Thank heaven for Robin Williams.
What might have been just another Disney animated cartoon is saved by the sharp-edged humor of Williams as the voice of the Blue Genie. Williams makes 1992's "Aladdin" appealing for adults as well as for children and establishes the musical-adventure as a Disney classic.
Ostensibly, the film is based on the stories of Scheherazade in the "1001 Arabian Nights," but lovers of old movies will recognize at once that the characters are patterned after those in Alexander Korda's 1940 live-action production "The Thief of Bagdad." In the older film, the parts of the young thief, the Princess, Jaffar, the Sultan, and the Genie were played by Sabu, June Duprez, Conrad Veidt, Miles Malleson, and Rex Ingram. Disney's new reworking of the story uses pretty much the same physical appearances and personalities of the older movie characters, with Jafar (earlier spelled with two f's) a dead ringer for Veidt.
"Aladdin" is set in the third century (presumably A.D.) in the mythical city of Agrabah, where a trio of story lines unfold simultaneously and merge about halfway though the plot. (1) The Sultan (voiced by Douglas Seale) of Agrabah has a beautiful young daughter, Princess Jasmine (Linda Larkin), who by law must marry within three days. (2) A handsome young street urchin, Aladdin (Scott Weinger), is merrily thieving, lying, and conning his way around the city when he coincidentally meets and charms the Princess. And (3) the Sultan's chief advisor, the villainous Grand Vizier Jafar (Jonathan Freeman), is out to find a magic lamp with a Genie (Robin Williams) inside that will make him the most powerful man on earth.
Complications: The Princess must only wed a prince, but she falls in love with the penniless Aladdin instead. And Jafar discovers that in order to retrieve the lamp from its hiding place in the Cave of Wonders, he needs to find a "diamond in the rough" to do the job. Turns out that Aladdin is just that diamond.
Frankly, I have always found the sweet young couple, Aladdin and Jasmine, more than a bit saccharine, and if the movie were left entirely to them, it would be rather boring. It's Williams who makes the whole thing work, first as a street peddler who introduces the story and then as the Genie of the Lamp who provides Aladdin with three wishes. Williams is at the top of his form, talking a mile a minute of very funny patter, much of which will go right over the heads of youngsters. Take, for instance, his impersonations of Ed Sullivan, Peter Lorre, Rodney Dangerfield, and William F. Buckley, Jr. How many young adults even know them? Yet it doesn't matter because Williams' lines are so witty, so fast, so well timed, and so well inflected, they're amusing anyway.
The supporting players are just as good. Jonathan Freeman's Jafar is brilliantly wicked, superior one minute and cowering the next. His loudmouthed parrot, Iago (voiced by loudmouthed Gilbert Gottfried), makes a wonderful villain's toady. And Aladdin's pet monkey, Abu (Frank Welker), is an ideal hero's comic sidekick (and Abu was the original name of the hero himself in "The Thief of Bagdad").
As far as Disney musicals are concerned, while this one is not among the best, it holds its own. The original score by Alan Menken ("The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast") and song lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice manage at least to hold our interest for the moment and go a long way toward maintaining the proper tone for each segment of the picture. The songs include "Arabian Nights," "One Jump Ahead," "Friend Like Me," "Prince Ali," and the Oscar-winning "A Whole New World." Insofar as I'm concerned, it was "Friend Like Me" that stood out and remains a solid favorite.
When you factor in Disney's attractive 2-D animation, especially the many rich and refined hues at work, the music, the exotic locations and costumes, the colorful characters, and, of course, Robin Williams, "Aladdin" becomes a must-see cartoon, and one that is sure to reward viewers on repeat viewings.
What can I say? It's picture perfect. Granted, it may be easier to reproduce traditional 2-D animation on disc than to duplicate the more-subtle nuances of human features, but for a cartoon this is about as good as it gets. "Aladdin" and "Beauty and the Beast" and "Snow White" are the conventional cartoon world's answer, in terms of great transfers, to the 3-D CGI creations of "Toy Story," "Monsters, Inc." and "Finding Nemo." In other words, the older animation technique may not be as spectacular as its newer counterpart, but its reproduction on disc is just as stunning.
