Rice were written too, but not used).
The film opens spectacularly with ‘Arabian Nights’. The number immediately sets the tone for the rest of the film, embracing the Middle Eastern setting through the gorgeous instrumentation. The lyrics start out gently, introducing the story’s narrator in a mystical manner. As Agrabah is revealed, the song bursts into life with all the grandeur of a large scale Broadway musical. Unfortunately, the song comes to an end very quickly, as the narrator appears once the chorus dies down. Ashman’s witticisms are present in the lyrics, in particular the line ‘…more often than not, are hotter than hot, in a lot of good ways’ which is a line which is very much open to interpretation. Of course the infamous original lyric, ‘Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face’, faced criticism, especially from Arab-American groups, and it would be eventually replaced with ‘Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense’ – a better edit in our opinion.
(Special Note from Melissa: From years of living in the Middle East, 40-50 degree centigrade weather in Middle Eastern summers can feel ‘barbaric’ (‘but hey it’s home’) so it makes sense lyrically)
To contrast with the soaring opener, ‘One Jump Ahead’ is a fast-paced, jazzy number interspersed with snippets of dialogue which establishes Aladdin’s character and situation. This song was inspired by one of the original songs written, ‘Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim’, which has a terrific jaunty melody, but was cut when Aladdin’s three friends bit the dust and got cut from the story. ‘One Jump Ahead’ is a very enjoyable number with plenty of humorous dialogue, and a lot of cartoonish visuals to keep up with the frenetic pace. The tune contains Aladdin’s musical motif, which is heard frequently throughout the soundtrack – and is later reprised to fulfil the role of Aladdin’s ‘I Want…’ song. The main song is an entertaining comic number, whilst the ‘One Jump Ahead’ reprise really shows that there’s more depth to Aladdin’s character than just being a sly confidence trickster – and Brad Kane really does a fantastic job with this beautiful but brief ballad.
So much brevity so far! Amazing songs, but too short.
‘Friend Like Me’ is a spectacular showcase number for the Genie’s character and his magical shapeshifting prowess – it also marks a significant turning point within the story. There is a lot of enjoyable wordplay within the lyrics, alluding to famous myths and fairy tales, whilst also taking advantage of the Genie’s character not belonging to a specific time period (a justification for his use of contemporary vernacular). Robin Williams was particularly nervous about singing, and instead went for a more spoken-word approach, whilst adopting a variety of different voices and accents throughout to help him feel more confident – as a result the song feels more like a fast-paced comedy skit. Initially Ashman intended for the song to be more of a Calloway/Waller style jazz number, and his original demo of the song can still be heard.
It sounds much seedier than the film version, less like the Las Vegas showman-style performance and more like an underground jazz club number, implying that Ashman’s version of the Genie might not have been entirely trustworthy. Perhaps it would be better suited to a more Faustian story, but that’s to be expected from the guy who brought us Little Shop of Horrors.
(Special Note from David: When I first heard Ashman’s version I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but it grew on me very quickly, and it’s now my favourite version of ‘Friend Like Me’)
(Special Note from Melissa: It’s amazing! We also adore the way it’s performed in the Broadway production too … it just goes to show what a brilliant song it is!)
Similarly catchy and memorable is the next number: ‘Prince Ali’, also energetically performed by Williams, and once again demonstrating his use of multiple voices. Again, this was one of the final songs written by Ashman, intended to create a strong feeling of wealth and excess – lowly Aladdin has found himself instantaneously elevated to a much higher social standing, and gets rather carried away with the fabulosity of it all. The Genie – having plucked an entire backstory for Aladdin’s alter-ego out of nothing – runs down all Ali’s (entirely fictional) accolades and accomplishments – a list number up there with previous Menken/Ashman list songs like Gaston, Be Our Guest and Under the Sea, and all the usual randomness and witticisms thrown in – ‘Purple peacocks he’s got 53!’
