Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Disney Renaissance Part 4: Aladdin

Fairy Tale adaptations marked the beginning of the Disney Renaissance. Hardly surprising, as this type of story having been synonymous with Disney animation since Walt's first feature film, and so it was rather fitting that it formed the cornerstone of the first few years of the late 80's/90's comeback. With The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast the House of Mouse went for a classical tone - they may have been mixed with modern technology and sensibility, but the films more or less played it straight. And were aimed with laser focus at the younger female demographic.

With Aladdin, all that changed.

Fair warning, this is going to be long. Aladdin is not only such a different sort of film from its predecessors but also had so much else going on behind the scenes that affected the legacy of the movie, the people involved, or the company itself that I was seriously tempted to break this into two parts.

As a second prelude, there is a definite similarity between this movie and Richard Williams' legendary unfinished opus The Thief and the Cobbler - characters, plot lines, even some scene and background designs look familiar. Since it was released after Aladdin (and, notably, after Williams himself was kicked off the film), some have the misconception that this film ripped off Disney. Anyone who's more than passingly familiar with the history of Thief can tell you this is wrong - the movie began production in 1964 and was one of the most intricate productions in the history of the medium (seriously, read up on it - it's fascinating). If there was any behind-the-scenes cribbing, it wasn't on Williams' end, and that's all I can say for sure.

Aladdin was songwriter Howard Ashman's passion project. It was he and his collaborator Alan Menken who pitched the film to the studio. Unfortunately, Ashman never saw the film completed, as he spent his last months on Beauty and the Beast and died near the end of that film's production. Songwriter Tim Rice finished the musical numbers for the film with Menken, and he did an admirable enough job. Mermaid directors Ron Clements and John Musker picked the film out of several options (including "King of the Jungle," the concept that would become The Lion King), but Jeffrey Katzenberg only approved it after a script rewrite by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio (The Mask of Zorro, Pirates of the Caribbean) to make the film "more engaging" and add more comedy. The story took inspiration from The Thief of Baghdad, and changed the setting from China to a fictional city in 3rd century Arabia.

Now, this rewrite happened in 1991. The film released in November of 1992, making for an even more cramped production than its predecessor. And unfortunately, the compressed schedule is very apparent in this movie. Aladdin features some great character designs (the idea to base each major cast member's design on a geometric shape is rather inspired), and the anime influence is possibly most obvious in this film. For example:

HUGE expressive eyes on both romantic leads there. And props to the studio and film-makers for not shying away from the first non-white "Princess" in Disney history (the film fumbles the ball racially in another way, and I'll get to that later). But with a couple stand-out exceptions (the carpet chase) the movie as a whole looks somewhat quick and dirty. The composition is often flat, the backgrounds simplistic, and the characters are exaggerated to a more cartoonish extent than earlier Disney films of the era. Combined with the film's tone, the experience is like watching a feature-length Looney Tune.

Now I don't necessarily mean that detrimentally. Rather than attempting a romantic comedy or adventure, Aladdin is almost a farce. And it plays this up from the beginning. It's a rough balancing act, and the movie does an admirable job of keeping the mood light but the characters and their stakes consistent. Aladdin, Jasmine, and Jafar (who holds up as one of the better Disney villains) are written and played straight the entire time, even when the situation around them is so zany. Because of that, the dramatic tension in the third act still works, and manages to get away with some surprisingly dark stuff (including the destruction - however temporary - of two likable sidekicks).

But WOW is there ever a lot of comedy, and not just basic slapstick either. Where previous Disney fairy tales at least made an attempt at keeping the fourth wall intact, Aladdin bulldozes it, then nukes it from orbit just to be sure. And it paid off - before Beauty's 3D re-release, Aladdin was the highest-grossing Disney fairy tale of all time, and the second highest-grossing animated movie of the 90's (and still holds those records when taking overseas grosses into account). Among other things, it made Disney aware that you could successfully market cartoon fairy tales to BOYS. Aladdin had a profound effect on how family animation was approached, by Disney and other studios as well. Between the piles of one-off jokes, impressions, and pop culture references of the Genie (and Williams' other character, the Peddler) and Gilbert Gotrfried's abrasive (and very "90's") Iago, you can see in this movie the prototype for films like Shrek. . . If Shrek had more moments of embarrassing cultural insensitivity.

