***½/**** Image A Sound A Extras A+
screenplay by John Musker & Ron Clements and Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio
directed by John Musker & Ron Clements
Portions of this review, including the first four paragraphs, were originally published on October 5, 2004.
by Bill Chambers Jeffrey Katzenberg may have revived the American animated feature while he was at Disney, but only one of the hits his reign yielded is worth a second viewing. Where 1989's The Little Mermaid and especially 1991's nauseating Beauty and the Beast tried to pass themselves off as Golden Age Disney (1937 (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs)-1950 (Cinderella), for argument's sake), before a certain stateliness loosened its grip on the house style, 1992's Aladdin took its cue from Uncle Walt's twilight years, the Sixties, when he was interested in telling--as he geared up to pass the torch, perhaps--mentor stories (The Sword in the Stone and The Jungle Book) and pop culture had finally caught up with his incongruous predilections for psychedelia and bohemianism. It's a risk to emulate the period considered the birth of the studio's Dark Ages, and Aladdin is the least spurious movie of Disney's renaissance because of it.
Seizing on the underdog intrigue of Arabian Nights' "Aladdin, or the Wonderful Lamp," Aladdin streamlines the original tale (a thing of broken-telephoneism at this point, anyway) through a process of consolidation. This means that Aladdin (voice of Scott Weinger) is parentless--"orphaned" seems too strong a word--while the Vizier, Jafar (Jonathan Freeman), loses a son but gains a wisecracking parrot named, heh, Iago (Gilbert Gottfried), all the better to distill Jafar's villainous plot to steal the throne from the Sultan (Douglas Seale) and his daughter, Princess Jasmine (Linda Larkin). Aladdin receives three as opposed to an inexhaustible number of wishes from the genie (Robin Williams) he conjures by rubbing the magic lamp, and the genie, relating to his calling as imprisonment, yearns for a future master to wish him free. It's essentially the Syd Field retelling, though traditional narrative forms can be as liberating for the draftsmen of feature-length cartoons as they are for genre filmmakers, since subversive ideas flower from archetype and they're least beset by the parameters of cartoons and horror movies.
Animation is also the perfect medium for a genie story--the wisher can be a true nihilist/onanist, something along the lines of Anthony Fremont in "The Twilight Zone" episode "It's a Good Life." It's a bit of a double-edged sword, however, because Toons are already these gravity-defying things that hardly need a whim caterer. Aladdin's solution-cum-innovation is to make its genie a meta-Toon that doesn't need a falling safe to flatten itself into a pancake; like the Merlin-Arthur relationship in the undervalued The Sword in the Stone, Genie's omnipotence boosts Aladdin's self-esteem by throwing his own untapped power into relief. Williams's volatile delivery has never been more suited to a character--and in enabling the animators' sense of mischief (it's doubtful they would have made those po-mo references isolated from Williams's contribution (including killer homages to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Cleopatra, and the "Night on Bald Mountain" segment from Fantasia) without the spectre of his manic performance to goad them), he honours Mel Blanc's legacy better than latter-day Looney Tunes have. Of course, Williams's profitable involvement proved to be a mixed blessing: As much as he elevated Aladdin, his wilfully anachronistic attitude--refreshing once--changed Disney for the worse. They went from trendsetters to trend followers by continuing on in a post-modern vein (witness the copycat celebrity impersonations of The Lion King duo Timon and Pumbaa), that newfound insecurity manifesting itself in transparently desperate feats of stunt casting.
Aladdin's success also, somewhat regrettably, instilled Disney with the confidence to tackle other exotic folklore that wound up getting merely homogenized. But while one can lay legitimate charges of xenophobia against the film, what with its glib dismissal of arranged marriages (something Sleeping Beauty put down as well, just not in an ethnic context), its myopic depictions of street peddlers, and its Middle East-accented villain vs. its Middle America-accented heroes, this is one of the most conscientious productions in the Disney canon. In addition to betraying liberal guilt at the conceptual level over matters of gluttony and enslavement, the movie flips the traditional royalty/commoner dynamic of Mouse House fare by assigning the peasant role to the male, and in so doing turns the oppression of Jasmine into a healthy critique of the princess fantasy--of luxury's toll on free will. (Isn't there something constructive about the bane of Jasmine's existence being that someday her prince will come?) There is, too, reverence for Arab culture in the film's aesthetic, with a great deal of the line work based on Sanskrit calligraphy. However humbly or unconsciously, this design unity pursues samadhi, the state of undifferentiated beingness in Patañjali's Yoga Sutra--a notion carried through by Aladdin's barrier-breaking friendship with the genie. Watching the Aladdin DVD, I was relieved to discover that I wasn't reading too much into Williams's Yiddishisms: Williams and Genie animator Eric Goldberg set out to imbue the film with the subtext of Arab-Jew solidarity. A whole new world, indeed.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Presumably identical, technically, to the UK Blu-ray that came out in 2013, Disney's Diamond Edition of Aladdin brings the film to BD in a 1.84:1, 1080p transfer that is simultaneously a relief and a breath of fresh air following a string of sub-par presentations of animated Disney titles on the format. Grain is filtered out of the image yet somehow not at the expense of the detailed, multi-coloured linework or faux-tactile surfaces. I suspect the disc's master was prepared back when the studio really had the correct algorithm for bringing classic animation into next-gen figured out--those halcyon days of Sleeping Beauty's and Pinocchio's stunning HiDef debuts. An A/B comparison with the 2004 DVD reveals richer, deeper colours (the Genie's blue skin pops, finally), as well as a slight crop on the top and bottom of the frame. BUT: the DVD also now appears to have a slight vertical squeeze to it, suggesting its 1.7:1 aspect ratio was arrived at slightly artificially.