(Special Note from David: I do find it amusing that none of the things described in the song are actually true … all popping out of existence once the song’s over)
(Special Note from Melissa: Those poor purple peacocks … only just beginning to live)
(Special Note from David: Where were those purple peacocks, Aladdin, when you got bound, gagged and thrown into the sea?!)
Perhaps the most recognisable song from the film is the multi-award winning ‘A Whole New World’, sung by Aladdin and Jasmine as they fly all over the world on the magic carpet. It is a beautiful, sweeping duet, sung brilliantly by musical theatre performers, Brad Kane and Lea Salonga. It’s interesting that they decided to have Aladdin and Jasmine’s voice actors be dubbed by other performers – is this a trend we are going to see more of, and if so why? Lyrically the song is more straightforward than the ones written by Ashman, but Rice might very well have been paying tribute through some of the cheekier and more suggestive lyrics (you know which ones we mean). In fact, this is likely the case as Menken had written dummy lyrics for a song he and Ashman had had in mind called ‘World at Your Feet’, and he had written it with the consciousness of ‘What would Howard write?’
(Special Note from Melissa: This reminds me of the dark days of ‘What would Walt do?’ for the grieving animators in the 1960s-1980s. Funny how it comes back around …)
Rice then took Menken’s dummy lyrics in the spirit of Ashman’s voice, played around with them and re-wrote it to make the song his own, and thus ‘A Whole New World’ was born – the film’s most successful song.
(Special Note from David: This might seem a bit petty, but because the biggest hit song from Aladdin was one of Rice’s numbers, it does often seem as though Ashman’s contributions to the film are overlooked – consider the fact that Ashman’s name is never mentioned in trailers, whilst Rice most certainly gets acknowledged by the time The Lion King comes around)
(Special Note from Melissa: Likely because he and Elton John were bigger names (marketing marketing marketing). Rice is really talented but the circumstances behind it all are sad. In fact this is something he said himself on the success that the score received: ‘The acceptance of these mementoes was bittersweet in that I knew perfectly well that Howard would, indeed should, have been there in my place’)
Let’s also not forget the ‘pop’ version of ‘A Whole New World’ that appears in the credits, which one critic amusingly described as sounding like ‘elevator music’. It’s the return of Peabo Bryson, not joined by Celine Dion this time, but instead, Regina Belle, complete with a hilariously dated music video. Again Bryson and Belle sound perfectly fine – they have great voices … it’s just that these ‘pop’ versions sound soulless and dated in comparison with the film version. It’s just there to sell records.
Strangely the final song in the film is the villain song, but rather than being its own entity it’s a reworked version of ‘Prince Ali’. While it is a shame to not have a whole new villain song to stand alongside its predecessors, ‘Prince Ali (Reprise)’ makes perfect sense contextually. Aladdin has been advised to tell Jasmine the truth about who he really is, and has also been presented with opportunities to do so, but he didn’t take them. He waited too long, and as a result it is left to the villain to expose the lies instead – using the glory song against him. Jafar takes great delight in stripping away Aladdin’s disguise, revealing that he is a fraud, and has misled everyone. Jonathan Freeman really excels here, revelling in Jafar’s moment of triumph, and using someone’s ‘victory’ song against them is incredibly cruel. They had tried very hard to create a villain song for Jafar (and consequently for musical theatre maestro Freeman), with Ashman and Menken creating ‘Humiliate the Boy’ and Rice and Menken later creating ‘Why Me’ – it just never seemed to click.
