Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Aladdin

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Aladdin

Year: 1992

Source materials : Aladdin and the Magic Lamp from One Thousand and One Nights

Budget: $28 million

Box office: $504.1 million

Plot: In the city of Agrabah, Jafar, the Grand vizier of the Sultan, and his parrot Iago, seek the lamp hidden within the Cave of Wonders, but are told that only a “diamond in the rough” may enter. Jafar identifies a street urchin named Aladdin.

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Aladdin and his pet monkey, Abu, meet Princess Jasmine, who refuses to marry a suitor and temporarily leaves the palace. Aladdin and Jasmine become friends and fall in love. When the palace guards capture Aladdin, Jafar lies to Jasmine that Aladdin has been executed.

Jafar disguises himself as an old man, and sends Aladdin and Abu to the cave, ordering them to retrieve the lamp. There, Aladdin befriends a magic carpet and obtains the lamp. Abu grabs a forbidden jewel and the cave collapses itself.

After surviving with his friends, Aladdin rubs the lamp and meets the Genie, who is trapped inside of it. He tells him that he will grant him any three wishes. Aladdin tricks the Genie into freeing themselves from the cave without using a wish, and he uses his first to become “Prince Ali of Ababwa”.

4e661412-734b-11e7-9a9a-a7d2083b6658_1280x720_153010genie-applauseAt Iago’s suggestion, Jafar plots to become Sultan by marrying Jasmine. When Aladdin greets Jafar and the Sultan at the palace, Jasmine becomes upset at them.

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Refusing his friends advising him to tell Jasmine the truth, Aladdin takes Jasmine on a flight on the magic carpet. When she deduces his true identity, he convinces her that he slums as a peasant to escape the stresses of royal life.

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After Aladdin sends Jasmine home, he is ambushed by Jafar’s men but is rescued from drowning by the Genie with his second wish. Jafar tries to hypnotize the Sultan into agreeing to his marriage to Jasmine, but Aladdin appears and prevents Jafar from doing so. After Jafar returns to his room, he orders Iago to retrieve the lamp from Aladdin after discovering his true identity.

Realizing that he will become Sultan, Aladdin refuses to free the Genie. Iago steals the lamp and Jafar becomes the Genie’s new master. He uses his first two wishes to usurp the Sultan and become the world’s most powerful sorcerer, exposing Aladdin’s identity and exiling him, Abu and the carpet to a frozen wasteland. However, they escape and return to the palace.

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There, Jafar wishes Genie for his final wish to make Jasmine fall in love with him, but the Genie refuses to grant the wish. Upon noticing Aladdin, Jasmine pretends to be interested to distract Jafar and Aladdin tries to retrieve the lamp. Jafar stops Aladdin and traps Jasmine inside an hourglass. Jafar transforms into a giant cobra and tells Aladdin that he is the most powerful being in the world. However, Aladdin replies that the Genie is more powerful than him. Jafar uses his last wish to become a genie, creating his own lamp. Aladdin frees Jasmine, and uses Jafar’s lamp to trap the latter and Iago.

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With the palace reverted to normal, the Genie sends Jafar’s lamp far away through the desert, and suggests Aladdin to use his third wish to regain his royal title so the law will allow him to stay with Jasmine. Aladdin decides to keep his promise and frees the Genie. Realizing Aladdin and Jasmine’s love, the Sultan changes the law to allow Jasmine to marry whomever she chooses. The Genie leaves to explore the world, while Aladdin and Jasmine plan their marriage.

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Background: Howard Ashman pitched the idea of an animated musical adaptation of Aladdin. Ashman had written a 40-page film treatment envisioning it as a campy 1930s-style musical. Linda Woolverton, who had also worked on Beauty and the Beast, used their treatment and developed a draft with inspired elements from The Thief of Bagdad such as a villain named Jaf’far, an aged sidekick retired human thief named Abu, and a human handmaiden for the princess. Then, directors John Musker and Ron Clements joined the production, picking Aladdin out of three projects offered, which also included an adaptation of Swan Lake and King of the Jungle. 1 Before Ashman’s death in March 1991, Ashman and Menken had composed “Prince Ali” and his last song, “Humiliate the Boy”. After Ashman’s death, Menkin collaborated with Tim Rice 2 to finish the songs.

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Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio were brought in to rework the story, and the changes they made included the removal of Aladdin’s mother, the strengthening of the character of Princess Jasmine, and the deletion of several of the Ashman-Menken songs. Aladdin’s personality was rewritten to be “a little rougher, like a young Harrison Ford,” and the parrot Iago, originally conceived as an uptight British archetype, was reworked into a comic role after the filmmakers saw Gilbert Gottfried in Beverly Hills Cop II.