There are caveats. I think the saturation is forgivably intense--the film was very deliberately vibrant on the big screen, and now that can be replicated without bleed--but would have shed a digital patina by being dialled back a bit. Too, there's some artifacting (banding, macroblocking) that feels like it was entirely preventable, especially with 8GB of unused space left on the disc. The attendant 7.1 DTS-HD MA track is phenomenal and I wish I knew more about its provenance, though it seems to take its cues from the near-field remix on the DVD--which was excellent apart from gratuitous speaker-fill during the musical numbers that doesn't, to my ears, recur here. While the Cave of Wonders sequence remains go-to demo material, the ending showdown with Jafar demonstrates the aggressive directionality of the audio--along with its throttling bass--for longer and with more variety. Note that Disney still has not restored the lyric of "Arabian Nights" ("Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face") that caught heat during Aladdin's theatrical run. On the one hand: good riddance. On the other, revisionism sucks. More disappointingly, the DVD offered viewers an opportunity to listen to the original Dolby SR soundmix but history, alas, has not repeated itself.
Aladdin's North American Blu-ray release is long overdue, and likely both brought on and immunized from controversy by the death of Robin Williams, which looms large over the newly-produced HD extras. They don't feel (that) cynical or opportunistic, though. Some will probably lament that the presumed hours of Williams outtakes have been distilled to a few minutes of a 9-minute featurette (aptly, "The Genie Outtakes"), but any longer would've felt unseemly, especially given Disney's history of capitalizing on the star's voice without permission. Co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements and Genie animator Eric Goldberg warmly relate memories of Williams between blocks of his unused dialogue. "What we did helped process his loss," Goldberg says of posthumous tributes that used the Genie iconography; it's a little self-congratulatory, but okay. "Aladdin: Creating Broadway Magic" is a 19-minute infomercial for the currently-running theatrical adaptation of the film, but a compelling one that owns every speedbump the production hit on its way to Broadway. Producer Thomas Schumacher serves as the de facto host, interviewing colleagues/collaborators like Jonathan Freeman, who guarded his vocal performance of Jafar so zealously that he now plays the character on stage despite bearing no physical resemblance to his alter ego. What's interesting is that they re-learned the lessons of the movie's tortured development in failing at reintroducing abandoned concepts (such as Aladdin having a network of friends, not just the Genie), although they did manage to bring back a deleted song by the late Howard Ashman, "Proud of Your Boy," that makes everybody cry just talking about it. I wish they'd spilled the beans about how they do the flying carpet.
In "Unboxing Aladdin" (5 mins.), an older but no less spastic Disney Channel Frankenstein named Joey Bragg singles out the non-Williams Easter eggs in Aladdin (such as the Mickey Mouse ears hidden throughout, or the directors' animated cameos) and generally auditions for a punch in the face. Emceed by a suddenly-grizzled Scott Weinger (the voice of Aladdin), "Genie 101" (4 mins.) is a fast-paced companion guide to all of the Genie's pop-culture references, aimed at viewers young enough to not recognize Arnold Schwarzenegger. Though it could be a more exhaustive summary, my guess is that the William F. Buckley impersonation sails over the head of even most Disney execs at this point. One surprising omission: Weinger never mentions that Peter Lorre appeared in Disney's own 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea--since when has the studio shied away from that kind of synergy? "Ron & John: You Ain't Never Had a Friend Like Me" (6 mins.) finds the long-time friends and collaborators sitting on a bench, reminiscing and bickering like the old married couple they are. They mention turning down Beauty and the Beast but skip over their post-Aladdin string of duds (Hercules, Treasure Planet, The Princess and the Frog), focusing instead on their complementary qualities--the most glaringly obvious being that Musker is the talker of the pair. Sneak peeks at ABC's "The Muppets", Star Wars: The Force Awakens (in Dolby TrueHD), The Good Dinosaur, Inside Out, and Tomorrowland round out the 2015 supplements.
