Sunday, February 18, 2024

Walt Disney, part XLIII: You ain't never had a friend like me


Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
Written by Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Ron Clements, John Musker, and what appears to be the entire staff of Walt Disney Feature Animation

Spoilers: moderate

Thirty-one years hence, in our contentified, anti-art media landscape, it's easy to forget that, once, executive meddling could be good.  Such is the case with Disney's 31st "canonical" animated feature, Aladdin, which began as a treatment worked out by lyricist Howard Ashman and his songwriting partner Alan Menken following their contribution to 1989's The Little Mermaid.  Disney's studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg responded initially by firmly steering them onto Beauty and the Beast instead, unsure of the prospects of a 1001 Nights riff almost fifty years after that particular cycle had been at its most popular back in the 1940s (and Aladdin eventually would take on numerous features of 1940's Thief of Bagdad, though the similarities can be overstated)  With Mermaid, however, Ashman hadwith no little tragic ironyalready become what seemed like Disney's indispensable man, and, with Katzenberg now more eager to please, Aladdin began a slow-walk development.  Linda Woolverton, whom some claim managed a functional screenplay for Beauty and the Beast, was assigned to its story, with some concept art to be provided by Richard Vander Wende.

You could frame what followed quite negatively: Katzenberg extracting from Ashman what he most needed, which was 1991's great animated musical hit, in full awareness that he could run the clock on Ashman's health and make the extreme course correction the lyricist's passion project required when he was no longer around to object.  I'll say that I think this is basically what happened, but not, therefore, the correct framing; Katzenberg adored Ashman, after all.  It may be as simple as nobody liking to tell a dying storyteller his last story sucked, especially when he was in no condition to do anything about it.  Ashman passed in March 1991, with Aladdin confirmed for release eighteen months later, and Katzenberg now did something that would shock the team who had coalesced around it, notably Disney's other greatest talents, Mermaid's directors, Ron Clements and John Musker, who despite working well with Ashman, had avoided Beauty and the Beast and had to be somewhat pressed into directing Aladdin.  What these two had wanted to do instead was a personal project of their own, something about Treasure Island in space.  Let us leave this perplexing story for another time.

As far as Aladdin went, Katzenberg gave Clements and Musker the courtesy of viewing a story reel based on the work done so far, though given the fundamental nature of his objections he presumably already knew exactly what he was going to tell them: to start over from practically scratch; dispense with Ashman's vision; and figure out something else to do with the essential elements of the story Antoine Galland had laid out in his early 18th century adaptation of the "ancient" Arabic legend (that was, more likely, an original fairy tale by the late 17th century Syrian writer, Hanna Diyab*), namely the poor boy, the mighty djinn, the hot princess, and the antagonistic vizier; but, obviously, keep the cream of Ashman's finished songs.

Katzenberg was often wrong, but not this time, and he appears to have done nothing short of rescue the great Disney action-adventure romantic comedy from a story about a thirteen year old who loved his mommy.  Of course, I'm biased about it: Ashman's could-have-been is not "my" Aladdin, the first movie I have an actual, concrete memory of seeing in a movie theater.  So who knows how Ashman's Aladdin would've shaken out?  But it's probably not too much to say that Katzenberg preserved the immaculate purity of Howard Ashman's short but potent legacy: four movies made before his death (don't forget Little Shop of Horrors), all of them truly beloved, rather than three and one awkward misfire.  Clements and Musker are politic about it, but they have alluded to their own doubts.  Certainly, this kind of interpretative history is always speculative, but as horrified as Clements and Musker had to have been to have their movie effectively back in development a year and a half before it would be in theaters, I have to wonder if they experienced some sense of exhilarated liberation about that as well.

