Saturday, September 29, 2018

Stubs - Aladdin

Aladdin (1992) Voices by Scott Weinger, Robin Williams, Linda Larkin, Jonathan Freeman, Frank Welker. Narrated by Robin Williams. Directed by Ron Clements, John Musker. Produced by Ron Clements, John Musker. Screenplay by Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio.  Run Time: 90 minutes. U.S.  Color, Animated, Fantasy, Musical, Comedy

For most of the 1990’s, Disney Animation went through what has been called a renaissance. After a disappointing run in the 1980’s, a new creative team took over and turned things around, starting with The Little Mermaid (1989).

On the cusp of that era, in 1988, lyricist Howard Ashman pitched the idea to Disney to turn Aladdin into an animated musical film. After writing a treatment and some songs with his partner Alan Menken, Linda Woolverton was brought in by the studio to write a screenplay. Directors John Musker and Ron Clements were given a choice of three projects to pursue: Swan Lake, King of the Jungle (later to become The Lion King) or Aladdin.

They chose the latter and wrote their own screenplay. Jeffrey Katzenberg, then the Disney studio chief, had issues with it and gave it to Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio to rewrite. They made the changes to not only the Musker and Clements script, but to the original story itself.

While Aladdin and the Magic Lamp may be an ancient Arab folktale, it actually takes place in China. The plot of the original story is far more complicated than the story most of us remember and certainly what is depicted in the Disney Aladdin:

In the original tale, which dates back to the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, Aladdin is recruited by a sorcerer, who passes himself off as the brother of Aladdin’s deceased father, Mustapha. Aladdin, who is young, poor and ne'er-do-well is convinced, along with his mother, that the sorcerer is going to set Aladdin up to be a wealthy merchant. However, the sorcerer is really only interested in having Aladdin retrieve a wonderful oil lamp from a booby-trapped magic cave.

After finding himself trapped in the cave, Aladdin uses a magic ring, given to him by the sorcerer as protection. Rubbing his hands in despair he releases a genie from the ring. The genie takes Aladdin home to his mother. Aladdin is still holding the lamp and when his mother tries to polish it, a second, more powerful genie is released, who is bound to do the bidding of the person holding the lamp.

With the aid of the genie, Aladdin becomes rich and powerful and marries the Emperor’s daughter, Princess Babroulbadour, after foiling her marriage to the vizier’s (advisor) son. When the sorcerer returns, he offers the Princess a new lamp for old exchange. Not knowing the lamp’s importance, the Princess agrees and gives him the genie’s lamp. The sorcerer orders the genie to take Aladdin’s palace, along with all of its contents to his home in Maghreb.

Aladdin still has the magic ring and while that lesser genie cannot undo what has been done, he can transport Aladdin to Maghreb. There, he recovers the lamp and kills the sorcerer in battle and returns the palace and princess back home.

The happy ending has to wait. The sorcerer’s more powerful and more evil brother tries to get revenge. He kills Aladdin’s brother and disguises himself as an old woman known for her healing powers. Babrouldbadour is once again duped and commands that the woman stay in the palace. But Aladdin, who has been warned of this danger by the genie, slays the imposter. Aladdin eventually succeeds his father-in-law to the throne and now everyone can live happily ever after.

Changing a story or book for its cinematic treatment is nothing new in Hollywood. Call it poetic license or whatever you want, many times the Hollywood treatment has made a story more palatable and accessible to a wider audience.

Moved from China to an unidentified Middle Eastern location, the Disney Aladdin opens with a Merchant (voiced by Robin Williams) who tries to sell us goods but ends up offering to tell us the story of Aladdin.

Jafar (Jonathan Freeman) and his parrot assistant Iago (Gilbert Gottfried).

Jafar (Jonathan Freeman), Grand Vizier to the Sultan of Agrabah, and his wisecracking parrot assistant, Iago (Gilbert Gottfried), are waiting for a petty thief who has stolen half of an asp that bring forth the head of a panther whose mouth opens to the Cave of Wonders (Frank Welker), in which lies a magical oil lamp.

