Posted January 2, 2011 by editor in Retrospectives

Disney: Aladdin

Following Beauty and the Beast is a difficult position to be in even if you happen to be Disney’s next big hit. Aladdin holds up superbly, representing yet another triumph to add to the list for the so-called ‘Disney Renaissance.’ It is little wonder it has achieved such steady success; all the components which go into a classic Disney are in abundance in Aladdin: there are laughs aplenty, unforgettable songs and truly lovable characters. More so than in earlier Disney films there is a very distinct brand of cross-generational humour – jokes which keep kiddies happy for their slapstick qualities or just plain silliness, but which have a little something thrown in for the adults too.

Aladdin may well be the first truly modern Disney film. Although it has many elements you can recognize from earlier films, the hero is certainly a very modern one. Rulers, princesses and evil advisors are nothing new, but never before has it been down to a common street urchin to save the day (Oliver & Company aside – Dickens doesn’t count!), let alone an Arab one. Thinking about it, Disney barely seems to have left the Western world thus far so extending their universe to Agrabah is a pretty bold step.

The new setting came as a real boost to Disney, who risked peaking too soon with Beauty and the Beast. Like its predecessor, Aladdin won two academy awards, both for its score and the new, unexplored setting of the film probably helped this happen: no matter how high quality it may be, too much of the same thing isn’t always a good thing in the award stakes and the distinctly Arabian feel in all elements of Aladdin certainly will have given it that extra push with the critics.

Whilst the characters may be original as far as appearances go, their purpose in the grand scheme of the film is nothing especially new, but the stand-out performance must be the Genie’s, superbly voiced by the comic gem that is Robin Williams. The fast-talking, high wired Genie is always one step ahead of the other characters in his rhetoric. His performance is responsible for one critic labelling Aladdin “the funniest feature ever made” and another citing the Genie as a “narcissistic circus act”, but whatever you may think of him, the Genie is the sunshine to Aladdin’s rain and unfortunately the end result is far from a rainbow…

Enter Jafar. Jafar is one bad cookie and despite the fact that when the film begins he is already the second most powerful man in Agrabah, as the Sultan’s Royal Vizier, he still craves the crown for himself. Jafar is sly, cunning, slow talking and couldn’t contrast with the Genie any more than he does short of turning into a demon. Initially written as an impatient, stroppy character with a calculating sidekick (Iago, the parrot), the decision to make Jafar into more of a ‘British’ super-villain really paid off as he is much more of an ominous foe than the annoyance he would have been had they stuck to their earlier designs.

Speaking of design, the unsung hero of the film’s designers deserves a bit of a mention: the magic carpet. Although it has no face, no voice and no obvious way of expressing itself, the Magic Carpet is one of the most intelligent, wily and sentient sidekicks to grace a Disney cast, with a wider range of emotions than you would ever have expected from a rug. Not only is he integral to foiling Jafar’s evil plan, but without the Magic Carpet, ‘A Whole New World’ would have been sung from the back of a camel. What is most remarkable about the Carpet though, is that it is testament to the exceptionally fast development of CGI in just a couple of years. Everyone marvelled at the Beast’s Ballroom in 1991, but that was swiftly overtaken in no time at all by the remarkable CGI carpet, which is completely computerized during every appearance it makes in the film.

Aladdin was the first film I ever saw in the cinema and as such it will always have a special place in my film collection. Today’s kiddies may laugh in the face of a CGI rug and princess with her belly button showing, but Aladdin represents the dawn of a truly modern era of family cinema which stands in line with modern views and opinions. Its creators themselves commented how they didn’t want Aladdin to become a “1980s ‘greed is good’ movie” and indeed it has gone down in history as one of the first modern family films which gives you what you want and then helps you realize all you really need is love.

Dani Singer