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Dissecting the Classics – Aladdin

July 21, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Aladdin genie

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics , the column previously known as Taken For Granted. In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.


Aladdin

Wide Release Date:
Directed and Produced By: Ron Clements and John Musker
Written By: Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio
Edited By: Mark A. Hester and H. Lee Peterson
Music By: Alan Menken, Tim Rice and Howard Ashman
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures and Walt Disney Feature Animation
Distributed By: Buena Vista Pictures
Starring:
Robin Williams as The Genie
Scott Weinger as Aladdin
Linda Larkin as Jasmine
Scott Freeman as Jafar
Gilbert Gottfried as Iago
Frank Welker as Abu

What Do We All Know?

Starting in 1989 with The Little Mermaid and going throughout the 1990s, Disney animation saw perhaps its greatest period of success, both financial and critical. Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture. The Lion King was the highest grossing film of 1994. And Aladdin belongs in the same category as those unassailable classics. A smash hit in its own time, the film still holds up well today.

Disney has made waves recently with their announcement of a live-action remake starring Will Smith as the Genie. I’m about as excited for that as I am any other remake (not very much), but it did get me thinking about the original and I felt it is worth covering it and discussing why it’s a classic in the first place.

What Went Right?

You don’t need to watch many Disney films to get a sense of their formula; a protagonist (usually a princess), a love interest (usually a prince), a memorable villain, some wacky sidekicks, and big musical numbers all leading up to a happy ending. Aladdin doesn’t tread any new ground here, but it does it so well. The protagonist was the first in a slew or male leads that included Simba, Quasimodo, Hercules and Tarzan, proving that Disney could do a more archtypal hero’s journey as well as they could a classic princess story. It’s an action adventure story with chase scenes, dangerous dungeons, and an epic battle with a sorcerer. Aladdin runs, jumps, swings, swordfights, and flies about while being funny, clever, resourceful, endearing and just flawed enough to really grow. He’s as perfect a lead as Disney has ever had.

Complimenting him is Jasmine, who still shines as a character despite her role being secondary. She isn’t defined by her relationship to Aladdin, but the romance feels authentic and earned, with Jasmine really calling the shots and helping Aladdin in key moments. It doesn’t hurt that their big love song is “A Whole New World”, by far the best love song a Disney movie has ever had. The whole scene is iconic, a distinct visual production with Alan Menken’s score taking us along for the ride and Tim Rice’s lyrics perfectly capturing the essence of what makes this love story work.

Speaking of iconic, there may not be a more iconic character in a Disney Animated Classic than Robin Williams as the Genie. The late Robin Williams was a comic genius and one of the biggest stars in entertainment at the time, and it’s almost impossible to imagine someone trying to replace Williams as the character. He brought his manic energy, imitations and comedy to the role (enhanced by incredible animation) but also brought a warmth and a sense of tragedy to the character. The Genie had a soul to him in the same way that the Beast did, bringing to life a larger than life character in a way only animation could have pulled off.

Lastly, Jafar is, in my opinion, the best villain in a Disney movie. He’s memorable, he’s funny and power hungry, just a little sympathetic but mostly just a magnificent bastard. He has a pet parrot voiced by Gilbert Gottfried. He’s the kind of character that I love to hate, especially when he very nearly wins the day. It feels like an accomplishment when Aladdin defeats Jafar, only doing so by his guile. That’s the sign of a great villain.

What Went Wrong?

Hoo boy, this one’s a doozy. Much like other Disney projects like Pocahontas and Mulan, this film is far from free of controversy in terms of how it portrays a foreign culture. Or rather, how it combines several actual cultures into a fictional single culture living in the fictional Agrabah. Some of that is baked in, as the story is based on a story a French writer added to One Thousand and One Nights that was set in China while still having elements of a Persian or Arabian setting.

What isn’t baked in is that the culture of Agrabah is brutishly violent, full of characters who are greedy, cruel and designed with exaggerated facial features that are about as subtle as The Iron Sheik. By contrast, the heroes are noticeably more Americanized in their design, which Roger Ebert was quick to point out in his initial review. The film also had to quickly edit itself due to the lyric “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face/It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home”. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee protested this specifically as well as the films other problematic depictions.

Whether you believe the film is inherently racist down to its bone marrow or is simply a series of unfortunate coincidences coming from ignorance (as in, being unaware of without malicious intent), it does tend to color how one views the material. Personally, I think it’s silly to complain about Jafar being scheming, greedy and power hungry; he’s a villain, no different than the white Gaston or the black Dr. Facilier. There has to be conflict somewhere. But does the fantasy version of a culture that a good portion of Americans are so quick to “other” cause real harm? Does it contribute to a mindset that the Middle East is all a homogenous backwards and violent place whose people are less than the “civilized” Western world? Does it objectify Arab women with the way everyone from Jasmine to the brothel girls are dressed and act? Maybe. That deserves at least a minute of acknowledgement.

Now, look, we’re all adults here, and I know some are going to bitch and complain about how I’m ruining some classic. I’m not. Problematic or not, Aladdin is an excellent movie that I watch almost yearly because I love it. And I can personally attest that watching the film never made me, a middle class mostly white American kid, have any ill will towards people of Middle Eastern descent because they looked like Jafar or the guy who almost cuts off Jasmine’s hands. But that’s my experience, and it isn’t the only one that matters. It’s easy to put myself in the shoes of someone who sees their culture misrepresented; Pocahontas was so alarmingly stupid in its depiction of history that my Cherokee side of the family refused to watch it. So, if you’re somebody who looks at this film from that perspective, it’s both completely valid and understandable, and worth bringing into the discussion.

And In Summary…

Alright, so unhappy cultural misrepresentation aside, Aladdin is absolutely one of my favorite Disney movies. It’s unique in the canon, with a more modern sensibility instead of the timeless nature of the brand’s traditional fairy tales. The action and adventure is fresh territory, the characters are great, the songs are great, the story flows nicely and rarely has downtime. The animation is stunning and the CGI effects like the carpet and the Cave of Wonders hold up well. It’s a great piece of entertainment. This is Disney at nearly its best. And yeah, I can’t lie; it’s become a lot more near and dear to me ever since Robin Williams passed away. The Genie is a once in a lifetime character who, like Robin, is often imitated but never duplicated. It’s a piece of my childhood that is still a part of my adulthood, and if I have kids it will be part of their lives as well.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, a href=http://411mania.com/movies/dissecting-the-classics-spider-man/>Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men

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