“Classic DVD Bonus Features” are recycled intact (in SD where applicable), starting with individual commentary tracks from the "Filmmakers" (co-directors/co-screenwriter John Musker and Ron Clements, producer Amy Pell) and "Animators" (Will Finn, Goldberg, Glen Keane, Andreas Deja) that provide a couple of reasonably engaging ways to spend 90 minutes, while Pop Up Fun Facts suitably complement either yakker. What's nice is not having to hear unctuous Don Hahn for a change, which may or may not explain why Katzenberg's absolute power is suddenly an open topic after the former executive went unrecognized for playing an integral part in the success of both Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King on the DVD releases of those films. (Thank goodness, too: I sure would hate for Goldberg to have not had the grounds for telling his priceless anecdote about Katzenberg's less than ironic bewilderment that audiences weren't literally applauding "Friend Like Me.") Neither do the said "Fun Facts" sugarcoat things, for example that lyricist Ashman, Aladdin's true progenitor, died of AIDS.
A smattering of archival material and a revolting selection of music videos supplement the first platter. The latter falls under Music & More, where "American Idol" Clay Aiken blunders through said elided Ashman tune "Proud of Your Boy" while Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey butcher "A Whole New World." (Regina Bell & Peabo Bryson's 1992 video for the same is on board as well.) Incredibly, regardless of the fact that the Aiken and Coneheads clips are unsupported by anything resembling production values, each is appended by a behind-the-scenes featurette. Le sigh.
Video introductions from Musker, Clements, and/or storyboard artist Ed Gombert preface four Deleted Songs, only the first of which ("Proud of Your Boy") credits the performance to composer Alan Menken (though I assume that Menken recorded all of these demos himself). Visual accompaniment for "Proud of Your Boy," "You Can Count on Me," the deliciously mean-spirited "Humiliate the Boy," and "Why Me" proper comes in the form of progressively sloppy thumbnail sketches. Doodles also convey two Deleted Scenes that landed on the chopping block once "de facto executioners" Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio radically overhauled the shooting script. (Aladdin's mom is a fixture of the many abandoned bits of business sprinkled throughout the set.) Onward and upward:
Games and Activities
Go on a vertigo-inducing flying-carpet ride to save Jasmine from an abstract fate in the well-rendered Aladdin's Magic Carpet Adventure, take a virtual tour of Genie's homestead in Inside the Genie's Lamp, and wish for a world without Jessica Simpson with the Wishes Game.
A Diamond in the Rough: The Making ofAladdin (110 mins.)
Footage from "An Evening with the Creators of Aladdin," hosted by Leonard Maltin and attended by CalArts students, acts--along with greenroom 'interviews' conducted by an inexplicably amusing Gottfried--as a framing device for this encyclopaedic documentary. It's here that you'll gain firsthand knowledge of Goldberg's Genie demo reel (lip-synched to Williams's comedy album "Reality... What a Concept") and get to view a simultaneously breathtaking and embarrassing recording session for "A Whole New World" with its rightful singers, Brad Kane and Lea Salonga. The proceedings pause for a biographical tribute to the late NEW YORKER caricaturist Al Hirschfeld (Goldberg affected Hirschfeld's technique for the Genie before later applying it to his "Rhapsody in Blue" portion of Fantasia 2000), then resume for a segment on animator Mark Henn's sister, a high school yearbook photo of whom served as the facial model for Jasmine. It's comprehensive bordering on exhaustive, in other words, and the piece only really stumbles in the homestretch, when it overindulges the fairly vapid vocal talent. Williams, for what it's worth, is a no-show the entire package. Old contract disputes die hard.
Alan Menken: Musical Renaissance Man (20 mins.)
A hagiography of Menken that nevertheless has the humility to offer one last moment of silence for his dearly departed collaborator. But whatever Menken's formidable musical gifts, the featurette's ultimate lesson is that he isn't a terribly compelling singer.
The Art ofAladdin (9 mins.)
Another of Disney's de rigueur art reviews, this one narrated by Musker and Clements. On its own it's an in-depth study of, among other things, the allegorical use of colour in Aladdin, but as a footnote to the other extras, it's a little redundant.
Meanwhile, trace the film's Visual Development, Story Development, Backgrounds & Color Keys, and Character Development through Still Frame Galleries. Last but not least, find under Publicity Aladdin's original theatrical trailer, posters (including unused advertising concepts and theme park art), and trailers for the dtv follow-ups The Return of Jafar and Aladdin and the King of Thieves. This "Diamond Edition" includes DVD and digital copies of Aladdin.