Clements and Musker wrote the part of the Genie for Robin Williams, and created a reel of Williams’ stand-up to animation of the Genie. The resulting test made Williams “laugh his ass off” and convinced him to sign on for the role. Williams also voices the Peddler, and the scene was completely unscripted — the production left Williams a table with props covered with a sheet and asked him to pull out objects without looking at them and describe them in-character. The double role originally led to the Peddler revealing to be the Genie disguised, but that idea was dropped later in development.

Changes from the Source Material: In the tale, Aladdin still has his mother, and is tricked into going into the cave by a sorcerer pretending to be the brother of his late father. There are two genies, one of the lamp, and another of the ring. The princess is named Badroulbadour.

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Animation: The animators based their designs on the work of caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, which production designer Richard Vander Wende also considered appropriate to the theme, due to similarities to the swooping lines of Persian miniatures and Arabic calligraphy. Aladdin was initially going to be as young as 13, but that eventually changed to eighteen. Aladdin was designed by a team led by supervising animator Glen Keane, and was originally made to resemble actor Michael J. Fox. During production, it was decided that the design was too boyish and wasn’t “appealing enough,” so the character was redesigned to add elements derived from actor Tom Cruise and Calvin Klein models.

Jasmine’s supervising animator was Mark Henn.

Jafar was originally envisioned as an irritable character, but the directors decided that a calm villain would be scarier. Jafar’s design was not based on Hirschfeld’s work because Jafar’s supervising animator, Andreas Deja, wanted the character to be contrasting. Freeman was the first actor cast and spent one year and nine months recording his dialogue. He later readjusted his voice after Weinger and Larkin were cast as he felt “Jafar had to be seen as a real threat to Aladdin and Jasmine”. Jafar’s supervising animator was Andreas Deja, who tried to incorporate Freeman’s facial expressions and gesturing into the character, while Jafar’s beggar and snake forms were animated by Kathy Zielinski.

Much like Williams, Gottfried was given freedom to improvise his lines. Iago’s supervising animator Will Finn tried to incorporate some aspects of Gottfried’s appearance into Iago’s design, especially his semi-closed eyes and the always-appearing teeth(which of course parrots do not have). The animators filmed monkeys at the San Francisco Zoo to study their movements for Abu’s character. Duncan Marjoribanks was the supervising animator for Abu, and Rajah was animated by Aaron Blaise.

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Some aspects of the Sultan were inspired by the Wizard of Oz, to create a bumbling authority figure. His supervising animator was David Pruiksma. Razoul, the Captain of the Guard. He was named after layout supervisor Rasoul Azadani. He and the other guards were animated by Phil Young and Chris Wahl.

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For the scenery design, layout supervisor Rasoul Azadani took many pictures of his hometown of Isfahan, Iran for guidance. Other inspirations for design were Disney’s animated films from the 1940s and 50s and the 1940 film The Thief of Bagdad. The coloring was done with the computerized CAPS process. Computer animation was used for some elements of the film, such as the tiger entrance of the Cave of Wonders and the scene where Aladdin tries to escape the collapsing cave.

Songs: All music written by Alan Menkin. Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice

  • “Arabian Nights” (Ashman) sung by Bruce Adler
  • “One Jump Ahead”* (Rice) sung by Brad Kane
  • “Friend Like Me” (Ashman) sung by Robin Williams
  • “Prince Ali”* (Ashman) sung by Robin Williams
  • “A Whole New World”* (Rice) sung by Brad Kane & Lea Salonga

*reprised in the film

Voice Cast:

Robin Williams as The Genie. He stared as a stand-up comedian in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, and rose to fame as Mork in Mork & Mindy. He went on to star in several films, including Popeye, Good Morning, Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, The Birdcage, The World According to Garp, Moscow on the Hudson, Awakenings, The Fisher King, One Hour Photo, Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire, Jumanji, and Night at the Museum. He won the 1997 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as psychology teacher Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting. He also received two Emmy Awards, 3 seven Golden Globe Awards, 4 two Screen Actors Guild Awards, 5 and four Grammy Awards 6 throughout his career. 7

Scott Weinger as Aladdin. He is also known for playing Steve Hale on the ABC sitcom Full House and its Netflix sequel Fuller House. He is also a writer and producer for television, including for ABC’s Galavant and Black-ish. He was a co-executive producer of ABC’s The Muppets. Brad Kane provides Aladdin’s singing voice. He appeared in the Broadway musical Evita. He was in that production for four months before changing to the pre-Broadway workshop of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George.

