3 out of 5
Directed by: Ron Clements and John Musker
I know I enjoyed Disney movies as a kid. I might wrinkle my nose at the more modern, star-laden affairs, and thus recast my past self as some type of discriminating critic, but I definitely saw Aladdin in the theaters and enjoyed my ass off at it, and watched that soft-clamshelled-VHS-cased copy we owned multiple, multiple times. I sang along to songs; they are still pretty instantly accessible in memory. That admitted to, there’s a reason films of this era were considered a “renaissance” for Disney, and while nowadays, the film isn’t front-to-back as fantastic as young me might’ve claimed, it still proves its entertainment factor, and sparkles with fantastic voice casting, and animation, and an early case of “stunt casting” – Robin Williams – that worked, because it was wrapped up in the character.
Aladdin’s retelling of its folktale source material is pretty simple overall – non-prince meets princess; finds a magic lamp that turns him into a prince; learns a lesson about being y’self and yadda yadda – but that’s fine: formula works when it’s told well, and when the movie sticks to that – as well as to its rather uniquely 30s-era overblown musical vibe – it’s a thing of wonder. It’s when the movie bows to Disney / cartoon practices of evil villains with take-over-the-world plans – here represented by the advisor to the king, Jafar (Kevin Freeman), and his magic lamp desires – that it suffers, chewing up runtime and preventing our cookie-cutter leads, Aladdin (Scott Weinger) and Princess Jasmine (Linda Larkin), from pursuing much beyond their cookie-cutterness, and especially reducing Jasmine to damsel fodder.
This is a difficult balance, for sure, as there needs to be conflict and stakes, but I suspect there was a more clever way through this instead of the spectacle that tramples through the last thirty or so minutes of the movie; Robin Williams’ antics in this section feel forced, and in general, the movie feels like it’s going through paces instead of allowing a more natural extension of its story to play out. (And I can distinctly recall kid me identifying a point in the movie where it stops being all that funny, i.e. not all that interesting.)
Prior to that, the commitment to the kooky musical vibe pays off: it allows for the inter-mingling of layers of fantasy – talking animals such as Jafar’s parrot, Iago (Gilbert Gottfried); non-verbal animals like Aladdin’s monkey pal, Abu (Frank Welker); and completely inanimate objects like a flying carpet to become full-fledged characters – and the score can benefit from an in-and-out timing sensibility, weaving into song for a few bars and some comedy and back to narrative, not having to commit to full-on ballads all the time. This is why Robin Williams’ enthusiasm slots in so well initially, and how the story can coast along shallowly, as it’s all zooming on feel-good momentum and looks-great animation – although some of the CG work regarding the latter, when it’s not grounded by hand-drawn elements, sticks out. (And yeah, me-who-doesn’t-like-musicals, the songs themselves are clever and catchy, too.)
From a modern viewpoint… it’s a very white movie. I initially felt this point of view was overblown, and that we’re really seeing “good guy” silhouettes versus “bad guy” silhouettes… until you get to sequences with crowds, and note that every character, except for the leads, are drawn in a particularly stereotypical fashion. And, y’know, pretty much everyone is light-skinned, and close enough to caucasian. I don’t think kid me really understood that these weren’t white characters, so that’s great. Yeah yeah, this was (as of 2020) almost 30 years ago, but it’s still disappointing to notice, and you definitely don’t have to look hard to notice.
Partially problematic, and uneven: yes. But, allowing for how much the first part of that affects your viewing experience, Aladdin still holds up as an incredible solid, entertaining film from a standout era in Disney history.