On Aladdin

Like The Last Unicorn, FernGully: The Last RainforestRudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Robin Hood, Aladdin was yet another animated film I saw as a kid. Ironically, though, it was also one of the first instances that lead me to realize that I was gay, because I developed a real crush on Aladdin.

 

Like most Disney films, this one isn’t without it’s flaws, as according to Very Very Gaming‘s article, “Stereotypes of Arabs in Zelda: Ocarina of Time: A journey, via Disney’s Aladdin and The Arabian Nights.“:

Now let’s skip forward a few centuries to a modern film which taps into all of the same cliches around the Middle East, just to prove the point. This is Disney’s Aladdin, of course. I don’t want to bore anyone with a lengthy analysis, there are just a few points to make here, all of which relate to Zelda. There are plenty more detailed attempts out there on Aladdin – Google is your friend.

Here we go: Aladdin dips into the same well of cliches as Ocarina of Time, although if Ocarina of Time is dipping its toes in, Aladdin stripped off its clothes and dive-bombed in before delivering a floater. Aladdin is also doubly contentious given its an American film released in the aftermath of the first Gulf War in 1992. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a good film, but they really took the biscuit in a way that later Disney films didn’t – Mulan and Pocahontas are much more sympathetic to the cultures represented. For starts, in Aladdin, the heroine Princess Jasmine dresses like a belly dancer, and not like something more suitable, such as, oh I don’t know, how about a princess. And I thought this was supposed to be a kids film??

The villain, Jafar, is darker skinned than the pale good guys, and he has a large, hooked nose. He speaks without an American accent, also unlike the heroes of the tale. The Middle Eastern society in the film is shown to be broken, filled with arbitrary and cruel laws that make Aladdin a poor beggar, barely able to survive. Finally, at one point when Aladdin encounters a demonic monster trying to kill him, the monster recites lines from the English translation of the Qur’an. Kids film, anyone? I could go on but that’s enough, you get the picture and a right shady one at that.

Additionally, according to the Mental Floss article, “15 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About ‘Aladdin’“:

Nearly a quarter-century after its original release, Aladdin—Disney’s Oscar-winning animated film from 1992—is getting a 21st-century upgrade with its much anticipated Blu-ray and digital edition. Read on to discover a whole new world of dazzling things you might not have known about this beloved Disney classic.

1. TO LAND ROBIN WILLIAMS, THE ANIMATORS CREATED TEST SEQUENCES OF THE GENIE PERFORMING THE COMEDIAN’S STANDUP ROUTINES.

Eric Goldberg led the team of animators who were in charge of creating Genie. When he was first handed the script by co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker, Goldberg was also told to dig up some old Robin Williams comedy albums. “John and Ron said, ‘Pick a couple of sections from his comedy albums and animate a genie to them,'” Goldberg told Entertainment Weekly. “That’s essentially what I did.” Williams came in to see the test, and, Goldberg says, “I think what probably sold him was the one where he says, ‘Tonight, let’s talk about the serious subject of schizophrenia—No, it doesn’t!—Shut up, let him talk!’ What I did is animate the Genie growing another head to argue with himself, and Robin just laughed. He could see the potential of what the character could be. I’m sure it wasn’t the only factor, but then he signed the dotted line.”

2. THE PRODUCERS HAD BACK-UP CHOICES IF WILLIAMS DECLINED THE ROLE.

Though the role of Genie was written specifically for Williams, then-studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg had many reasons to doubt that they’d be able to sign him: Money, timing, contracts, and, of course, landing an A-lister for a voiceover role. He insisted the team come up with alternative choices. Had Williams declined, Genie could have been voiced by John Candy, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Martin Short, John Goodman, or Albert Brooks.