Linda Larkin as Princess Jasmine. Larkin was chosen nine months after her audition, and had to adjust (or lower) her high-pitched voice to reach the voice the filmmakers were looking for in the character Lea Salonga provides Jasmine’s singing voice. At age 18, she originated the lead role of Kim in the musical Miss Saigon, 8 She also provided the singing voices of Fa Mulan in Mulan.

Jonathan Freeman as Jafar. He was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical for his role in She Loves Me. Additionally, he appeared in the Broadway revival productions of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, The Producers, On the Town, and 42nd Street. He was also seen on stage as Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast, Grimsby in The Little Mermaid, and Admiral Boom in Mary Poppins. 9Gilbert Gottfried as Iago. 10 The comedian was a cast member for a brief time on Saturday Night Live. He played accountant Sidney Bernstein in Beverly Hills Cop II. and was the voice of the duck in commercials for Aflac. Frank Welker returns as Abu, Rajah and the Cave of Wonders. Douglas Seale also returns as The Sultan.

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Jim Cummings as Razoul, the Captain of the Guard. He has appeared in almost 400 roles. He is known for voicing the title character from Darkwing Duck, Dr. Robotnik from Sonic the Hedgehog, Pete, Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, and the Tasmanian Devil. He has performed in numerous Disney and DreamWorks animations including The Lion King, Balto, Antz, The Road to El Dorado, Shrek, and The Princess and the Frog. He has also provided voice-over work for video games, such as Icewind Dale, Fallout, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Baldur’s Gate, Mass Effect 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic, World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria, World of Warcraft: Legion, and Splatterhouse.

Critical Reception: Most critics’ praise went to Robin Williams’ performance as Genie, with Janet Maslin of The New York Times declaring that children “needn’t know precisely what Mr. Williams is evoking to understand how funny he is.” Warner Bros. Cartoons director Chuck Jones even called the film “the funniest feature ever made.” Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said the comedy made the film accessible to both children and adults, a vision shared with Desson Howe of The Washington Post, who also said “kids are still going to be entranced by the magic and adventure.”

Roger Ebert, who generally praised the film in his review, considered the music inferior to its predecessors The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and claimed Aladdin and Jasmine were “pale and routine.” He criticized what he saw as the film’s use of ethnic stereotypes, writing: “Most of the Arab characters have exaggerated facial characteristics – hooked noses, glowering brows, thick lips – but Aladdin and the princess look like white American teenagers.”

Aladdin also received many award nominations, mostly for its music. It won two Academy Awards, 11 and three nominations. 12 At the Golden Globes, Aladdin won Best Original Song (“A Whole New World”) and Best Original Score, as well as a Special Achievement Award for Robin Williams, with a nomination for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. It won four Grammy Awards. 13

Controversies: One of the verses of the opening song “Arabian Nights” was altered following protests from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). The lyrics were changed in July 1993 from “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face,” in the original release to “Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense.” The Broadway adaptation also uses the edited line.

Animation enthusiasts have noticed similarities between Aladdin and Richard Williams’ unfinished film The Thief and the Cobbler. The late release, coupled with Miramax purchasing and re-editing the film, has sometimes resulted in The Thief and the Cobbler being labeled a rip-off of Aladdin.

Legacy: Aladdin’s success led to other material inspired by the film, including two direct-to-video sequels, The Return of Jafar and Aladdin and the King of Thieves, an animated television series of the same name, toys, video games, Disney merchandise, and a Broadway adaptation that debuted in 2014. The characters appeared in Once Upon a Time and its spinoff Once Upon a Time in Wonderland with Giancarlo Esposito as the Genie and Naveen Andrews as Jafar. In October 2016, it was reported that Disney was developing a live-action adaptation of Aladdin with Guy Ritchie signed on to direct the film. The film is scheduled for release on May 24, 2019.

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Aladdin, Jasmine, and the Genie regularly meet in the parks. The Magic Kingdom features Aladdin’s Magic Carpets, a circular ride similar to Dumbo in Adventureland.

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My take: Obviously Robin Williams is hysterical, but the rest of the film is funny too- “One Jump Ahead” is particularly clever. I remember laughing throughout the entire film the first time I saw it over twenty-five years ago. Williams’s performance was a personal inspiration to me when I played Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum a few years ago.

Next Week: We head to the Pride Lands for The Lion King