One of the best moments in Aladdin is when Jafar, The Sultan and Aladdin are all discussing Jasmine and her future marriage. Jafar, seeking his own personal gain, is trying to dissuade the Sultan from letting Aladdin marry her; the Sultan is keen to hand his daughter over to the charming young Prince Ali; Al himself is assuming that his vast wealth and Princeliness will be enough for Jasmine to go weak at the knees. Whilst they argue about who Jasmine will end up with, the Princess herself walks quietly into the background and listens to their discussion. After a while her patience breaks and she shouts at them, “How dare you! Talking about me like I’m some prize to be won!” The three men all look at her, slightly abashed and ashamed, as she stalks off back to her room. This may be an odd moment to choose in a film with a dramatic escape from a magical cave, a romantic ride past most of the world’s famous landmarks and the studio’s greatest comic character, The Genie, but it’s a strong moment because it emphasises what makes Aladdin such an appealing film, and why the Second Golden Age was such a big success for the studio. This moment shows Disney prepared to play around with a formula that, even though they are sticking to it, is more interesting when not exactly what you expect.
The Little Mermaid changed the way Disney princesses were imagined, Beauty and the Beast switched the place of villain and romantic lead and, in Aladdin, it is the relationship between romantic leads that is changed altogether. In this tale, it is the man who has to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to be with the person he loves; the male character takes the role of Cinderella. In this moment, where Jasmine displays strength that ol’ Cindy and Aurora could only dream of, it shows what makes 90s Disney so interesting. Jasmine isn’t just going to fall for the first good looking guy that crosses her path, and will gladly argue and stick up for her right to choose someone she loves. Whilst it still hits the necessary plot beats of falling in love and ultimately ending in marriage, along the way Jasmine actively rejects the expectations placed on her by her family but also by the Disney princess model. It’s not a cop out that she does end up married, because it is ultimately her choice to do so. What she rebels against in this key scene is men deciding her fate for her. She’s not an unproblematic character, as in the finale she is reduced to a classic damsel in distress, but her insistence on Aladdin winning her heart and not just assuming they will marry immediately makes her an interesting character.
The film is not, however, called Jasmine, and this is undoubtedly Aladdin’s film. He is the romantic lead, the rags-to-riches protagonist who must win the heart of the Princess, escape the nefarious plots of Jafar, free the genie and somewhere along the way work out who he is. He follows the same arc as a classic Princess – he opens with an aspirational song (cf. ‘Part of Your World’, Belle’s first song, ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’), is magically transformed to hide who he really is (cf. Ariel, Cinderella), then overcomes a great obstacle to be the one he loves (cf. every princess ever). What makes him a bit different, however, is that you rarely see a Princess fighting groups of armed guards or crashing rudely into local brothels (at least it is certainly implied that’s where he is). From his opening song, Aladdin is established as a mischief maker, who clearly sees the law only as a guideline. Gotta steal to eat, gotta eat to live. His lax attitude to the rules and highly dangerous methods of escaping those who wish to enforce them immediately endears him to the audience, something reinforced by an act of compassion that swiftly follows where he feeds some starving children. Dreamworks riffed on this opening in The Road to El Dorado.
This sets the tone for the rest of the film – high risk derring-do mixed with a lot of heart. Adventurous and romantic, it is, at times, like a Disney attempt at Indiana Jones, a comparison that feels particularly relevant to the scene in the cave of wonders. Two of the writers on this – Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio – went on to write Pirates of the Caribbean, and here you can see their eye for a wonderfully barmy, unbelievable action sequence. Aladdin escaping the palace guards shares DNA with the day that the soldiers almost caught Captain Jack Sparrow. What makes this particularly enjoyable, however, is that Aladdin, in spite of having his heart in the right place, is a bit of a self-centred idiot. He lies to Jasmine, betrays the Genie and, most shockingly of all, is rude to his monkey, Abu. His journey, while more obvious than Belle’s, is nevertheless an important step for Disney – he’s a flawed character that has to learn in order to progress. The deft blending of exciting action and accessible, interesting character development is a big part of what makes Aladdin so well loved.
The star and stealer of the show, however, and the character who no article about Aladdin is complete without, is, of course, the Genie. Robin Williams, a formidable comic talent when given a good script, is a perfect fit for the character, his freewheeling, fast talking style lending the big blue magician the air of a Ritalin-deprived child with a wicked sense of humour. He jumps all over the place, throwing in bizarre references and belting out his musical numbers with such gusto that it is nigh on impossible not to sing along. His casting changed the way people hired voice actors, after this looking more to established actors in order to bring in the crowds – not always necessarily a good thing, as now many studios hire poster names, not voices. Williams is so perfectly cast, however, that it is impossible to resent this. The animators should also be applauded here, as they match every written gag and vocal silliness with equally fun and inventive visuals. The brilliance of a character like Genie is that he can constantly change his size and appearance, and the animators use this to great effect. Over the course of his introductory scene and song, Genie replicates himself and changes size, becomes Jack Nicholson and turns into a zombie, amongst many other visual jokes. It’s always a pleasure to animators let loose with only their imagination as a limit, and Genie, with his anachronistic wit and ADD dialogue, is the perfect opportunity for this. Without the Genie, Aladdin would be a fun, second rate Disney film. With him, it becomes top tier stuff.
The other uniquely appealing aspect of the film is the setting. Where the studio have regularly looked to Europe and, less commonly, the US, here they go to a much more exotic foreign locale. Of course, the glamorous palace of minarets and winding, sand swept towns are a fantasised, heightened version of reality, it’s nice to see Disney’s imagined version of a totally different part of the world. It does lead to some slightly suspect characterisation and background details in terms of political correctness, but the animators create an impressive world to escape to. Animation has the potential to take you to parts of the world you may never visit – or, indeed, a whole new world altogether – and with Aladdin, the animators began to realise this once more.
Aladdin is far from perfect. The animation is not that impressive, and an over reliance on CG has left it looking horribly dated in a way that didn’t affect other films that used it more sparingly. Not only that but, clearly inspired by Sebastian and Lumiere, Disney overindulged in comedy sidekicks. Whilst Genie is entirely necessary, and a separate character in his own right, giving the carpet a character, alongside Abu, Raja the tiger and that incredibly annoying parrot that Jafar has smacks of overkill. That said, this is the first of the project that I’ve actually watched with kids, and they absolutely loved it, laughing at all the right moments and being scared at others. Musker and Clements clearly knew what they were doing.
Aladdin is an exciting, funny film that fits well into the Second Golden Age because it uses a well established formula and tells more than one story with it. Jasmine, Aladdin and the Genie all have arcs that feel complete and a little bit different to what audiences are used to. It also established, for the first time since The Jungle Book, a tendency to look outside of Europe and America for inspiration, something that fans of The Lion King and Mulan should be grateful for. It may not be quite as emotional as Beauty, as spectacular as Mermaid or as downright wondrous as The Lion King, but in a period when they were producing films this good, such comparisons are arbitrary.