3. ALADDIN MARKED THE END OF VOICE ACTORS IN DISNEY MUSICALS NEEDING TO BE MAGNIFICENT SINGERS.

Linda Larkin was the voice of Princess Jasmine. However, she never sang a single note attributed to the princess; that was done by singer Lea Salonga. Aladdin marked one of the first times a voice actor in a Disney musical didn’t also have to be a magnificent singer. Larkin says that this was the result of the film being built around Robin Williams, who was such a powerful force that Disney’s priority was finding strong actors who could keep pace with him. “They came to me and asked, ‘Do you sing?'” Larkin recalled. “And I said, ‘I do … but not like a princess!’ And they said, ‘No problem, we’ll find a singer to match your voice.’ And they did. And to me it’s such an amazing match to my voice that it’s almost seamless when they go from dialogue to the song and back to dialogue. And you see what happened … from that point forward that opened up the world of Disney animation to everybody. They no longer needed actors who sang.”

4. THE CHARACTER OF ALADDIN WAS MEANT TO DO FOR DISNEY PRINCES WHAT ARIEL AND BELLE HAD DONE FOR PRINCESSES…

Disney in the ’90s knew that their traditional princes, though charming, were much too blandfor modern audiences. According to Glen Keane, lead animator for the character of Aladdin, ”I could never understand why Snow White and Sleeping Beauty fell for those princes. Those guys were cardboard symbols, and the love relationship was assumed. We wanted there to be a how to the princess falling in love.” So they set about doing something Disney hadn’t really done before: Making a prince who was cunning, bold, funny and lovable, not just handsome.

5. BUT ALADDIN STILL HAD TO BE REALLY HANDSOME. ENTER TOM CRUISE.

At first, animators sort of modeled Aladdin after Michael J. Fox, but found the end result too cutesy. So they upped his age to late teens, took off his shirt, and watched Tom Cruise movies. ”There’s a confidence with all of his attitudes and his poses,” Keane said of Tom Cruise. Once Aladdin could reflect that sort of sexy cockiness, it was more believable that he’d be the sort of boy Jasmine might risk everything for.

6. GILBERT GOTTFRIED WASN’T THE FIRST CHOICE FOR IAGO.

The role of the sarcastic evil parrot was first offered to Danny DeVito and Joe Pesci, but they both declined.

7. THE BOY WHO VOICED ALADDIN WAS THE BOYFRIEND OF D.J. ONFULL HOUSE.

Seventeen-year-old Scott Weinger was sure he’d blown the voiceover audition when his voice cracked on the first song. Luckily, he had no idea he was auditioning for Disney’s next powerhouse feature, or he would have been much more worried. In the end, it didn’t matter. Disney thought his voice personified the cocky street urchin perfectly (Aladdin’s singing voice, however, would be performed by Brad Kane). At the same time he was voicing Aladdin he was also playing Steve Hale, D.J.’s boyfriend, on Full House. The series made a bizarre nod to Weinger’s dual roles when the Full House girls visit Disneyland (as seen in the clip above).

8. THE GENIE’S LINES WERE RECORDED UP TO 20 DIFFERENT WAYS.

Williams was only available for a handful of recording sessions, so he’d give a rapid-fire delivery of each line as written—in as many different styles as he could create. “Robin had so much freedom, and [ad-libbing] was always encouraged,” Goldberg told Entertainment Weekly. “He always gave us such a huge amount to choose from. He would do a line as written, but he would do it as 20 different characters, and John and Ron and I would take those tracks back to the studio and really put the ones in that made us laugh the most and were the ones that we thought were best suited to the lines. So even though he gave us a W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, and a Peter Lorre on ‘No substitutions, exchanges, and refunds,’ we said, ‘OK, the Groucho one goes here.’”

9. JEFFREY KATZENBERG USED A SECRET BOX TO INSPIRE WILLIAMS’ PORTRAYAL OF THE PEDDLER. 

At the beginning of the film, the Peddler—also voiced by Williams—tries to interest the audience in his wares. The products weren’t in the script; they were in a box. Says Goldberg, “One of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s great ideas was to fill a box with stuff, put a cloth over it, and then when Robin’s in front of the mic, pull the cloth off and he riffs with whatever he picks up out of the box. And that’s exactly how we did that character.”

