I rarely review Disney movies, so I might as well throw up a review on one of my favorites. First I should throw up a disclaimer: sure the film is mildly racist and mildly sexist and mildly this and that, but I don’t really care because the film is almost 20 years old, so it kinda has an excuse, and oh yeah… The film is really entertaining. The film looks beautiful and stunning, the voice acting (Robin Williams mostly) is brilliant, and the music is delightful. So maybe the story isn’t new or intricate (it’s basically Cinderella with the gender roles reversed and set in the Middle East), but it works wonderfully.
Scott Weinger and Linda Larkin voice the film’s two protagonists, Aladdin and Jasmine, and despite their leading roles, there isn’t a lot to dig into with their voice work. They serve their purpose well and their singing voices (provided by Brad Kane and Lea Salonga respectively) are great as well. But the true virtue of this film is Robin Williams. Williams creates one of the most iconic and interesting Disney– no rather film– characters of all time. The delicately balanced mixture of pitter-patter, celebrity impressions, and dryly delivered one-liners lets the Genie truly steal the show in this film. And the fact that the vast majority of what the Genie murmurs in Williams improvising, just makes the whole performance seem so much cooler. Williams also voices the narrator of the film and manages to create a wonderful contrast between the two characters (with Bruce Adler serving as the singing voice for the narrator, but not the Genie). Jonathan Freeman also manages to throw in a strong performance as Jafar, the borderline cliché villain of the movie. And although Freeman doesn’t manage to match Robin Williams in the film, there seems to be a nice contrast between the two as Freeman spends more time and deliberation on each word while Williams flaunts from line to line. Looking at Freeman through the Disney villain lens he does however pale in comparison to Jeremy Irons, Pat Carroll and Tony Jay.
In a smaller henchman-style character, the film also stars Gilbert Gottfried, as Jafar’s grumpy parrot, Iago. I should make another disclaimer: I am a huge fan of Gottfried. And in this film Gottfried is nothing short of fantastic. He encapsulates the character, make the character interesting, and makes the character absolutely hilarious. And a case could probably be made that Gottfried is the voice actor who matches Williams. Oh yeah, and how fantastic is Iago’s song in The Return of Jafar. Douglas Seale also gets to throw around with some lines as Jasmine’s father and the bumbling Sultan. Seale is funny and gets some tender moments across very well, which is all you can ask for with his very limited screen (or audio) time. Jim Cummings, the acclaimed Disney voice, also has a few lines as the masculine yet mildly humorous Razoul.
The story of the movie is mildly cliché. But it’s a Disney movie, so forgive it, and instead give a nod to the wonderfully funny and charming screenplay with its humorous and well-paced lines and exquisite storytelling. Just by watching the film, you really get the sense that the screenwriters (Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio) really truly cared for the characters. The film also looks absolutely brilliant, with keen attention to color contrast and some really nice backdrops to the story. I especially think the shots at dusk are spectacular with the golden colors of the sand mixing effortlessly with the dark purples of the sky. The songs also have beautifully crafted visuals, most notably is the carpet scene which serves as a brilliant accent to Alan Menken’s “A Whole New World”. The animated choreography in the Genie’s two songs, “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” is also wonderfully colorful and comically brilliant. I’m running out of synonyms for great.
The character designs should also briefly be mentioned. The character designs serve wonderfully to bringing the characters alive, Aladdin’s smirk and the height difference between the Sultan and Jafar are two examples of how much story-telling a simple sketch can portray without words. But I think that best character animation is that of the Genie. The animators who worked on animating this already animated character kept up with Robin Williams and added to his performance. The flawless transformations from the Genie to the characters and celebrity’s he ‘impressioned’ were very well done.
With all this positive ‘stuff’ I’ve said about the film, you’d think I’d begin to criticize it now… But I won’t. Because I’m just about to talk about the legendary Alan Menken’s music and the boisterous lyrics by the equally legendary Tim Rice and Howard Ashman (each writing for three songs). I’ll do it song by song, so we start with “Arabian Nights”, the song sung by the narrator as the main titles pop up. The song, which is sung by Bruce Adler, may be the weakest song in the film, but still holds up well and does so with its exotic Arabian-sounding scales and a dramatic melody. The lyrics, by Howard Ashman, too hold up well (except maybe for the infamous “If they don’t like your face, then they’ll cut off your ear”, which thankfully has been cut from current versions of the film. The rhymes are fairly basic, and means nothing really, but the song sets the mood for the film and that’s all it had to do.
