Saturday, July 17, 2010


After hearing all the fuss about "white-washing" the cast of The Last Airbender and Prince of Persia this summer, I have to look at Aladdin and chuckle.  I mean, is there a more Caucasian movie about Arabic characters?  It takes its story from a classic Middle Eastern folktale collection, One Thousand and One Nights, and the lead voice actor is...Steve from Full House?  I never realized how ethnic he was!

The movie begins with Jafar (Jonathan Freeman) and his wise-cracking parrot, Iago (Gilbert Gottfried), in the middle of the desert, persuading a thief to enter the Cave of Wonders.  The cave's entrance is shaped like a tiger's head, and it talks.  Would you willingly walk into a giant, talking stone tiger's mouth?  If so, you might be a dirty thief.  The cave eats the thief and tells Jafar that only a "diamond in the rough" can gain access to the cave's treasures.  That doesn't seem hard to find, does it?  And it's not.  With the help of a machine, Jafar is able to learn the identity of this "diamond:" Aladdin (Scott Weinger).  Jafar wants Aladdin because he wants more power and riches than his sorcerer/adviser-to-the-Sultan role can provide him; he wants the power of the magic lamp that lies inside the Cave of Wonders.

Aladdin is a "street rat" in the fictional Arabic city of Agrabah.  With his monkey, Abu, he steals what he needs to survive and spends the rest of his time running for his life while singing.  Here's a tip, folks: if you're trying to evade capture by the police, don't sing your plans to them.  I know, it's a very tempting and natural desire, but it's rarely the right move.  One day, Aladdin notices a pretty girl in the market and protects her from the police.  The two spend the rest of the day together, enjoying each others company and, in the Disney way, falling in love with a speed that would alarm any parent.  Alas, their time together is interrupted by palace guards, who Jafar has sent to capture Aladdin.  The guards and Aladdin are surprised when the girl reveals herself to be Princess Jasmine (Linda Larkin), but the guards still take Aladdin away.  Jasmine was slumming it in the city because she felt trapped by her palace life; at almost sixteen years old, Jasmine was practically an old maid by princess standards and her father was pressuring her to choose a husband.  Tired of being pressured, Jasmine snuck out of the castle and met her true love, Aladdin, only to have him taken to the very palace she had escaped from.  It's like ray-eee-ayne on your wedding day.  Seriously, it is.

Back in the desert, at the Cave of Wonders, Jafar tells Aladdin that he can have all the treasures of the cave if he gives Jafar a particular lamp first.  Aladdin is all about it, but his stupid monkey had to touch something that caused the cave to self destruct.  Luckily, a magic carpet helps Aladdin and Abu survive, but they're trapped.  But they have this lamp...and it looks so dirty...I wonder if anyone will want to clean it off, maybe by rubbing it...?  Well, look at that!  Rubbing the lamp gives you a genie that may or may not have the attention span of a coke-fueled squirrel.  So, now Aladdin has the lamp, he has a genie and three wishes.  His new buddy, Genie, would really like wish number three to be freedom from the lamp and his years of servitude, but the first priority is to win Jasmine's heart.  Unfortunately, in the palace, Jafar has found a new way to gain power.  He realizes that he would become Sultan if he married Jasmine.  Who will win her hand in marriage, the underhanded Jafar, or the stupid but earnest Aladdin?

This is, in my mind, the quintessential late-period Disney animated movie.  The animation is in the classic style, but with some digital coloring (mainly for the lava and the magic carpet) that really pops out of the screen.  The hero has a good heart, but is immature and a little stupid.  The heroine is strong-willed and feminist to a point, but really just wants to get married at a young age.  The villain is completely unsympathetic and ugly.  The supporting cast is lovable and goofy.  The songs became pop hits and the movie serves as their music videos.  While these broad storytelling devices make for a fairly predictable plot, it's still an animated Disney movie, which means it's pretty darn adorable.

Like most Disney movies of the time, the cast is primarily made of professional voice actors.  Scott Weiger does a good job as Aladdin, but he (and everyone else) is overshadowed by Robin Williams' manic performance as the Genie.  Williams is what makes this movie work; without him, it's a cute, but mediocre cartoon.  It shouldn't come as a surprise (if you're familiar with his work) that most of Williams' dialogue was ad-libbed; he apparently was given topics and suggestions and allowed to ramble on from there.  What is surprising is the fact that an animation studio would create more work for themselves by waiting on the voice actor before they drew the scenes.  I guess that's the sort of happy inconvenience you're willing to endure to work with a mad genius.  Or Mork.

While Williams raises this movie to great heights, the scenes without him should have been better.  I have no problem with Aladdin's early scenes; they establish his character and the "Street Rat" song was cute.  But what was with the Hammer pants?  I don't particularly like Jasmine at the beginning; she complains about not having choices, like she's being forced into an arranged marriage or something.  She's not.  She keeps having suitors introduced and scares them off.  That's her freedom of choice at work.  It's not that she doesn't want to get married at age sixteen, or that she wants to know her husband before they wed; she just doesn't like the guys she's met.  It's faux-feminism, and if a cartoon is going to feature strong-willed female leads, I would prefer if they grow a (proverbial) pair of balls and stand up for themselves instead of just being moderately picky over men.  By the way, the "pressure" to marry was completely null and void, since her dad can change the laws as it suits him (as the ending proves).  Way to negate her character development, dad.  I liked Jafar as the villain, but would have preferred if his character was more visually interesting, instead of a skinny bald dude with some ugly clothes.  His parrot, Iago, is something else entirely.  I will ignore any questions about Gilbert Gottfried's talent (nonexistent) or the origin of his voice (the seventh circle of Hell) and instead ask why it was necessary to add airplane noises to a scene where he pantomimed crashing and burning.  Aside from being kind of insulting (What?  I can't connect a bird falling, with his wings spread to a crash?), it just doesn't make sense for airplane noises to be in a movie set in the ninth century.  Who is to blame for all these oddities?  Co-directors and co-screenwriters John Muster and Ron Clements; of course, they're also responsible for convincing Williams to sign up and then giving him room to work, so they're not all bad.

And what was with the narrator at the beginning?  Yes, I realize it's Robin Williams, but why is he in the movie at all?  When you set up a narrative bookend, it means that the main story is being told to the audience by a character (like in the original One Thousand and One Nights).  But...we never see the narrator again.  That's just sloppy, Disney.  Walt, somebody should get fired for that.  Right after you defrost.

I don't mind that sloppiness, though.  This is still a fun movie to watch, regardless of age.  The songs are mostly fun and even the pop ballad "A Whole New World" can be goofy with some audience participation.  Go on, whisper "don't you dare close your eyes" to the person next to you when watching this movie.  Hilarity ensues, I guarantee it.  It's a fun movie with some reasonably likable characters finding their way to a happy ending while passing on a few trite lessons for the kids.

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