10. THE ILLUSTRATORS TRIED MAKE THE CHARACTERS LOOK UNREALISTIC ON PURPOSE.

In Aladdin’s predecessor, Beauty and the Beast, immense effort was devoted to making the characters’ faces, bodies, and movements as realistic as possible. Supervising animator Andreas Deja, who drew Gaston in Beauty and Jafar in Aladdin, told the Los Angeles Timesthat “We now refer to some of our earlier efforts as ‘chiseled realism’: On Gaston’s face, we established a lot of planes on his cheekbones and chin to achieve that realism.” They did away with that approach for the magical world of Aladdin and used simple two dimensional shapes as references for all the characters. “Aladdin is composed of two interlocking triangles formed by his chest and his pants; Jasmine is sort of pear-shaped, Jafar is basically a T—a very skinny body with these broad shoulders,” Deja said. “I kept that T shape in mind while I was animating: making sure it came through kept me from cluttering up the drawings.”

11. THAT UNREALISTIC FASHION WAS INSPIRED BY GREAT ARTIST AND CARICATURIST AL HIRSCHFELD.

You know Al Hirschfeld’s work, even if you don’t think you do; he famously created exaggerated line drawings of everyone from Charlie Chaplin to the The Rolling Stones.Aladdin supervising animator Eric Goldberg wanted to recreate Hirschfeld’s use of clean flow lines. “I look on Hirschfeld’s work as a pinnacle of boiling a subject down to its essence, so that you get a clear, defined statement of a personality,” he said.

Hirschfeld was alive to see the honor bestowed, but he took no credit. “I’m very flattered that the animators say they were influenced by my use of line,” he said. “But art isn’t a 50-yard dash—it’s more like a relay: You keep handing it on to somebody else, and there’s no beginning or end to it. I didn’t invent the line: That simplification that communicates to a viewer goes back to the cave drawings at Altamira.” See Hirschfeld’s take on Goldberg’s take on Hirschfeld here.

12. NOT ALL OF THE SONG LYRICS ON THE VIDEO RELEASE WERE THE SAME AS IN THE THEATRICAL RELEASE.

The first song of the film, “Arabian Nights” has the Peddler describing Arabia. The original lyrics were, “Oh, I come from a land/From a faraway place/Where the caravan camels roam/Where they cut off your ear/If they don’t like your face/It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee took offense to the brutality implied in the song, as well as many other aspects of the movie. Disney conceded to change only the song lyrics, with the permission of the original writers. The verse became: “Oh, I come from a land/From a faraway place/Where the caravan camels roam/Where it’s flat and immense/And the heat is intense/It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” Disney also noted that the barbarism mentioned was alluding to the climate, not the people of Arabia. The AAADC wasn’t impressed.

Don Bustany, who was president of the Los Angeles chapter of AAADC in 1993, said the song change was “nowhere near adequate, considering the racism depicted in Aladdin. There still remains the very sleazy, burlesque character in the prologue and the scene where a merchant is going to cut off the hand of Princess Jasmine because she took an apple from his stand to give to a hungry child.” Albert Mokhiber, president of the Washington-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, expressed disappointment that Disney officials refused to meet with the committee. “Certainly I think it would be different if the situation involved African-Americans or Jewish-Americans,” he said.

13. THE RETURN OF JAFAR WAS DISNEY’S FIRST EVER ATTEMPT AT MARKETING A STRAIGHTTOVIDEO SEQUEL.

Disney used the success of Aladdin to see if consumers would buy a sequel that was never intended to play in theaters. In 1994 they released The Return of Jafar, and by 1996 it had sold 10 million units, putting it in the top 20 video releases of all time. Williams didn’t do the voice for Genie, and for the most part critics thought it was terrible (it holds a 27 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes). But its financial success paved the way for direct-to-video sequels for almost every popular Disney feature ever made.