The next song we get in the film is the classic protagonist exposition song, that is forced to serve as the ‘I Want Song’ too with “Proud of Your Son”, never making it into the movie. The song is fun and uptempo, and has nice baritenor vocals by Brad Kane. The melody is nice and quirky and the orchestrations supports the song well, while managing not to steal the song. The true virtue of this song, however, is the well-crafted lyrics, by Tim Rice, with the “streetrat” and “riffraff” standing out to me, there is something so wonderfully comical about some of the lyrics in this song, as it sets up how truly ridiculous Aladdin’s situation while giving the character such a wonderful laid-back feel to it. There is one part of the song however when Aladdin ends up in a harem-I-guess-it-is, where there is a very clumsy key change (okay… The key doesn’t actually change, but with such a surplus of flats and sharps you might as well say it is) and the viewer is taken out of the song fairly forcibly.
The next song, “Friend Like Me”, is perhaps the least catchy of the songs, but also the most entertaining. In this song Robin Williams gets a chance to show off some more of his hysterical voice work as the Genie. The melody, except for a few “wah wah wah”s the song is not especially catchy (I actually prefer the Broadway version), but the orchestrations are wonderfully jazzy and fun. Howard Ashman’s lrics are perfect. With wonderful references to Arabian fairytales and terms as well as some absolutely unforced rhymes (“I’m in the mood, to help ya’ dude”is my favorite). And despite the song’s lack of blatant catchiness this song may be the best song in the movie, just because it serves as such a fantastic platform for Robin Williams (and his equally talented animators) to really just get to build onto the character and have fun with it. Robin Williams (the only actor to also sing for the character) also sings remarkably well for someone who doesn’t usually market himself as a singer. And really… This song is so entertaining and fun to watch and listen to.
The next song serves as a (perhaps lesser) platform for Robin Williams in “Prince Ali”. Though this song is fun and beautiful to look at, it just doesn’t measure up to “Friend Like Me”. But it is still a catchy tune and serves up wonderful orchestrations and funny lyrics by Ahman. Most Williams also gets to throw out a few more impressions in this song and gets a few more fast paced lyrics to fire off to a catchy melody. This song however falls a little short whenever the chorus seems to be singing, because with that many ‘up-and-coming’ voice actors getting a small solo here and there, they each want to outdo the other, which turns out to be rather dull to listen to. The song is reprised later in the film, by Jonathan Freeman as Jafar. The reprise is a nice showcase for Freeman’s nice bass voice and a thrillingly frighteningly sarcastic play on the song’s lyrics by Tim Rice.
The final song featured in the film is the iconic “A Whole New World”, with lyrics by Tim Rice, this song features Brad Kane and Lea Salonga. The song has a beautifully written melody and simple, yet effective, orchestrations. Remarkably better than the Broadway version, the film version with Kane and Salonga is very well sung too, with the two voices being great contracts. The song’s lyrics are also clever, poetic, and beautiful. However the lyrics just end up feeling a little dull after having listened to the song a couple times. This probably comes from the fact that it comes right after Robin Williams’ two big numbers with genie-us lyrics. However, this song does its purpose and sounds beautiful and the watcher can’t do anything but fall in love with the song and sing along. I do however feel that “A Million Miles Away”, which features in the stage adaptation may have been equally– if not more– iconic than this song if it had featured in the film instead of “A Whole New World”, as the song has fairly better lyrics and a mildly sweeter melody.
So wow… This is the longest review I’ve ever written, but boy was it worth it. This movie is in my opinion Disney’s greatest film. The music is fantastic, the voice acting is great, the screenplay is clever, the visuals are fantastic, and Robin Williams is mind-boggling. The movie also still holds up to most films today despite its 22 years of age.
Best Aspect- Robin Williams
Worst Aspect- Not sure…