The films of the Disney Renaissance defined my childhood. Being a little boy, I didn't have the pick of the litter that little girls did -- I might enjoy "Beauty and the Beast," but I could not have called it a favorite. Even so, there were more than a few films that a boy could love, and "Aladdin" was near the top of that list.
The film was based on an Arabian folktale from "One Thousand and One Nights," and the story's origins are clear from the very first shot: a peddler on a camel, traversing a desert, and just in case it wasn't clear, a singer warbles "Arabian Nights" as the credits roll in quasi-Arabic font. The film also honors the source material with a "story within a story" introduction: the peddler offers to sell you a lamp, and promises to reveal the secret it once contained.
The film begins far removed from the medieval European settings of many previous Disney outings, and far removed from the sometimes-sanitized fairy tale feel of such stories. The first real character we meet is the antagonist Jafar, cloaked entirely in shadow, meeting the thief Gazeem, who casually notes that he "had to slit a few throats" on his latest errand. They unearth the Cave of Wonders, which within minutes swallows Gazeem whole. This isn't your standard Disney princess film.
The next scene introduces us to the eponymous Aladdin as he flees the palace guards after stealing a loaf of bread. As he's chased through a harem, he explains to the scantily-clad occupants: "Gotta steal to eat, gotta eat to live, tell you all about it when I got the time." This isn't your standard Disney prince. At the same time, his essential good nature is demonstrated by the following scenes: having escaped and settled down to a good meal, he notices two starving urchins in the alley and gives his bread to them, and then saves the two urchins from being whipped by a filthy-stinking-rich prince in the streets. Returning to his home on the rooftops of Agrabah, Aladdin yearns in vain for a pampered life in the palace where he'd "never have any problems at all."
Finally we meet Jasmine, an independently minded princess whose idea of a "Dear John" letter is goading her pet tiger to attack any suitor who displeases her. She decides to flee the palace rather than be forced into a marriage against her will (which hardly seems possible anyway, considering she owns a pet tiger. Sheesh). Anyway, she stumbles across Aladdin in the marketplace, and he quickly falls for her good looks, long hair, and abnormally large eyes. Nothing so readily sparks "true love" quite like insurmountable obstacles, so they are inevitably caught, he's imprisoned, and she is left mourning his presumed execution.
But Aladdin is whisked from the prison by a disguised Jafar and led to the Cave of Wonders. He finds the lamp, but is trapped by collapsing sands on his escape, thanks to his avaricious monkey Abu. But he soon discovers the inestimable Genie, played by Robin Williams, and is treated to a glorious rendition of "Friends Like Me." It must be said, Williams' frenetic stand-up style of comedy is perfectly suited to the animated medium, and his performance continues to rank as perhaps the best vocal performance of all time.
Moving on, Aladdin is allotted three wishes, escapes the cave, wants to rekindle his love with Jasmine, becomes a prince to qualify as a suitor, makes his entrance to Agrabah as "Prince Ali," meets the princess, is rebuffed for acting just as arrogant as the rest of her suitors, persuades her hop onto his magic carpet, shows her "A Whole New World," enjoys a fireworks show in China and finally returns her home by curfew. Seriously. They traveled to China for a date. These Disney folks weren't kidding about the whole magic carpet bit.
More adventure: Aladdin is kidnapped and nearly drowned by Jafar. He escapes thanks to the Genie using his second wish, and returns to depose the Vizier, but not before Jafar discovers Aladdin's true identity and his possession of the lamp. Jafar conspires with his parrot Iago to steal it, and with his first wish becomes Sultan of Agrabah. (Incidentally, if you listen while the Genie tears the palace from its foundations, you can hear the famous "Wilhelm Scream"). With his second wish, Jafar becomes "the most powerful sorcerer in the world," and sends Aladdin packing to some remote snowy mountain slope. The former Sultan becomes a plaything of Iago, while Jasmine pulls the old "Princess Leia slave girl" routine.
Aladdin returns again and confronts Jafar, who exercises curious restraint in not killing Aladdin outright (a common mistakes for All Powerful Super-Villains, I suppose). Jafar is tricked into using his third wish to become a genie, only to discover he's trapped by the same "itty-bitty living space" arrangement that had enslaved the original Genie, and so Jafar is sent (Iago in tow) to a thousand-year vacation in the Cave of Wonders.
Happiness ensues. On the plus side, this means that the kind-hearted Aladdin gives the Genie his freedom. On the other hand, this means that the now-pauperized Aladdin must be suddenly enabled to marry the princess by an absolute deus ex machina. (The Sultan had a change of heart? Who'da thunk?) At last, the lovebirds have their happy ending, but not before the Disney animators dressed them in the some of ugliest wedding outfits I've ever seen, and made them share an awkward side-kiss while singing to the camera. I guess you notice these things watching the film as an adult.
Taking a step back, what does it all mean? The difference between the film and the source material is quite notable , and not just because the original story was set in China. For one, the Arabian folktale was a fairly simplistic exercise in wish-fulfillment. On the contrary, the film presents a story where the grass is not always greener on the other side. The theme recurs throughout the film, starting with the initial poetic parallel between Aladdin yearning for the life within, and Jasmine yearning for life without, the Palace. "Aladdin" also deals in issues of honesty (the best policy), true love (conquers all), and prejudice (I didn't catch this one, but I think it had something to do with books and their covers).
As for the characters, Iago and Abu are appropriately entertaining sidekicks, the Sultan is bumbling, the Vizier is evil, and the Magic Carpet is strangely expressive. The Genie is clearly the highlight of the film, but (the focus of this series being Disney Princesses) I want to focus briefly on the hero and heroine.
Aladdin is an interesting case in that he doesn't actually change much during the film: he starts off cocky but kindhearted while a pauper, and retains both his vanity and his considerateness as a prince. He learns to be more honest and forthcoming, but he doesn't ever fall into the category of romantic scoundrel redeemed by the power of true love. For that, I breath a huge sigh of relief.
As for Jasmine, she seems rather childish in her first scenes. For someone who has known from her infancy that she'll be legally forced to marry when she comes of age, she doesn't seem remotely interested in finding a husband or doing anything other than complain about the marriage law. At the same time, as Aladdin discovers while navigating rooftops with her, she is "a fast learner," and has enough of a head on her shoulders to persuade us of her maturity. Even if she does lean in for a kiss with a complete stranger mere minutes after meeting him Seriously, I know Disney films specialize in "love at first sight," but this couple set several land-speed records. On the whole, I have a hard time being enthused by Jasmine's character. Even though it's better developed than the earlier Disney heroines, her personality is too bifurcated (between liberated feminist and thoroughly conventional princess types) to be convincingly human.
Even so, it's hard to find fault with a film that is so thoroughly entertaining, that can boast of one of Roger Williams' best film performances, of stunning animation and aesthetic design, and of as many memorable songs as the best of the Disney classics. I may try valiantly, but in the end I have to give up. I'm smiling too much.