‘Humiliate the Boy’ in many respects is a painful song to listen to – Ashman was incredibly ill when he wrote both ‘Prince Ali’ and ‘Humiliate the Boy’ – he knew very well that he was dying from AIDS and his body was gradually shutting down and not working properly, all the while his mind remained sound. These two songs feel like a call and response to each other (which is ultimately why the ‘Prince Ali Reprise’ ends up making perfect sense), with ‘Prince Ali’ reflecting the glory days for Ashman and Menken – opportunities, dreams and awards falling into their laps, but like Aladdin’s fate, it is only a brief glorious period for Ashman – then this is followed by ‘Humiliate the Boy’ – the final song that Ashman wrote, all about reducing and degrading Aladdin to his lowest point – it feels painfully autobiographical. Read a few examples of these lyrics:
‘Seize the good times! / Too bad they never last … Ah, yes, these were the good times / Hope you liked them, little friend / ‘Cause here is where the good times / Most decidedly must end … Oh, it’s such fun / To see another fellow’s dreams / Turn into nightmares, one by one … Once he was proud / Once he was fine … But such is fate … I guess he’ll have to learn the hard way / Rubbing lamps involves some risk … Oh, we’ll emasculate him slowly / All the better to enjoy / How delicious, to humiliate the boy’
(Special Note from Melissa: Good times ending and dreams turning into nightmares bitterly resonates … Just heart-breaking … it was considered too cruel, even for Jafar to sing … it likely felt too close to home … on top of it all, it has a horrible carnival-esque funhouse-gone-wrong tone)
(Special Note from David: Also it does have a bit of a bizarre ‘Hey Big Spender’ vibe musically speaking)
The songs throughout Aladdin maintain the established trend set by The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast in that all of the songs are memorable, and add something to the story, as well as the overall effect of the film. Before moving on, however, we need to address a particularly notable son cut from the film’s soundtrack, which we discussed in Protagonist: ‘Proud of Your Boy’ – one of Ashman’s final songs, and one of which had significant personal meaning to Ashman himself. We talked before about iconic songs which were almost cut from films entirely (such as ‘Over the Rainbow’ and more recently ‘Part of Your World’) but this is an example of when the studio executives have the final word on the matter, and the song is lost. Aladdin is still a great film, despite the absence of this song, but we can’t help but feel that if ‘Proud of Your Boy’ had remained, it would elevate the film in the eyes of critics and audiences when weighed up against the entirety of the canon. It gives Aladdin’s character much more depth, legitimately tugs at the heartstrings, and appeals to a universal theme: wishing that our parents would be proud of us.
Aladdin’s songs have been complicated to discuss in many ways due to how entangled they all are in the fact the man who pitched this idea in the first place died a year and a half before the film was even released. It is hard not to address the cultural significance of the Menken/Ashman team, and of course, how their unwanted break-up would change the musical dynamic. We love the songs in Aladdin – they are fantastic and so enjoyable to listen to and watch. It’s just that it’s a musical score that, like Beauty and the Beast, will always be shrouded with a degree of sadness – but they are wonderful songs. However, when his musical partner passed away, Menken really felt the need to step up and come out of his ‘shell’ more than ever, especially as Rice was looking to him for guidance – he did succeed here.
The story of Aladdin is structured in a very similar way to Snow White insofar as the villain’s appearances drive the main narrative. In both films we meet the villain before the protagonist, and in order to ensure that the main drama of the plot doesn’t stray, the villain frequently reappears to keep the action moving forward. This particular similarity demonstrates just how much Disney’s approach to storytelling has changed over the years, as there are several subplots and character arcs within Aladdin which are given time to develop – whereas Snow White had a much more straightforward plot by comparison. The Renaissance era’s musical films have done an excellent job of structuring weaving storylines together, ultimately resulting in a collision of all of them – Aladdin is no exception – the film is dominated by Aladdin’s story, Jasmine’s story, Jafar’s story, and Genie’s story, and we felt invested in all of them. Aladdin and Jasmine’s stories weave fittingly, as the romantic leads share coming-of-age stories – they’re both limited by their social status and feel trapped with the desire to show that there is more to them than meets the eye. In fact, all four of the main characters feel trapped in their current situations and believe there is more to them than meets the eye! Ultimately these threads are what drive the plot forward, as Jafar lusts after power (while trapped as a lackey to a foolish master), Jasmine longs for autonomy (to see the world and not be a ‘prize to be won’ by men), Aladdin wishes to prove his worth, and the Genie wants to be his own master, literally not trapped in a lamp and not an eternal wishing machine.