Because, however it happened, Aladdin is one the most liberated, exhilarating cartoons Disney ever made, and one of no less historical importance than either of its two recent predecessors, that rare transitional object that is strangely perfect in its combination of past and future.  It absolutely remains an "Ashman," or rather an Ashman-Menken-Clements-Musker, a confirmation of their perfection of the Walt Disney Princess Musical formulathe fantasy with the mythic heft of Sleeping Beauty alloyed with the transformational yearning of Cinderella, now afforded the legitimate novelty of making its ash-faced girl a boy**, and cinching it tightly with the integrated musical discipline of a Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beastbut it's simultaneously evidence of where Clements and Musker's own interests in broad comedy lay, as well as a prefiguration of where animation as a whole would head in the 21st century, a harbinger of a new era of big-ass celebrity voice casting promising snarky, ironic humor, so that there's basically a straight line between this and Shrek and eventually The Super Mario Bros. Movie.  It is not good to blame Aladdin for this, because Aladdin does its pop culture references and its catastrophic fourth-wall breaking and its trivializing quips all so elegantly, interweaving almost all of it into the fabric of its concepts and story so that, even if I'd call it one of Disney's funniest films, it kind of doesn't even feel like "a comedy" foremost, though it's also distinct from so many other Disney films, where "comedy" is merely a box that needs to be checked.  This is undoubtedly why it's able to be so thoroughgoingly funny, and that's kind of the Clements and Musker touch right therethat unparalleled management of light and heavy tonesthough while there are two Clements and Musker films I think are even better movies, I could commit to calling Aladdin their single deftest, where their dramatic beats implausibly get to co-exist in harmony alongside their abrasively cartoonish comedy, where even the action-horror climax itself keeps cutting to jokes and somehow that's correct.

But even top-of-their-craft directors can only do so much.  The biggest reason this was possible is the other project-defining event of Aladdin's pre-production: the casting of Robin Williams as the character who isn't exactly the lead, and might not have the most lines, but could definitely have the most words in his lines.  (There is, as you know, very real Katzenbergian perfidy attached to Disney's epilogue with Williams; but that's well-trodden ground and there's no need to make this even longer.)  It's not exactly Williams alone, of course, but Williams's presence began to snap Aladdin into place: every Ala ad-Din needs his djinn, after all, and Williams, by virtue of being Williams, inevitably established a deeply idiosyncratic djinn out of his motormouthed, improvisational, referential, and in-this-context-incredibly-anachronistic comedy style.  Aided and abetted by Clements and Musker, he was then handed to former commercial animator Eric Goldberg, finally absorbed into WDFA after years of footsie, presently arriving with very clear designs on how to translate Williams's chaos into an entertaining, but credible, cosmic being.

The result was (the usually articleless) Genie, one of the great cartoon creations, a constantly shifting frame-dominating field of baby blue color, defined by a simple, expressive collection of curves modeled upon the style of Goldberg's idol, illustrator Al Hirschfeld, a connection recognizable enough in Genie's "standard" form, such as he has one (essentially an enormous blue comma), and downright striking when he takes on his many non-standard forms, a manic flood of bizarre and out-of-category Williams impressions to fuel Goldberg's parade of Hirschfeldian caricatures.  A lot of kids learned who Groucho Marx and Rodney Dangerfield were from Aladdin.  Going into the future, at least as many will learn who Arsenio Hall was, so that what even felt maybe too current or pandering in 1992 feels delightful todayanother pair of trunkless legs in the sand, sure, but why not?

So, I hear you: given this is c. 10th century Araby, how is this... good?  Well, this hyper-contemporary attitude is confined (not quite entirely, but with noticeable strictness for a cartoon comedy) to Genie alone, and the rest of the story practically has to make a conscious decision to ignore it, as if engaging with it would trigger Lovecraftian madness, which is exactly what makes the Genie's Williamsisms different from lazy meta-humor: more than even his power, this is what persuades us he's a cosmic being, not merely deathless but completely unbound by time, a creature older than mankind and easy to imagine hanging out and teaching Yiddish slang that wouldn't be invented for centuries to Solomon.  It's also a fascinating treatment of a character defined by his imprisonment, affording Williams's goofballery a glimmer of real, don't-think-about-it-too-much psychological horror: "Robin Williams" is just what happens when you're omnipotent and omniscient and spend ten thousand years trapped in a lamp.

With that, everything flowedand in a certain sense, I mean that literally, for Aladdin's cast was redesigned to conform to Goldberg's creation, likewise smoothed into a series of (much more static) curved shapes, except for the villain, who maintains a certain detailed angularity within his curved silhouette; Aladdin himself was rebuilt completely, under dictates from Katzenberg, and appropriately aged up to match his (increasingly) hot princess.  Story re-development, accomplished at a fever pitch, took about a week, lending credibility, I think, to the speculation that everyone always wanted to change Ashman's concept and so had ideas at the ready; outside screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio were brought in (their prior experience with an ad libbing supernatural comedian was probably helpful) to give it structure; and the non-trivial amount of animation that had been finished got sent back to clean-up.  What survived was what had kept Clements and Musker anchored to Aladdin all along, Vander Wende's Persian miniature-inspired production design and Rasoul Azadani's deceptively-ambitious CAPS-powered layout, plus the color design they all had a hand in imposing upon the film.  But, you know, 2000 words in means I really need to briefly summarize the story they finally told.

