"Aladdin" is a film of wonders. To see it is to be the smallest child, open-mouthed at the screen's sense of magic, as well as the most knowing adult, eager to laugh at some surprisingly sly humor. To achieve either would be something, to manage them both in the same film is next door to amazing.
Based on the classic tale from the Near Eastern collection known as the Arabian Nights, "Aladdin" (El Capitan, citywide in two weeks) is the latest animated musical from the Disney empire. But not content to just repeat the pattern of the hugely successful "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" expands both the visual boundaries of mainstream animation and its possibilities for extravagant humor. And it gives Robin Williams what just may be the role of a lifetime.
Williams, the voice as well as the inspiration for the Genie that comes out of a very old lamp with some very big surprises, has more than a decade's worth of film acting experience and two Academy Award nominations to his credit. But he's never had a role that so showcased his genius, for that's what it is, for dizzying improvisational humor, and animation has never had a human partner who so pushed it to its comic limits. Watching this meeting of sensibility and technology is the purest kind of joy, impossible to either describe or forget, simply to be enjoyed.
But before the Genie is activated, the fairy-tale tapestry (written by producer-directors Ron Clements and John Musker and the team of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio) must be unfolded. The desert setting is the kingdom of Agrabah, ruled by a benign Sultan (Douglas Seale) with an unusually headstrong and sheltered daughter named Jasmine (Linda Larkin). The law says she must marry a prince, but Jasmine, consoled by Rajah, a Tony the Tiger look-alike, is determined to marry for love and have a life of her own.
Also laden with secret plans is Jafar (Jonathan Freeman), the Sultan's grand vizier. By day the model of unctuous submissiveness, by night, accompanied by his hilariously obnoxious parrot Iago (comedian Gilbert Gottfried), he hatches dark schemes to gain control of the kingdom for himself.
One of Jafar's stratagems uses black magic to awaken the monstrous lion who guards the Cave of Wonders, filled with all manner of glittering worldly treasure and one rather battered lamp. But not just anyone, it turns out, can get into the cave. It must be, the lion portentously roars, "a diamond in the rough."
Cut to the city, where that very diamond, given name Aladdin (Scott Weinger), is occupying himself scrambling for food for himself and his pet monkey Abu (Frank Welker). A street urchin who lives by, that's right, his wits, Aladdin accidentally bumps into a disguised Princess Jasmine, trying to escape her unromantic fate. But before things can get too serious, Jafar interferes, spiriting Aladdin off into that cave and his unexpected rendezvous with the Genie in the lamp.
With a tiny topknot and a little beard decorating his otherwise smooth and ever-changing baby blue bulk, the Genie is a matchless shape-shifter, funny from his opening line ("Oy, 10,000 years will give you such a crick in the neck") and able to instantaneously turn himself into as many forms (the list includes Ed Sullivan, William Buckley, Peter Lorre, Robert De Niro and many more) as Robin Williams' nimble mind can summon up. With supervising animator Eric Goldberg at the controls, this Genie is also a perfect match for "Friend Like Me" and "Prince Ali," two of the last songs, showstoppers both, the brilliant lyricist Howard Ashman wrote before he died.
Ashman and composer Alan Menken did all the songs for "Beauty and the Beast," but half the lyrics for "Aladdin" ended up being written by Tim Rice, responsible for "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita." Even without reading the credits, Ashman's wickedly clever lyrics are easily told from Rice's bland, saccharine ones, and the comparison makes the void Ashman's death left in American musical theater seem even larger.
Probably inevitably for a G-rated film, "Aladdin" does have its overtly sentimental aspects, particularly in the personality of the title character and his earnest, misguided forays into romance with Jasmine. Yet the writers and animators, by filling "Aladdin" with self-mocking and contemporary humor, both verbal and visual, consistently undercut the bathos.
This is especially the case for the non-human subsidiary characters like the cantankerous parrot Iago, the resentful monkey Abu and a shy little carpet that is as magical as they come. Creatures like these are a Disney tradition, but never before have they been freed up to be as sassy and no-holds-barred as they are here.
The same is true for the entire style of "Aladdin's" animation. Not only is the film's intense, almost electric palette something new for Disney, but the visual style, aided by judicious use of innovative computer animation, has a kaleidoscopic, split-second liveliness that makes "Beauty and the Beast" seem on the old-fogeyish side. To paraphrase Howard Ashman, "there ain't never been a film like this," and aren't we the lucky ones to have it now.
Scott Weinger: Aladdin
Robin Williams: Genie
Linda Larkin: Jasmine
Jonathan Freeman: Jafar
Frank Welker: Abu
Gilbert Gottfried: Iago
Douglas Seale: Sultan
A Walt Disney Pictures presentation, released by Buena Vista. Produced and directed John Musker and Ron Clements. Screenplay Ron Clements & John Musker, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. Editor H. Lee Peterson. Music Alan Menken. Songs Howard Ashman & Alan Menken, Alan Menken & Tim Rice. Production design R. S. Vander Wende. Art director Bill Perkins. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.