51 Days of Disney (Day 31): Aladdin

The year is 1992 and a then 3-year-old Ryan is in the movies for the first time. He has his popcorn and his juice, so what is a 3-year-old to do? Not knowing how the movie theatre works, he asks his mom to start the movie. Aladdin was the first movie I ever saw in theatres, and  I am exceptionally pleased about that.

The movie begins with a merchant entering the city of Agrabah. After the merchant (Robin Williams) tries to sell the audience some cheap, useless junk, he shows them a lamp that is “more than what it seems” and proceeds to tell the story of how it changed a young man’s life.

Jafar (Jonathan Freeman) hired a simple thief named Gazim to find the other half of a magical pendant that would summon the mystical Cave of Wonders when combined. When the two halves are put together, the tiger head shaped cave rises from the sand and gives them two simple warnings: “Only one may enter here. One whose worth lies far within. A diamond in the rough” and “touch nothing but the lamp”. Jafar tells Gazim that all he wants is the lamp, but unfortunately for the humble thief, Gazim is not what the Cave of Wonders wants and he is swallowed up as the Cave sinks back down into the sea of sand. Jafar’s pet parrot Iago (Gilbert Gottfried) is less than surprised and makes sure that everyone knows it.

The actual story begins with our hero Aladdin being chased by the palace guards led by the Captain of the Guards, Razoul (Jim Cummings, which is a name that is going to come up. A lot), after stealing a loaf of bread. It turns out that Aladdin is a thief with a heart of gold (he gives the bread he went through the trouble to stealing to some children) and desperately wants a better life for himself and his pet monkey Abu (Frank Welker). He’s trapped in his poor existence.

The film shifts to the palace, where Jasmine, the princess of Agrabah, turns down another suitor because she wants to marry for love, not for political convenience. The Sultan tells her that she has to marry by her next birthday due to the law and seeks the help of his Royal Vizier, Jafar, to find her suitor. Jafar uses his hypnotizing snake staff to hypnotize the Sultan into giving him his royal blue diamond to help with the search, which it turns out is needed to find the Diamond in the Rough, who of course turns out to be Aladdin, that can enter the Cave of Wonders. That night, Jasmine runs away from her trapped existence as a princess and escapes into the city.

The next day, Aladdin saves Jasmine from a hostile shop owner because she doesn’t understand how the marketplace works. The two find out that they both feel trapped in their individual lives and instantly connect, but are separated when the guards finally find Aladdin’s hideout and drag him off to prison. When Aladdin is brought back to the palace, she confronts Jafar about his crime and punishment. He says that Aladdin’s death sentence has already been carried out and Jasmine slumps into a period of depression.

Aladdin is broken out of prison by an old man, who takes him to the Cave of Wonders to get the lamp. This leads to one of the many amazing action scenes in the movie where Aladdin and Abu meet the Magic Carpet and eventually get the lamp, but Abu’s kleptomania makes the Cave turn against them. When they reach the top, the old man takes the lamp but tries to kill Aladdin. Abu fights the man off, but the two fall down into the dark depths of the Cave of Wonders. After Aladdin and Abu are out of sight, the old man reveals himself to be Jafar and finds out that the lamp is gone. Abu stole it when he attacked him, and Aladdin rubs the lamp to try to read the inscription and ends up setting free the Genie found inside (Robin Williams). The Genie tells Aladdin that he has 3 wishes, but the Genie cannot give any more wishes, kill anyone, make anyone fall in love with anyone else, or bring people back from the dead. Aladdin tricks the Genie into getting them out of the cave without using a wish and they all land in an oasis. It is here where Aladdin finds out that the Genie is a prisoner and vows to use his last wish to wish the Genie free right before wishing that he could be a prince to woo Princess Jasmine.

Jasmine sees the now dubbed Prince Ali version of Aladdin as being just another stuck-up suitor, but when he starts showing more of his true self, she starts to fall in love with him. Eventually, Jafar steals the lamp from Aladdin and turns the entire city of Agrabah on it’s head by wishing himself Sultan followed by wishing to become a Sorcerer and it’s up to Aladdin to set things right.

