Aladdin Took Modern Comedy and Made it Timeless

Aladdin might be a movie in need of no introduction. You’ve all seen it, you all probably own it, and you’ve all probably seen it more times than you can count. In fact, it might be hard to overstate its impact on pop culture, as this is the film that immortalized Robin Williams as the voice of The Genie, possibly the most beloved role of his entire career.

But let’s go back in time a bit. Before Aladdin opened on this day 25 years ago (I’m getting old!), Disney was coming off of Beauty and the Beast, which had been their most successful film to date and the first animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (something the studio would never tire of bragging about). Aladdin had gone through more than its fair share of production hurdles, including then-Mouse House honcho Jeffery Katzenberg demanding that the filmmakers start everything over only 19 months before its November 1992 release (the reasons for this remain vague, but they apparently had to do with Katzenberg wanting more Indiana Jones-style adventure in the story). This meant that the animators had to finish the movie in half the time they normally had for an animated feature (which on average took roughly 3-4 years to produce). The fact that Aladdin got completed at all with that kind of pressure is an accomplishment in itself. The fact that it turned out as good as it did is almost something of a miracle.

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It’s quite possible that working on such an extreme deadline might’ve worked to the film’s benefit, as it left directors John Musker and Ron Clements (of Mermaid and Great Mouse Detective fame) with very little time to second guess themselves. In terms of comedy, Aladdin was by far the most modern animated movie Disney had ever made at the time, with pop culture references aplenty despite the ancient setting of the story. This was an extremely bold choice for the time, as it was something which had never really been tested before (this was almost ten whole years before Shrek), and there was the risk that audiences would be put off by it, especially after the more “traditional” tale of Beauty and the Beast the year before. Within five minutes of Aladdin, we have already had a Tupperware joke, and the humor only gets more temporary from there. Iago the parrot makes a crack about having a “heart attack,” the arrogant Prince Achmad has hearts on his underwear, and Aladdin’s movements were famously modeled by animator Glen Keane after the dancing of M.C. Hammer.

Yet the movie’s early 90’s charm has an ace up its sleeve, and I don’t think this is the nostalgia alone talking. One reason the gags in Aladdin work as well as they do is that you don’t have to understand what they’re referencing in order for them to be funny. The Genie’s many, many impersonations, for instance, are not only amusing because of who he’s playing, but also because of the brilliant delivery of Williams (who ad-libbed a lot) and the terrific character animation of Disney veteran Eric Goldberg.

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Of course, there are other reasons besides The Genie that Aladdin succeeds. The film is still grounded in the usual ingredients of a 90’s Disney movie, including a truly delightful villain in Jafar (who is, according to DevinatArt at least, also very sexy?), the cute sidekicks in Abu the monkey and the sentient Magic Carpet, and the romance between Aladdin and Jasmine. The movie also sports two of the most breathtaking sequences ever seen in an animated film at the time: the spectacular escape from the Cave of Wonders and the globe-trotting “A Whole New World.”

Given what a massive box office hit it was, it’s kinda funny that Aladdin was something of a gamble when it was released. Fearful of the release of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (the one with the President Trump cameo), but confident in the film they were releasing, Disney did something they very rarely did with their animated features and held sneak preview screenings in an effort to build up word-of-mouth. Theater owners had the sequel on 2,200 theaters, nearly double the amount they had Aladdin playing on for its opening weekend. And while Home Alone 2 won the weekend, Aladdin had a much stronger per-screen average, and strong legs would propel the film to become the biggest movie of 1992. As another milestone, it became the first animated movie to make more than $200 million at the domestic box office.

Ultimately, Aladdin would turn into a massive franchise for Disney, spawning the “sequel” The Return of Jafar (which was essentially a pilot for the TV series) and the later installment Aladdin and the King of Thieves  (which was actually pretty good). More recently, the film became a Broadway musical, and a live-action remake starring a perfectly cast Will Smith as The Genie is set to hit theaters in 2019. There is, of course, a certain bitter-sweetness that comes with the movie today, as Robin Williams sadly is no longer among us. In addition to being hilarious, Williams’s performance is also warm and reassuring, giving the film’s “Genie, you’re free!” ending a new kind of unwanted poignancy. We truly never did have a friend like him.