The picture and sound on "Aladdin" are mastered to THX standards, and Disney engineers use a high bit rate and an enhanced, anamorphic transfer to secure as good a visual image as possible. The results are beautiful colors, lush, deep, and solid, sharp object delineation, and virtually no jittery lines. I can't imagine the image for this movie being any better until, perhaps, high-definition comes along.
The Disney folks provide two Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mixes on the disc, a regular 5.1 mix and a special 5.1 remix designed specifically for home theaters, just as they did on their "Lion King" DVD. I have to admit that the new home-theater mix is quite productive, every bit the equal of the movie's visual presentation, although it is not so pinpoint accurate in its placement of voices or sounds as the regular 5.1 mix. Dynamics are exceptionally wide and strong; bass is deep and robust; and every conceivable sound is directed toward the surround speakers, making the whole listening area--front, back, sides, and center--come to life with all-encompassing sonic effects and musical ambiance.
The special features on "Aladdin" are typical of Disney, so extensive they need a fold-out road map to navigate them. "Clear? Why a four-year-old child could understand this. Run out and find me a four-year-old child; I can't make heads or tails of it." --Groucho Marx, "Duck Soup"
Disc one contains the widescreen feature presentation; the various 5.1 soundtracks; two audio commentaries, the first with several of the movie's filmmakers and the second with several of the movie's animators. In addition, there is an optional trivia track of pop-up text information; four deleted songs, "Proud of Your Boy," "You Can Count on Me," "Humiliate the Boy," and "Why Me," all sung to rough, preproduction sketches; two deleted scenes, "Aladdin and Jasmine's First Meeting" and "Aladdin in the Lap of Luxury," also done in rough sketch form; several music videos, "Proud of Your Boy" and "A Whole New World," performed in various ways by various artists including Clay Aikin, Jessica Simpson, Nick Lachey, Regina Belle, and Peabo Bryson; and several Disney song selections, with or without on-screen lyrics. English, French, and Spanish are the spoken languages provided, with English captions for the hearing impaired. The contents of the first disc conclude with some Sneak Peeks at other Disney titles, a THX Optimizer set of audiovisual calibration tests, twenty-five scene selections, a preview of disc two, and an index of items on both discs.
The second disc is divided into two groups of features, the first primarily for kids, "Games and Activity," and another primarily for adults, "Backstage Disney." Among the games and activities are "Inside the Genie's Lamp," six minutes; "The Genie World Tour," three minutes; "Aladdin's Magic Carpet Adventure," a virtual magic-carpet ride game over Agrabah with Aladdin trying to rescue the Princess; and a "3 Wishes" game.
Among the major "Backstage" items are two documentaries. The first is "A Diamond in the Rough: The Making of Aladdin," almost two hours of behind-the-scenes material hosted by Leonard Maltin and indexed for convenience. The second is "Alan Menken: Musial Renaissance Man," twenty minutes. Then, there are the final items: "The Art of Aladdin," an eight-minute art review with commentary; a still frames gallery; an original theatrical trailer; a publicity gallery; and miscellaneous other trailers for related Disney products.
The two discs are housed in a slim-line keep case, which is stored in an attractive cardboard slipcover. Personally, I've never seen any practical value for a slipcover; I find it another fuss to get at the disc inside. I mean, if the slipcover is there to protect the keep case, it makes little sense because any damage to the slipcover would be irreparable whereas the keep case can be replaced. Nevertheless, the slipcover bespeaks a prestige product, and since it opens up, too, it provides additional promotional space. So I suppose it helps sell the merchandise.
"Aladdin" walked away with two Academy Awards, one for Best Music (Alan Menken) and another for Best Original Song, "A Whole New World" (Alan Menken and Tim Rice). The songs and music are not exactly hummable or in any way memorable, but they are pleasant while they're happening and contribute to the high spirits of the adventure and the romance.
What I would liked to have seen among the extras were outtakes of Robin Williams ad-libbing his lines during filming, but I suppose these have to be family-oriented DVDs. As it is, his contribution to the movie is the single biggest factor in the movie's success, for children as well as adults. Good enough