Aladdin tackles some pretty deep messages such as the idea that you can be imprisoned without physically being put into some sort of holding. The film is also about the idea that even though you might get exactly what you wish for, that act might have some repercussions that you were not expecting, this message actually came about through some major story revisions that came about during production.

This film was all Howard Ashman’s doing. He pitched the idea to Walt Disney Feature Animation in 1988. Ashman and Menken wrote and scored some songs and Linda Woolverton wrote a treatment of the screenplay. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker came onto the project and wrote their own treatment of the screenplay, which eventually won out over Woolverton’s own treatment and a number of the elements of the story that Ashman’s songs were about were removed. Three of the five songs written by Ashman remained, but a number of them (one of which was a song sung by Aladdin to his mother, who was also left on the cutting room floor) ended up being excised from the film due to story changes. Aladdin would have turned out to be a very different movie if that original story were to have been kept. If Ashman had been around longer into the production of the film, the film would have most likely stayed the way it was originally. Howard Ashman passed away due to complications from AIDS six months before the release of Beauty and the Beast in 1991.

The music is on the same level of quality as the past two Disney musicals, but it is very easy to tell which songs were written by Howard Ashman and which were written by his replacement Tim Rice. The music takes on a very different tone than the previous musicals, though. Ashman and Menken were very much inspired by Cab Calloway and other jazz musicians of his type, which is seen the most in the song “Friend Like Me” which is the real stand out of the film besides the very obvious choice of “A Whole New World”.

All of the characters except for Jafar were inspired by the caricature works of Al Hirshfield. Hirshfield’s distinctive flowing and simplistic art style was chosen to compliment the inherent forms that are prevalent in Persian architecture. Jafar was designed to look nothing like the other characters in order to make him stand out from the rest of them. It basically hung a “I’m the villain” sign around his neck, but it works out well from a design standpoint. The character of Aladdin went through the most design revisions out of the all of the characters. When the story included Aladdin’s mother, he had a much younger looking design which was originally based off of Michael J. Fox appearance-wise. When his mother was excised, it was decided that he should look more like a young adult than a teenager and his design shifted to looking more like Tom Cruise than Marty McFly.

The colour choice of this movie is very specifically designed. The good characters were represented with lighter tints and colours, specifically a light blue. The evil characters were dark colours like black, red, and dark blue. All of this was contrasted upon the neutral canvas that was Agrabah.

The Genie is probably the most interesting character in the Disney canon, part of which comes from having Robin Williams as a voice actor. Williams’ stand up style can best be described as frantic, and it really shows through in the character of the Genie. Very little of the Genie’s lines were even scripted, they essentially told Williams what needs to be said and he extemporized it. The audio editors took the most usable and funny segments of the recording sessions and sent them to be animated. The very beginning of the movie was literally recorded by giving Robin Williams a box full of random items and he made jokes for all of them. Disney, of course, advertised the heck out of Robin Williams being in the movie and it made Aladdin be the first Disney animated film to 1. have a huge star lend a voice and 2. be advertised as having that star in it. Aladdin was also the first Disney animated film to directly reference other Disney films and even had a reference to Robin Williams’ role in the Magic of Disney Animation attraction. Pinocchio, the Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast are all referenced, the last more subtly than the other two.

Unfortunately, Aladdin created a rift between Disney and Robin Williams. He took the role out of gratitude for the immense success that came out of the Touchstone film Good Morning Vietnam and only wanted the standard SAG pay ($75,000) but with the condition that his name cannot be used for marketing and that the Genie would not take up more than 25% of the artwork used for advertising. Disney did not follow these conditions almost at all and even made it so that Robin Williams got top billing for his roles. Eventually everything was worked out and Robin Williams became a Disney Legend in 2009.

Glen Keane was the supervising animator for Aladdin and produced more fabulous work, but this time more along the lines of Ariel rather than the Beast. Andreas Deja (who animated Gaston, Roger Rabbit, and King Triton before this film) animated Jafar and made him one of the most imposing villains in the Disney Canon simply by the fact that he looked so different from everyone else and the fact that he did not have that many funny scenes to himself.

Aladdin is a fantastic movie that is full of comedy and adventure, but the story is not nearly as good as the one in Beauty and the Beast. It is still one of my favourite films nonetheless and I am glad that this was the first film I ever saw in theatres. What a way to start a lifetime at the movies.

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