‘Do not take me for some conjuror of cheap tricks’
Overall, everyone is trapped in their own metaphorical lamp, not just the Genie.
Genie’s story does make Aladdin stand out from the rest of the canon – a supporting character’s goal (in Genie’s case to be free), despite not coming to the surface until half way through the film, drives the main plot, heightens the stakes and eventually becomes the film’s emotional anchor. It truly is an earned ending, revealing Aladdin as the diamond in the rough, as he puts Genie’s happiness above his own, even above his love for Jasmine and his initial desire for wealth and luxury. At its story’s heart, Aladdin is a buddy film, up there with The Jungle Book.
It’s interesting that Aladdin went through as many rewrites as it did, by so many different writers, and yet it fortunately still ended up with a positive result, with a tight narrative, when it easily could have been hodge-podge and all over the place. But Disney isn’t perfect, and Aladdin does have a few story issues. For example, they create a slight problem for themselves through the use of the pedlar as the film’s narrator, as he only appears at the start. This tied back to the fact that ‘Arabian Nights’ used to have multiple reprises and that at one point, the pedlar was going to be revealed as the Genie in the final shot, making complete sense as Robin Williams voiced both characters. But instead, he is revealed once – never to be seen again.
There is a bit of a niggle in terms of story, and ultimately they made the right decision, but they should have addressed it with more finesse. Up to the Black Friday storyboard session, Aladdin had unlimited wishes, making complete sense as to why he was reluctant to not set the Genie free – there’d always be that feeling of just one more wish then I’ll set you free. In the final film, he says, ‘I can’t keep this up on my own … I can’t set you free’. But all he had left was one wish – once he used that, what then? How would one wish help him keep it up? In fact, in the context of three wishes, he’d have been better off setting the Genie free, and asking him to help him out as a friend, and not as a slave. Three wishes heighten the stakes and tighten the narrative, and we can put it down to the fact that Aladdin wasn’t thinking clearly at the time, but it still feels like a draft thread that never got fully resolved. The logic of the Genie’s magic and the wishing rules have a similar obstacle. The Genie emphasises that he can’t save a drowning Aladdin unless he makes a wish, and then makes it his second wish in order to save him – all the while the Genie spends the film making all kinds of magic happen, from purple peacocks appearing out of nowhere to Abu transforming into an elephant. The reason this has happened is because ‘Friend Like Me’ and ‘Prince Ali’ were written when unlimited wishes were still in the story – the songs are still there, complete with all sorts of magic being thrust at us, and yet outside of the songs, three wishes are firmly emphasised as a done deal. In our opinion, releasing a film every year and having such tight deadlines, may be starting to show, as plot threads and logic are not as tight as they could be.
Connecting to that, perhaps relating to these tight deadlines, while Aladdin is pacey, when we first re-watched the film for The Disney Odyssey, we were stunned by how frantically fast it was, especially during the songs, to the extent of intensified continuity in terms of editing, like live action films of the time, and complementing the 90s MTV generation style.
(Special Note from Both: At moments, we thought ‘Seriously, who directed this? Baz Luhrmann?’)
We were initially harder on it, but softened when we watched it a second time (likely because we were expecting it), but still, at times, we wanted moments to have more breathing room, especially for the songs, which while fantastic, in some instances, felt too short or too rushed – we wanted more!
Overall, despite a few teething niggles, we felt invested in Aladdin’s story – the film features hilarious, dark and tender moments, the Renaissance style musical format is once again used very effectively, to set up atmosphere (‘Arabian Nights’), establish characters (‘One Jump Ahead’, ‘Friend Like Me’), develop relationships (‘A Whole New World’) and push the plot forward (‘Prince Ali’ and ‘Prince Ali Reprise’), and while a little too fast at times, we still love the story and the film. Much more polished and a much better film than Robin Hood, but Aladdin does have a similar vibe in its irreverence and cartoony-driven style, and that despite any story problems it has, it feels impossible not to like it. The story is enjoyable and engaging, essentially because we love these characters and we care about them.