Even in Ashman's treatment, the fairy tale had been removed from China, and so we begin in what I previously identified as 10th century "Araby"the film is even less specific, offering us only the neverwhen of "Agrabah"but it's not-infrequently suggested to be the 8th century Abbasid Caliphate, because that's the golden age of Baghdad and all.  If you wanted to be a giant nerd about it, however, and I doeven if obviously no one involved (probably including Azadani) cared beyond "post-Rashidun, pre-Ottoman, in an undifferentiated Iranopotamia"then the title of Agrabah's ruler, "sultan," marks it as much later, and Agrabah likelier to be a Turkic or Persian state than an Arab one.  This is not important.  We actually begin some undetermined point years, decades, or, perhaps, centuries after our story has already ended, initially eased into the tale by the first intimations of how Azadani is going to be using WDFA's still-new digital tools in his layouts, with rather magisterial but previously-impossible grandly-dynamic camera movements through deserts and even deep into a multiplaned Agrabah street (tellingly, Azadani remained Clements and Musker's layout guy for their entire career in 2-D animation); also easing us into the tale is the first of Ashman's three songs, "Arabian Nights," the one that people continue to manage to be offended by thanks to its outrageous insinuation that a medieval polity was "barbaric."  And then Aladdin decides to jolt us into this story instead, courtesy a narrating merchant who's not only aware of us out in the audience, he's able to make physical contact with the camera.  He sure seems to have access to a lot of contemporary references a medieval merchant probably shouldn't.  He'd like to sell us something, but, failing that, he would still like to tell us a story about a lamp.

No ordinary lamp, but the magic lamp, coveted by the vizier, Jafar (Jonathan Freeman), who has discovered that to get it he needs a purehearted innocenta diamond in the rough, so to speakto retrieve it from within the mystical Cave of Wonders (a giant talking tiger's head that is also a cavern, one of the earliest fully-CGI characters in a movie, and probably the best-done for a while; voiced by Frank Welker).  Jafar will find his catspaw in Aladdin (Scott Weinger, albeit sung by Brad Kane), though presently the authorities must not think this young man is so innocent, given that we meet the starving orphan-thief as he barely evades the Agrabah guards alongside his monkey companion Abu (Welker again).  Aladdin wishes he could rise above his station; in the palace, the princess Jasmine (Linda Larkin and sung by Lea Salonga) is having the converse problem, her royal status compelling her sultanic father (Douglas Seale) to marry her off to a prince, and so she decides to run away, despite a cloistered upbringing that has rendered her pitifully ignorant of life outside the palace walls.  This puts her on a collision course with Aladdin, he saves her, she impresses him, and naturally, he falls in love, and she probably falls in love with him, toobut their romance is cut short when the guards drag him off to be "executed."  Now caught in Jafar's ruse, Aladdin is led by the disguised vizier to the Cave of Wonders, whereupon Aladdin and Abu enter, acquire a sentient magic carpet, and get the lamp, but after a death-defying escape from the fickle, angry Cave, Jafar betrays them, too.  Yet clever little monkey Abu managed to keep the lamp, and when Aladdin, faintly curious, gives it a rub, out comes our being with phenomenal cosmic powers, an itty-bitty living space, and only a vague awareness of what millennium he's in.  Aladdin is entitled to three wishes (which is not an innovation of this film, but placing bounds on the djinn is the most obligatory change; and the efficiently-exposited rules that constrain Genie are all most dramatically useful).  Well, Aladdin's first wish is to put himself into a position where wooing Jasmine is possiblehe wishes to be a prince.  He very promptly fucks this up, until Jafar has the lamp again, and darkness enshrouds the land.

