As you read this, Aladdin is drawing hordes of parents and preteen children to multiplexes everywhere. But is it a true kid flick, plugged directly into the subconscious of what Emerson might have called the Overtot? And is it really as timeless as its makers would like to think?
The film, about a street urchin who woos a feisty princess and saves her father's kingdom from ruin, runs 80 minutes, yet contains enough detail -- from showboating, computer-animated action sequences to the quip-a-second antics of Robin Williams' Genie of the lamp -- to fuel a dozen live-action movies. But thanks to the film's winking tone, Aladdin seems less than the sum of its parts; it lacks depth and resonance.
The villainous Jafar, the Sultan's tall, knife-faced adviser, is such a knowing amalgamation of other villain-types -- from Alan Rickman and Tim Curry to Sleeping Beauty's dark witch -- that he doesn't have a cackle he can call his own. (Worse, he's not even scary.) Aladdin himself is a beefy dullard, and the supporting cast of ingenues, sidekicks, and slobbering louts ranges from unique (the big, blue Genie and his intelligent flying carpet) to forgettable (everyone else). The songs (by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, with help from Broadway hack Tim Rice) are mostly bland, and the script seems to have been written to justify kinetic bits of animation rather than to give the picture direction and shape.
Which is exactly what Aladdin needed. Visually, the film is mind-blowing -- the most ambitious since Fantasia -- but it doesn't have an encounter as touching as the big-eared baby elephant visiting his locked-up mama in Dumbo, an image as storybook-perfect as Princess Ariel singing on a rock against crashing waves in The Little Mermaid, or a lyric as delightful, for both kids and adults, as the hulking Gaston's proclamation, "I'm especially good at ex-PEC-to-ra-ting!" in Beauty and the Beast.
More than one Disney exec has said that Aladdin represents a decision to break with past formulas -- which presumably justifies Fourth Wall violations, such as the parrot Iago using the Wayne's World catchphrase "NOT!" and Robin Williams' Genie making references to Arsenio Hall, Jack Nicholson, William F. Buckley, even other Disney movies. The tykes around me at a recent Aladdin screening weren't in on the jokes. They reacted to the action and slapstick with delight, but greeted the superhip quips the way I greeted Bing Crosby jokes in old Warner Bros. shorts when I was a kid: with befuddlement. Disney cartoons are supposed to be built to last; 50 years from now, who will remember Arsenio Hall? (The last Disney cartoon to sample current pop culture was 1963's The Sword in the Stone. Who remembers it?) Aladdin is often clever and always spectacular, but never heart-rending or magical. The entire movie seems to be wrapped in quote marks, and it's so busy being hip that the film never quite commits to its own existence.
Produced and directed by John Musker and Ron Clements; original score by Alan Menken; with the voices of Scott Weinger, Robin Williams, Linda Larkin, Jonathan Freeman, Frank Welker, Gilbert Gottfried, and Douglas Seale.
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