During my childhood, while the Disney Renaissance was in full effect, Aladdin was probably the film I was most familiar with: I loved the Genie, and the songs, particularly ‘One Jump Ahead’ and ‘Prince Ali’. I also owned the ridiculously difficult Aladdin Mega Drive game, which to this day I have never completed. I re-watched the film again years later (a couple of years prior to starting the Disney Odyssey) and really enjoyed it, picking up on a lot more of the jokes and references this time, although some of Robin Williams’ impressions continued to go completely over my head. Watching the film as part of the Disney Odyssey, it remains a very enjoyable film, made by the studio at their creative peak; this was also the first time either of us had watched Aladdin since Robin Williams passed away.
I think I was a little anxious about whether Williams’ performance as the Genie would have dated, as a result of the numerous pop culture references which were used throughout. Fortunately the performance holds up really well, and continues to be funny and entertaining – but Robin Williams also completely delivers when the film requires him to rein in his comic energy and deliver a moment of genuine poignancy at the end.
It feels necessary to mention Williams’ performance when retrospectively reviewing the film, but I feel that it does the film a disservice to solely draw attention to that one factor. The Genie – and Williams’ performance – aside, Aladdin is a really good film, with a fun story, entertaining characters and another fantastic soundtrack – adding more iconic songs to the studio’s rich legacy. It is a real shame to be well and truly saying goodbye to Howard Ashman this time, as this is the last time we’ll be hearing his songs in the Disney Odyssey – although this experience has led to the discovery of his original demo of “Friend Like Me” which is truly wonderful.
I absolutely love Jonathan Freeman’s performance as Jafar, and I was also surprised by how entertained I was by Gilbert Gottfried (who I was prepared to find unbearably annoying) as Jafar and Iago made for a highly enjoyable villainous pairing – the vocal performances are so enjoyable, they mask a lot of pun-riddled dialogue, which could very easily have been awful. I also really enjoy the relationship between Aladdin and Jasmine, particularly the way in which they’re animated: Jasmine’s expressions as she figures out who Aladdin is during “A Whole New World” is a real testament to how skilled animators can be at acting through their characters. My major gripe with Aladdin’s character, is that he would have been much more developed had “Proud of Your Boy” not been cut from the film – in fact that song could have elevated the film overall. I can say with confidence that this is amongst my favourite Disney films, and will be rated fairly highly when we reach the end of our Odyssey – but I feel that the absence of that song could be the thing that makes the film fall just short of my absolute favourites.
I did watch Aladdin as a child very frequently – we had it on video (but strangely enough without the cover!). My sister and I had an Aladdin doll (complete with two different outfits), we had Abu and Rajah cuddly toys, matching Aladdin bedspreads and we saw Aladdin on Ice in the mid-1990s, leaving with a light-up sword and my mum’s friend’s kids leaving with Jafar’s snake staff with light-up eyes. It seems like between the ages of approx 0-8 when Disney films get released, that is when Disney marketing hits us the hardest! Watching Aladdin again as a teenager was a wonderful experience, not only in recognising the beautiful animation and music, but also in realising how many jokes and references there were that suddenly clicked as you get older. I spent some of my childhood and all of my adolescence living in the Middle East, and it made me even fonder of Aladdin when watching it again. When initially watching the film for The Disney Odyssey, I had a bit of a stunned response, especially as we’ve been watching these films in order, in that the film seemed to be going at breakneck Luhrmann speed. I felt like Aladdin, while pacey, was not allowing itself to breathe, and was rushing through its moments and song cues. However, I will say that when I watched it a second time, perhaps because I was expecting it, it did not bother me as much and I did appreciate its pace and how ‘full’ it felt in its 90 minute running time. I also say this because I think the material in Aladdin is excellent, and I did not want anything to get lost in the shuffle or rushed over.