So here's my biggest problem with Aladdin: it is desperately unclear what "wishing to be a prince" means, and much of the film's inner conflict arises from Aladdin wishing (that is, wanting) to come clean with Jasmine without feeling he's able to, and, to praise it for its narrative arc, this is remarkably strong "Disney princess" characterization, if you accept that Aladdin fills that role; frankly Aladdin is a real shit, afforded a secondary conflict about what to do about Genie's freedom that he keeps putting off.  (Meanwhile, Aladdin and Jasmine's inability not to talk past one anotheror lie about their identity to one another!despite their mutual magnetism, taken together with their great stupidly-smart/smartly-stupid dichotomy, gives their romance what feels like substance, even though in objective terms they've not had even one full non-lie conversation before the movie's already over.)  But, I was complaining: what did Genie do to grant Aladdin's complicated wish?  (Also, it's very cute and amusing, but I'm mildly distressed by how forcibly Abu gets transformed into that elephant.)  My question is, where is this sultan's son's sultanate?  Because in practice, Genie makes him "a prince" by giving him a makeover and a sparkling white new outfit, just in case those Cinderella comparisons might've remained too abstract.  At the end of the movie, they act like he's not a prince.  Jafar never unwished him to be a prince; he used sorcery to change his shirt.  I also feel "I have a djinn" would impress a chick way more than "I am a prince."  My only other real problem barely is: it's that Jafar, played by a Broadway musical veteran, somehow doesn't get a proper villain musical number.  (All attempts were terrible, including Ashman's, and eventually Clements and Musker just dumped it.)  Even this seemingly serious oversight is mitigated by Jafar's great late-game reappropriation of Aladdin's big princin' song, "Prince Ali," recast with palpably vicious sarcasm and cackling lunatic happiness.

So like with Mermaid, barely any problems at all, and that brings us to those songs, about which I really have no serious complaints.  This is in spite of the necessity of replacing Ashman with Tim Rice (Menken remained and, as with Mermaid, he also did the score); hell, depending on my mood, I would actually name one of Rice's contributions as my favorite.  This isn't Aladdin's introductory number, "One Jump," though I like it even so; it's studded with a few unhammered nails in its lyrical choices ("one jump ahead of the hitman/one hit ahead of the flock," are you?), but the words bleed harmlessly into a fugue, and "gotta steal to eat/gotta eat to live/otherwise we'd get along" is approaching Ashmanesque cleverness.  It's bouncy and winning stuff, supplemented by a thrilling chase through a series of Thief of Bagdad-style (1924 this time) visual jokes, allowing the sequence to double as an introduction to Agrabah, too, very Ashman in that respect, specifically "Belle" in its intention (likewise its construction, with various tertiary cast praising and execrating Aladdin in turn).  Plus Kane is good at singing in an impression of Weinger, at least in this number and its brief, slowed-down, "I want" reprise a few moments later, in which we learn that for all his bravado, this semi-homeless teenager yearns for more.  But there are Ashman's two contributions past "Arabian Nights," and these are terrific, each given to Genie, both in the tradition of "Under the Sea" and "Be Our Guest" (and both being far less aggravating to get stuck in your head than "Be Our Guest").  That means that Ashman's posthumous Disney musical nonetheless managed a double-dose of his trademarked high-energy, animator-punishing choreographic fun-blasters.

The first comes after a surprisingly long first act (I don't think it's troublesome, but does last 37 minutes out of this 90 minute film), showcasing those phenomenal cosmic powers for the first time, in "Friend Like Me"; even leaving aside the considerable merits of the song, it was still the loosest, wildest, most cartoonish sequence in a Disney narrative feature since the 40s, the fullest display of Goldberg's ideas for a Genie unconstrained by so much as Disney realism, full of gags that indeed feel like 40s animation at its most madcap, bolstered by the modernism of its bold, digitally-painted colors; my favorite individual bit is, I think, the crazily-unstressed way that Genie emerges from his own mouth, his tongue serving the function of stairs.  Ashman's final contribution, "Prince Ali," is even better, arguably kind of redundant with "Friend Like Me," if we're talking pure functionality, though it does serve as a foundation for the insufferable phoniness that "Ali Ababwa" is going to be demonstrating for the next few reels as he apparently forgets the one single thing he actually knows about Jasmine's personality, and begins misjudging her character in increasingly idiotic ways.  It's another opportunity for even more stuff, though, firstly Ashman's inventive rhyme and meter, but also some only-in-CAPS legions of Genie-conjured servants, copy-and-pasted without the perils of too many celluloid layers to worry about.  It winds up with the best combination of staging and song here, the latter's martial qualities continually escalating while the former becomes something like a joyous invasion, explicitly so when Elephant Abu beats down the palace doors over Jafar's objections.  For his part, Williams is weirdly great in these songs, with a fascinatingly offbeat singing voice, nasal and prone to well-chosen strategic voice cracks, perfect for the sense of overblown hype that drives them.