Yes, the elephant in the room. As some may remember, the original version of the film featured a lyric in the song "Arabian Nights" that went "Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face." This was changed the following year (and for all subsequent home video/DVD releases) to "Where it's flat and immense and the heat is intense" because it was found incredibly offensive, for obvious and valid reason. Combined with the cartoonish exaggeration of certain characters (namely Jafar and Razul, captain of the guard), the film earned a bit of a reputation for being racist. And I'm not going to say these claims are unfounded. However, I don't think there was any malignant intent, just some honest ignorance and a VERY a poor choice of words. As for the character designs, it seems to me that the standard animation shorthand of making the audience aware of who the villains are by making them ugly simply had unfortunate consequences in this context.

After all, while you could argue the finer points of facial features and their anthropological indications, Aladdin himself doesn't look any "whiter" than Jafar.

And maybe it's just me, but Jasmine doesn't look very European.

But as I said, I'm not going to say there isn't legitimate beef to be had on this front, and this is honestly - as a whole - a far stickier argument than anything I want to hash out in depth here (at least for the moment). But however questionable the film's track record on racial stereotypes and positive cultural images, it does a damn fine job of continuing the feminist strengthening that defined the decade's Disney heroines.

It's easy to overlook, but Jasmine is arguably a more active character than any of her contemporaries save Esmerelda and Mulan. Along with being startlingly aware of her own sexuality (very rare indeed for Disney ladies), Jasmine discovers a rare sense of self-determination. Sitting around and waiting for a prince to rescue her is an idea she finds not just unattractive, but genuinely repugnant. This princess sets out on her own to escape the prison of her royal station, and her quest for self-determination is in line with one of the major themes of the film - feeling trapped. Aladdin and Jasmine both strain against the confines of their positions in society, and it is this common ground that forms the basis of their budding relationship.

The Genie is the other obvious character where entrapment is a defining characteristic, at the mercy of his masters. It's a credit to Williams that he manages to sell a hint of melancholy even in the midst of such a manic and comedic role. It's largely his performance that brings the film together, which makes the sticky situation between Robin Williams and Disney over this film a real shame. The actor did the film for Screen Actor's Guild scale pay of $75,000, and had very specific desires about the way his character and his name were going to be used in the marketing of the film. For example, he wanted to be sure his "supporting" character take up no more than 25% of the space on the film's marketing.

Suffice it to say, that didn't stick...

The situation caused a falling-out between Wiliams and Disney which wasn't resolved until after Jeffrey Katzenberg was fired and his replacement arranged for an apology. Which is why the Genie was voiced by Simpsons alumn Dan Castellaneta in the direct-to-video sequel The Return of Jafar before Williams and the studio reconciled in time for Aladdin and the King of Thieves. Though honestly, the less said about those entries, the better.

I sound like I'm being harsher on this film than it warrants. For all the issues and all the baggage the movie has, it holds up as a fun time. Sure Iago is grating and it's not as visually impressive in hindsight as the three films that came before it, but the experiment with tone really pays off, there are a couple stand-out songs (I'm personally a sucker for "A Whole New World"), and the leads do a great job grounding the film when it would have been so easy for it to buckle under the self-aware comedy. And Robin Williams as the Genie is undeniably fun - much of the film may feel a bit dated, but him aping Groucho Marx will never get old.

Finally, it's interesting how the film treats the "be careful what you wish for" theme. Aladdin and Jasmine both struggle against their circumstances, but when they try to take an easy way out and pretend to be something or someone they aren't, it doesn't work. In contrast to Ariel, who gave up so much and literally changed herself for her chance with Eric, the romance in Aladdin stresses that you have to build these things honestly. Rather than a cheap deus ex machina (which would have been incredibly easy), the characters have to work for real social change.

And there's some fascinating subtext to be found in a law proclaiming freedom to marry whoever you deem worthy, but that's a subject for another time.

This marks something of a turning point, in this column and in the period of Disney animation. Aladdin was actually the last fairy tale of the Disney Renaissance (and the last from the studio until 2009's The Princess and the Frog), future films branching out into stories from mythology and history, literary adaptations, even a few original ideas. And the most notable of those is what's up next.

"It is time."

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