Aladdin puts a smile on my face, as it really does bring me back to childhood. Nostalgia aside though, I still love all of the songs, the script is hilarious (including the improvs!) and the animation style is a breath of fresh air for the Renaissance team; it’s easy to see that they’re having a ball with the more ‘cartoony’ style to play around with and stretch themselves, and yet on the other side, the backgrounds are truly elegant and stunning. The voice acting is terrific as are the character designs, with Eric Goldberg and Robin Williams as a team in particular creating such an iconic and wonderful character in the Genie – a character perfect for animation. I love the relationship between Aladdin and Genie (with a genuinely moving conclusion), Jafar is up there as one of my top Disney villains, Carpet as one of my favourite supporting characters, and the romance between Jasmine and Aladdin, 1980s/1990s infused they may be, is still delightful, particularly as the team are taking greater risks in portraying a rockier romance, and emphasising that they are unafraid to make the young lovers appear anything other than ‘charming’, e.g. showing them getting angry, looking foolish and revealing even more sexual tension between them. As David said in his verdict, I agree that ‘Proud of Your Boy’ is a real loss to Aladdin and would have pushed Aladdin’s motivation in life harder, giving him a greater emotional anchor. Other than my feeling of ‘slow down just a tad’ in certain moments and the loss of ‘Proud of Your Boy’, Aladdin is such a likeable film with great songs, script and characters, and saying goodbye to the Menken/Ashman era does make me feel really sad – what an amazing team they were, and I wish they could have done more projects together.
Aladdin made $217,350,219 domestically and $504,050,219 worldwide – it was the number 1 box office film for 1992, both in the USA and worldwide, despite being released around the same time as Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. How’s the Bluth company doing?
While Aladdin was the number 1 film at the box office for 1992, Bluth’s Rock a Doodle was 86th … oh dear. Even Twentieth Century Fox’s Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest was 63rd.
Critics loved Aladdin with Desson Howe of the Washington Post saying, ‘There’s a good chance you’re going to enjoy “Aladdin” more than the children. Keep it to yourself, though’, and Peter Travers of Rolling Stone stating, ‘Disney’s worthy follow-up to Beauty, is so funny and scrappy you don’t need to drag a kid along. Even a work-in-progress print shows a wicked new playfulness (think Simpsons, not Snow White)’ … Besides the in jokes, the animation and the Alan Menken score (Howard Ashman, who died of AIDS, did most of the nimble lyrics) supply enough glorious entertainment to hold even brats and cynics in thrall.’ John Hartl from the Seattle Times described Aladdin as ‘more vintage Bugs Bunny cartoon stretched to feature length than a replay of what worked in the phenomenally successful “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Little Mermaid”.’ Jay Boyar from the Orlando Sentinel similarly referred to it as ‘not so different from those Warner Bros. cartoons’, saying that ‘This hilariously hip and thoroughly gorgeous motion picture is nothing less than the crowning achievement — so far — of Disney’s revitalized animation department … In co-directing Aladdin, John Musker and Ron Clements … have done what no one ever has: Visually and thematically, they’ve created an animated feature that deftly blends classical and contemporary approaches’. He continues that while Beauty and Mermaid were entertaining, ‘each was missing something the other had’, and Aladdin is not as ‘musty’ as the former.
Gary Thompson of the Philadelphia Daily News had similar feelings but was blunter about it: ‘The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were perfectly nice. That was their biggest problem. The formal, wholesome appeal of the new neo-classical Disney cartoons was starting to wear a little thin. Really, couldn’t they find anybody hipper for voice-overs than Angela Lansbury and Robbie Benson? Even the celebrated musical numbers were getting tired. Tale as old as time / Song as old as rhyme / Blah blah blah blah blah.’ … You could sense that the animators and writers at Disney were dying to cut loose, and they have with “Aladdin” – by far the liveliest, brightest and funniest cartoon to emerge from Disney’s revamped animation division’. … We did say blunt.