So, depending, "Prince Ali" could be my favorite; but I'm a gooey romantic and usually this is Rice's "A Whole New World," the film's love ballad and, it occurs to me, one of the not-as-many-as-you'd-think romantic duets in Disney animation, so therefore the best.  (The song's one small issue, besides the not-very-10th-century-Araby lyric "every moment red-letter," is that Kane opens up full-blast in a way that is somewhat noticeably not "Aladdin" singing.  Salonga, however, is a strikingly good singing double for Larkin, or at least the self-serious put-on of Larkin's Jasmine.)  It's just so damned swoony, kicked off with the excellent black humor of Aladdin's fake lovelorn "suicide" off the balcony, and effected by a travelogue (that, famously, appears to travel through time as well as at an unrealistically high Mach number) through some gorgeous flight animation, pulling at every emotion a "magic carpet ride" should do.  I really adore the way their voices dovetail, and I am never, ever not startled by how this must have the most openly sexual lyrics ever put in a Disney song, which means it's still allusive, but with the dizzying sensation of the film getting away with one pretty horny love ballad that, even so, still fundamentally engages with Jasmine's caged bird of a character.  I certainly don't know why anyone ever needed that urban legend about subliminal sexual messages in Aladdin, when we already had "I can open your eyes, take you wonder by wonder" followed immediately with "over sideways and under," out in the open and more-or-less explicitly declaring Aladdin's preferred protocol for sexual positions.

Or I may like it the best because it's bookended by the most sublime character beats and character animation in the movie, and there remains that, how Aladdin looks and moves.  The film is altogether irrepressibly beautiful in its intelligent and focused way; it's deliberately simplified, partly because of its abbreviated production, but also because that's what Clements and Musker wanted out of it, an elemental and direct form of storytelling dependent as much on color and shape and personality-defining gestures (and, notably, even editing) as dialogue.  (Though I think the script and the VAs are all terrific, Larkin especially.  I realize I've skipped Gilbert Gottfried's Iago, Jafar's parrot familiar; Gottfried makes a nice evil counterweight to Williams.  Even the "intelligent animal" conceit that could potentially break the realityAbu only speaks Welkerese, which doesn't countfinds a comfortable place in the suggestion that he's an ifrit bound to Jafar, or something else otherwise not-quite-mundane.  They have perhaps the best villain/henchman interplay in the whole Disney canon; uniquely, they appear to kind of actually like one another.)

In any case, there's the blunt color coding of characters and scenesblue is good, red and black are (are you ready for this) evil, yellow is just the world as it stands; you could add "white is frivolous dipshittery," since that defines the Sultan and "Ali Ababwa"but it can become slightly complex in its interplay, and I'm terribly fond of, for instance, a clash of aqua-blue and hell-reds in the climax that foreshadows by seconds Jasmine's last gambit.  But even when this isn't being slavishly followed, the aesthetic of just these giant blocks of saturated color allowed to dominate whole shots, and whole scenes, provides the film a downright abstract quality at times, which doesn't mean it doesn't have some rich, detailed backdrops, but at vital moments, it permits Clements and Musker to declutter their frame of every possible distraction.  My favorite image in the moviethere's many to pick frommight just be the very spare image of "Whole New World's" conclusion, utilizing the three dimensions of flight to effect highly-flattened, high-impact visual shorthand, with only the precious few elements that are required: Aladdin, Jasmine, Carpet, the balcony jutting out into space, and a sprawling field of stars that you may realize only now are getting a crucial goosing of effects "twinkling."

Or consider this.

Or this.

And man, this movie does "colossal scale" well.