14. WILLIAMS’S FAMOUS FEUD WITH DISNEY HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH MONEY.

When Williams refused to do the voice of Genie for the first sequel (replaced by Dan “Homer Simpson” Castellaneta), rumors flew as to his motivations. Disney “insiders” suggested he was insulted to have been paid “scale” ($75,000 for a project that grossed $650 million within four years). But Williams didn’t care about the money. He stated that he’d done the movie for the pride of being part of the history of animation, and for his own small children. The problem was breach of contract, at least according to Williams: Williams didn’t want his voice used for anything but the movie.

“[A]ll of a sudden, they release an advertisement—one part was the movie, the second part was where they used the movie to sell stuff,” Williams said. “Not only did they use my voice, they took a character I did and overdubbed it to sell stuff. That was the one thing I said: ‘I don’t do that.’ That was the one thing where they crossed the line.”

Disney made no official statements until the studio president Jeffrey Katzenberg was replaced by Joe Roth. Then an official apology was issued. “Robin complained that we took advantage of his performance as the Genie in the film, exploiting him to promote some other businesses inside the company,” Roth told the Los Angeles Times. “We had a specific understanding with Robin that we wouldn’t do that. [Nevertheless] we did that. We apologize for it.”

15. ROBIN WILLIAMS AGREEING TO PORTRAY GENIE CHANGED THE ENTIRE GENRE OF VOICE ACTING

Will Ferrell, Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Billy Crystal, Tom Hanks … the A-listers who have voiced characters in animated films reads like the seating chart at the Oscars. And it’s all because of the Genie.

Prior to Aladdin, “real” actors seldom stooped so low to do voice work unless they were on the desperate end of their careers. Even Bea Arthur reportedly refused the role of Ursula in The Little Mermaid. The work was left to professional voice actors. Disney even kept a stable of regulars throughout the decades. (Think of Winnie the Pooh’s voice. And the Cheshire Cat, the snake from The Jungle Book, the Stork in Dumbo … These are just some of the characters voiced by the sweet quavery voice of Sterling Holloway.)

But then came Genie, who was written exclusively with Robin Williams in mind. His work onAladdin, combined with the rising quality of Disney films, gave a new respectability to voiceover work. Soon, celebrities were happy to lend their voices to talking toys and singing monkeys. But where did this leave professional voice actors, who spent years perfecting their relationship with a microphone? Are celebrities stealing work and exposure they don’t even need, or does their involvement help the profession?

According to Voices.com, the trade site for voiceover artists, a voiceover workshop posed that question to its participants and “The consensus was that ‘No—celebrities actually raise the profession to a new level, making VO a more recognized career choice and perhaps even elevating the pay scale long term.'”

BONUS: ALADDIN HOLDS ENOUGH “EVIDENCE” TO SUPPORT THE FAN THEORY THAT THE STORY ACTUALLY TAKES PLACE IN A DISTANT, POST-APOCALYPTIC FUTURE.

Since we’ve peeked behind the curtain so much here, we know that many script inconsistencies in Aladdin were the result of Robin Williams’ freestyle. But if you were to take the movie as presented, it practically screams post-apocalyptic future. Key elements that theorists favor: Genie first emerges from his lamp declaring he’d been inside for 10,000 years. That, combined with him later criticizing Aladdin’s wardrobe as “much too 3rd century,” and his impersonation of 20th century personalities, would suggest that Genie was trapped in his bottle after these events. That would make the date of his emergence closer to 11989 AD, where Arabic culture had become dominant on the decimated Earth—possibly because Earth’s climate had so changed that only those familiar with desert-dwelling could survive. Remnants of an advanced civilization still exist; hovercraft technology in the magic carpet, genetic mutations that allowed animals to talk. Of course, that is just one of many theories, the most popular of which is that Aladdin is a cartoon and completely, wonderfully illogical.

Finally, there are several hidden images in the film worth checking out.