Other critics, while they may have liked it, they perceived it as not as good as Mermaid and Beauty, or as good as the ‘classics’. Janet Maslin of The New York Times said ‘If the makers of Aladdin had their own magic lamp, it’s easy to guess what they might wish for: another classic that crosses generational lines as successfully as Beauty and the Beast did, and moves as seamlessly from start to finish. Aladdin is not quite that, but it comes as close as may have been possible without a genie’s help. The fundamentals here go beyond first-rate: animation both gorgeous and thoughtful, several wonderful songs and a wealth of funny minor figures on the sidelines, practicing foolproof Disney tricks’. Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune wrote, ‘Although the film in no way measures up to the features made under Disney`s personal supervision, it does contain some far more imaginative and adept animation than the last several post-Walt titles … a genuine charmer, filled with wit, feeling and verve’. Variety stated ‘It may not equal the emotional wallop packed by Beauty, but Aladdin certainly rivals it in many other respects and proves a worthy successor to the standard the new generation of Disney animators has established.’ Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times wrote, ‘The genie is the best thing in the movie, which is good fun but not on a par with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and The Beast, the two films with which Disney essentially gave rebirth to feature-length animation …The bottom line is that Aladdin is good but not great, with the exception of the Robin Williams sequences.’
The Genie was generally perceived as the film’s show stealer by many of the critics of the time, with Travers calling him ‘a hip comic wonder — he might just wish himself up a cartoon Oscar’ … shame this was, and still isn’t, perceived as valid. Even Ralph Novak of People Magazine tried to be diplomatic but was still smitten: ‘Sweetly spirited, brightly funny and forthrightly romantic, this variation on the classic myth would rank among the most enjoyable Disney animated features even without Robin Williams’s contribution. But his voice characterization of the bottled-up genie liberated by Aladdin’s rubbing of the magic lamp is so active and inventive it sends the film onto a higher level of entertainment’
There is something that a few critics pointed out that is a little awkward, even though they are probably trying to sound politically correct: Thompson said ‘The movie probably could have been a little more sensitive in its characterizations – the sympathetic and heroic Arabs are drawn like westerners, while the evil Jafar looks like Khomeini with indigestion’, while Ebert said, ‘Most of the Arab characters have exaggerated facial characteristics – hooked noses, glowering brows, thick lips – but Aladdin and the princess look like white American teenagers. Wouldn’t it be reasonable that if all the characters in this movie come from the same genetic stock, they should resemble one another?’ While we agree that there are stereotypical portrayals, especially with the guards and a few background characters (which do feel like lazy and a little offensive caricatures at times), Jafar, like all Disney villains before, is drawn to look over-the-top. Also we take umbrage with the notion that they both said Aladdin and Jasmine and ‘good’ characters look like ‘westerners’ and ‘white’ … (Special Note from Melissa: As someone who lived in the Middle East for many years, with the exception of their outfits, Aladdin and Jasmine look like attractive young Arabs – dark wavy hair, dark eyebrows and eyes, tanned complexion). Saying that most of the characters have ‘hooked noses, glowering brows and thick lips’, then saying that the leads look white and American just feels … as we said … inadvertently awkward. The intention of the argument falls on its face a little.
Anyway, at the Academy Awards, Alan Menken won for ‘Best Music, Original Score’ and he and Tim Rice won ‘Best Music, Original Song’ for ‘A Whole New World’. Aladdin was also nominated for Best Sound, Best Effects (Sound Effects Editing) and for Best Music, Original Song for ‘Friend Like Me’ (a posthumous nomination for Howard Ashman). Apparently, because Robin Williams ad-libbed so many lines, it made Aladdin ineligible for a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Meh.