That's the big picture, though it wouldn't matter much without the confluence of WDFA's all-star Renaissance animation team; it was the last time the big guns worked together.  (And how they did is a wonder in itself: WDFA had completed its split between its California and Florida facilities, the latter at Disney World's MGM Studios park, which, unless I really misunderstand it, involved tourists gawking at you while you tried to draw shit.  It sounds fucking intolerable; now add "coordinating an animated feature over fax machines.")  Well, Glen Keane led on Aladdin, broadening his repertoire again after Ariel, and Aladdin's swell, Keane ensuring that his brashness is consistently haunted by the specter of self-doubt; Jafar is Andreas Deja's masterwork if The Lion King's Scar is not, and I might give it to Jafar, the ornate silhouette of this light-consuming villain offset, just enough, with rich sardonic humor (I love how openly insincere he is), while the vindictiveness that's never been comfortably contained by his semi-coolness explodes in the climax into some tremendous megalomaniacal frenzy.  (Deja does not deserve all the credit, however: Kathy Zielinski, herself a villain specialist, and having conjured a supernatural monster for FernGully, rejoined WDFA to provide the oh-so-Clements-and-Musker giant-sized climax, with Jafar's horrifying snake form; she also did Jafar's disguise as a grotesque, spidery old man, and I think both the "dark" Genie and Jafar's own final fate.)

But besides Goldberg, who's practically operating in a whole different branch of the art here, Aladdin's champion is undoubtedly Mark Henn, lead on Jasmine, supplementing Larkin's already strong performance for a character that is astoundingly active despite her "prince" function in a Disney Princess Musical largely sidelining her; Henn (whom I am now prepared to apologize to for questioning his contributions to Ariel, or else he learned much from his joint supervision of her with Keane and the too-many-hands debacle of supervising Belle) puts so much mentation into her, constantly observing and thinking.  There's the splashy things you probably even remember: the cocked-eyebrow curiosity of "How are you doing that?" upon witnessing Aladdin appear to levitate, or the sharp suspicion of "What?" when he repeats words from their previous meeting, but there's a hundred subtle things, like pinching her lips at some dumbassed lie "Ali" is telling her, and in every case Henn works the orientalized "Arab babe" design to render her probably the most visually distinctive Disney Princess, and certainly Disney's most visually distinctive Prince Charming.

And I will spare a small word for Randy Cartwright, who animated a carpet.  (He relates being tapped for the assignment: "What's its personality?"/"It's like a rectangle."  Inspiring words from Clements and/or Musker there!)  Well, Carpet's great, in a Disney cartoon that accomplishes the unequalled feat of having every comic relief character be great, but it might be the most forceful example of that thesis I kind of laid out ages ago, regarding how Aladdin looks backwards and forwards at the same time: of everything in Aladdin, that rectangle is the most Disneyesque, in the very classic sense, a pantomime nothing of a concept blessed with the illusion of life anyway at 12-to-24 drawings per second, performing the single most "Walt Disney would have creamed over this" gesture of all the animation here in its "I'm the champeen!" clasping of its tassle "hands"; yet Carpet is also the first significant character in Disney history to be absolutely dependent on computer VFX, because all Cartwright drew was that rectangle, its Persian pattern being of course the result of covering it with a computer-manipulated skin.  (The overall best VFX in the film, then, as the overreach of the escape through the naked CGI backdrops of the cave is the one place where Aladdin feels irretrievably lost between its eras.)  And so this combination is another reason to love Carpet, the same way I love the way that Goldberg's design priors enforced thin-and-thick lines on the clean-up animators to the point they might as well have been inking, while the film around it could only be a creature of CAPS, or the way that I love Williams pointing in the direction of a dystopian celebrity-drenched future while the essence of Ashman, Menken, Clements, and Musker's purification of the Disney "genre" folds perfectly around his disorienting presence.  Those men had already made one of the best and one of the most important animated films of all time with The Little Mermaid; with Aladdin, they turned right around and did it again.

Score: 10/10

*Something one of Ashman's lyrics acknowledges whether he meant it to or not: "Scheherazade has her thousand tales" would be kind of weird if we were actually inside one of them, wouldn't it?
**Though mistaking "princess, who can be a boy" for "just boys generally" would go on to have very deleterious effects on WDFA's future, of course.


  1. The only point over which I am prepared to quibble with this fine review requires me to speak up in defence of the Cave of Wonders: the Big Fellah is undoubtedly angry (It’s a creature with the head of a tiger being employed as a guard dog, of course it’s angry) but is not even slightly fickle.