According to the Variety review:

Voices: Make way for another blockbuster from Disney’s animation caravan, almost certain to join “Beauty and the Beast” as the only $ 100-million earners on the cel block. Floridly beautiful, shamelessly derivative and infused with an irreverent, sophisticated comic flair thanks to Robin Williams’ vocal calisthenics, “Aladdin” probably won’t equal its beastly predecessor but should still enjoy a magic carpet ride through the holiday season.

More an adventure-comedy than “Beauty” and less appealing in terms of its romantic component, “Aladdin” represents the ultimate synthesis of filmmaking and marketing–extracting winning elements from Disney’s last two animated hits as well as more venerable sources, particularly the 1940 version of “The Thief of Baghdad.”

Beginning with the sure-fire material in “Beauty” and “The Little Mermaid” aimed at kids and their parents, the studio has sought to expand the animated form’s allure with Williams’ hip humor as the Genie, whose lightning-fast references will, the filmmakers hope, bring in reluctant adults and teenagers.

Toward that end “Aladdin” also includes some spectacular action sequences–among them a break-neck magic carpet ride through a cavern recalling “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”–as well as an homage to the first Christopher Reeve “Superman” on the inherent romance of flight.

The film may lose a little something in the process, since Williams’ high-energy performance–coupled with broad slapstick built around comic Gilbert Gottfried, voicing the villain’s sputtering parrot–could raise the decibel-level too high for some adults, while the 90-minute length and few flat stretches may try the patience of the youngest kids.

Still, that’s ultimately nit-picking about an otherwise remarkable product from producer-directors John Musker and Ron Clements as well as composer Alan Menken and the late lyricist Howard Ashman, who simply mastered the art of the animated musical.

Lyricist Tim Rice (whose credits include “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita”) filled in seamlessly on three of the six songs after Ashman’s death, and while Menken’s score may not be as instantly hummable as “Beauty’s,” it’s still impressive, with two show-stoppingly elaborate numbers to rival the “Be Our Guest” and “Under the Sea” sequences, respectively, in “Beast” and “Mermaid.”

Physically resembling “Mermaid’s” Prince Erik, Aladdin is a thief and street urchin who stumbles across the defiant and (again, like Belle in “Beauty”) anachronistically liberated Princess Jasmine, who flees the palace to escape a law dictating that she must marry aprince.

The bad guy, functional if not one of the great Disney villains, is the Sultan’s adviser Jafar, a sorceror who recruits Aladdin to help claim the magic lamp from a huge cave hidden in the desert.

The narrative moves somewhat unevenly before the kid uncorks Williams, at which point things kick into another level.

Metamorphosing the Genie into whatever personality he adopts, from Jack Nicholson to William F. Buckley, Williams’ talents yield a comedic feast and inspire a tour-de-force of animation. (There are also a couple of staggeringly funny Disney allusions, such as where a young lad would celebrate after winning a princess’ heart.)

Showy as that performance is, “Aladdin” suffers no shortage of winning characters and its most remarkable accomplishment may in fact be the magic carpet, which expresses a range of emotions not found in the entirety of a typical Joel Silver-type action yarn.

Film buffs will marvel at how deftly the creators have taken the lead from their protagonist and politely borrowed from others, mining Disney’s vaults and “Thief of Baghdad” down to character design, such as Jafar’s resemblance to Conrad Veidt.

“Aladdin” overcomes most story flaws thanks to sheer technical virtuosity, a trademark of Disney-animated features since sinking into the darkness of “The Black Cauldron.” Meticulously designed, each frame offers an explosion of color, with a mix of looks and animation disciplines.

It may not equal the emotional wallop packed by “Beauty,” but “Aladdin” certainly rivals it in many other respects and proves a worthy successor to the standard the new generation of Disney animators has established. With all that going for it, it doesn’t take a magic lamp or crystal ball to foresee that it’ll rub audiences the right way.

 

 

 

 

 

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