Aladdin was nominated for Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical, Best Original Song (‘Friend Like Me’) and Best Original Song (‘Prince Ali) at the Golden Globes; Best Score and Best Special Effects at the BAFTAs, Best Music at the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Film awards; Best Picture at the DFWFCA Awards; Best Song (‘Friend Like Me’) and Record of the Year (Peabo Bryson & Regina Belle’s ‘A Whole New World’); Best Dramatic Presentation at the Hugo Awards; and Best Movie and Best Movie Song (Peabo Bryson & Regina Belle’s ‘A Whole New World’) at the MTV Movie Awards.
The film won 3 Golden Globes for Best Original Score and Best Original Song (‘A Whole New World), including a Special Award for Robin Williams for his vocal work. It won 3 Saturn Awards for Best Fantasy Film, Best Supporting Actor for Robin Williams, and Best Performance by a Younger Actor for Scott Weinger. The film won 5 Grammy Awards, including Best Instrumental Composition, Best Song (‘A Whole New World’), Song of the Year (‘A Whole New World’), Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals (‘A Whole New World’), and Best Musical Album for Children. It won the Annie Award for Best Animated Feature; an ASCAP Award for Top Box Office Film; a DFWFCA Award for Best Animated Film; Golden Screen Awards; a Blimp Award at the Kid’ Choice Awards for Favourite Movie; a BMI Film Music Award; an LAFCA Award for Best Animation; a Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing; an MTV Movie Award for Best Comedic Performance (Robin Williams); a Maxwell Weinberg Award for Motion Picture; 3rd place at the SEFCA awards; and a Young Artist Award for Outstanding Family Entertainment of the Year.
Unfortunately, one of the legacies that the film left behind was the major controversy over Robin Williams’s involvement. He voiced the Genie for a small fee at union scale rate, on the condition that the Genie not take up more than 25 per cent of the space in marketing campaigns and that his name not be used for marketing the film. He was particularly concerned about this, as he had a film coming out around the same time called Toys. When Disney did not keep their word on this, to an almost ridiculous degree as it really ended up being one of the first Disney films to really market itself on the strength of the star (Oliver and Company was a sadder, more try-hard attempt at that), Williams withdrew his support for the film and Disney, refusing to return for The Return of Jafar. Dan Castellaneta took over the role for the sequel and the TV series. Michael Eisner apologised with the peace offering of an original Picasso … Williams refused and it was only when Katzenberg either left or was fired that Williams made up with Disney and agreed to voice the Genie for Aladdin and the King of Thieves. Castellaneta knew he had just been the official Rebound Genie, as Disney threw out his completed recording sessions … real classy.
One of the film’s biggest legacies is, as we said at the beginning, that it is the canon’s most postmodern and self-aware film to date, primarily manifested in the character of the Genie with pop cultural references and jokes for adults having more of a presence. But while this is handled, for the most part, very well in Aladdin, knowing what we know in hindsight, its success has created a monster, as the execs are going to assume that pop culture and modern day references, adult jokes and celebrities, will inevitably mean box office success, even if it completely lacks finesse. Oh dear.
Lastly Aladdin was made into a stage musical in 2011, which transferred to Broadway, and later the West End, and is now playing across the world. Alan Menken returned for music, while Chad Beguelin wrote extra lyrics and the book. ‘High Adventure’, ‘Babkak Omar Aladdin Kassim’ and most joyfully, ‘Proud of Your Boy’ were reinstated, and there are some lovely new songs as well. The Broadway show was nominated for 5 Tony awards, winning one for James Monroe Iglehart as the Genie, and 7 Drama Desk Awards, again winning for Iglehart. As we speak in 2016, the London show has been nominated for What’s On Stage Awards, and who knows maybe more. We saw it in London earlier this year. It was wonderful! However we had the hilarious misfortune of sitting next to a couple who only applauded when it was a song from the film. Charming.
We’ll leave you with that lovely readers 🙂 We’re sorry for such a gap – other than the obvious of work and life getting in the way – perhaps we’re sad to say goodbye to the Menken/Ashman era. We’ve truly loved it.