    Big Magic Tiger lays down the Law with complete clarity (“Touch NOTHING but the Lamp”) in the voice of a hungry big cat, then proceeds to punish Our Heroes when one of them very blatantly ignores it’s single, very clearly stated commandment.

    That cat is a true professional and an example to security personnel everywhere.

    P.S. Wiseacres and barracks-room lawyers are invited to note that the Cave, an intelligent being, is clearly interpreting this Commandment without malice - a more genuinely fickle entity could quite gleefully interpret “Nothing” as including Carpet (Whom Big Magic Tiger seems to actually regard as SOMEONE).

    It also bears pointing out that the Cave itself counts as someWHERE, hence why it doesn’t punish Our Heroes for stepping onto and over terrain features.

    1. I guess if it counts Carpet, then it can count Abu as a people.

      It's very weird to watch this with SDH subtitles, and when Abu's Welkerese clarifies into English just enough for the transcription to begin reproducing the monkey's dialogue.

    2. Well strictly speaking, since Abu has two thumbs, a criminal record and a personal connection to Aladdin, either the monkey is his partner - and has therefore received the same warning - or he’s Aladdin’s dependent - in which case Our Hero will be held directly responsible for his buddy’s misdeeds.

      Fairly open-and-shut, if you’re a security guard with the disposition of an especially clever tiger.

  2. Excellent review, I shared it on a couple of Discords I'm in and sent it to a few animation-head friends. It really makes me want to watch this tonight, and look especially for the color design while listening to the lusty undercurrents of "A Whole New World" which now that you point them out are pretty obvious but I never really thought about. This was also my first movie in theaters according to my dad, but not one I remember (I was 4).

    Thanks for pulling out the stopwatch on the length of the first act -- I've always felt like the rush of the second half of the movie makes Aladdin feel a little bit slight, and it bears out that the first act is less than ten minutes short of half the film. I think you see this in the romcom elements especially -- to your point, there's a lot of fill-in-the-gaps in Aladdin and Jasmine's relationship.

    In defense of Aladdin's prince wish -- it is indeed semantically dumb, but I've always liked that it echoes his fantasizing about the lives of people in the palace earlier in the film. I also like that it shows that Aladdin doesn't have the first idea of what royalty is actually like (for him, it's just pomp and circumstance), and that his initial view of the princess is shallow -- the aesthetics of royalty are enough to win her heart. (Some of that is subtext or just me making shit up, perhaps.)

    What bothers me much more is the half-assed way that idea is resolved in the conclusion. The sultan just saying "oh I guess I can make up laws, and you can marry anyone, Jasmine" when that was a central sticking point between them at the beginning of the film. Jasmine not pausing to say "hold on a sec, now it's ok?" has always bothered me. I'm not sure a long-winded conversation on what really makes a person "princely" would have fit with the fast-paced finale, but I still think there's some bit of writing missing there.

    Happy endings for long-suffering Clements-Musker side characters tend to make me emotional. Genie's freedom and "that's Phil's boy," e.g.

    1. Ol' Brayton poops on the expanse of that first act, but it's got so much rad stuff. It'd be a pretty great movie even without Genie and if Aladdin just, like, bought a new v-neck thawb or whatever that garment is, and faked it. Which I still insist is all he does anyway! Though I appreciate the idea that Genie gives him what he wants within his limited conception thereof. (On the other hand, Jafar's limited conception of djinnhood doesn't help him.)

      It doesn't really bother me, of course. If I wanted to see them do "Ali is a prince, for reals," I presume the extra forty hours of the live action remake explores all the politics of the new Ababwid Emirate and the existential crises of the teeming millions who blinked into existence one day. Or it tells the exact same story plus one song despite being vastly longer. You can never tell!

    2. And I do wonder if any of those animation heads can answer whether Kathy Zielinski animated the post-Jafar-gets-the-lamp Genie, or if Eric Goldberg just really switched things up for that one rad scene, or if it was someone else entirely. I suspect it's Zielinski: she names her favorite animated sequence as "Night On Bald Mountain," didn't have an enormous workload here, it just looks more like Hexxus and the Jafar serpent than those look like anything else in this movie. And I've seen reference to her doing an "evil genie" but there are two of those here!