Jafar offers to let the thief keep all the treasure inside in exchange for retrieving the lamp. The thief’s attempt fails as the cave swallows him whole, but the voice from within tells them that only a “Diamond in the Rough” can enter.

We’re shown this “diamond in the rough”, Aladdin (Scott Weinger), a “street rat” who is being chased by authorities for stealing a loaf of bread. His only pal is his pet monkey Abu (Frank Welker), who helps him escape as he runs through the marketplace and up on the rooftops. But once he’s safe, this thief shows he has a heart of gold and gives his hard-won food to some starving street urchins.

Meanwhile, the Sultan's daughter, Jasmine (Linda Larkin), is frustrated with her life in the palace. She is tired of her father’s (Douglas Seale) attempts to find her a prince for a husband and flees to Agrabah's marketplace. There she meets Aladdin and the two begin a friendship. Jafar has Aladdin arrested. When Jasmine orders him released, Jafar lies and tells her Aladdin has already been executed.

In the disguise of an elder, Jafar releases Aladdin and Abu from the dungeon and leads them to the Cave of Wonders, promising a reward in return for retrieving the lamp. This time the cave allows them to enter but warns Aladdin to not touch anything but the lamp. They discover a magic flying carpet, but it is Abu’s attempt to steal a gem that causes the cave to collapse. The carpet flies them back to the entrance and Aladdin delivers the lamp to Jafar. His reward is that Jafar tries to kill him. Once again, Abu comes to Aladdin’s aide and thwarts Jafar, stealing back the lamp just as he, the carpet, and Aladdin fall back into the closing cave.

Aladdin frees the Genie (Robin Williams) from the lamp.

Aladdin rubs the lamp and unexpectedly unleashed Genie (Robin Williams), who reveals he will grant Aladdin three wishes with the exception of murder, romance, the revival of the dead or additional wishes. But Aladdin is clever and tricks the genie into magically freeing them from the cave without actually using one of his wishes. Genie tells Aladdin that he won’t receive any more magic help unless he explicitly states "I wish". While contemplating his wishes, Genie tells him he would wish for freedom, since he is a prisoner to his lamp. Aladdin promises to free Genie as his last wish. Aladdin’s first wish is to become a prince so he would have a chance to win Jasmine’s heart.

Jafar using mind control on the Sultan (Douglas Seale).

Meanwhile, Jafar uses mind control on the Sultan and convinces him to arrange a marriage between himself and Jasmine. Jafar then would have legal claim to become Sultan himself. But before he is able to succeed, Aladdin appears and parades into the Sultan's palace as "Prince Ali Ababwa". While the Sultan is impressed by the new suitor, Jasmine rejects Ali.

Aladdin takes Jasmine (Linda Larkin) on a magic carpet ride.

The Genie suggests to Aladdin to tell the princess who he really is, but Aladdin keeps up the act and takes Jasmine around the world on the magic carpet. Jasmine begins to suspect that Ali is actually the man she met in the marketplace and during the trip tricks Aladdin into admitting it. She demands the truth from Aladdin, but instead, he fabricates a story about sometimes dressing as a commoner to escape palace life. The couple kisses as Aladdin returns her home.

The Genie tries to convince Aladdin to tell Jasmine the truth.

Afterward, Aladdin is kidnapped and thrown into the ocean by Jafar, who makes a second attempt to arrange a marriage. Genie rescues Aladdin as his second wish, even though he can’t say the magic words himself. Aladdin returns to the palace and exposes Jafar's plot to the Sultan. After noticing the lamp in Aladdin's possession and realizing who Aladdin is, Jafar flees.

Despite his promise, Aladdin has second thoughts about freeing Genie with his third wish. He believes without Genie he is "just Aladdin". Meanwhile, Iago steals the lamp and brings it to Jafar. Now that he is the Genie's new master, Jafar uses his first two wishes to usurp the Sultan's throne and become the most powerful sorcerer in the world, enslaving Jasmine and the Sultan and exposing Aladdin as a street rat, before exiling him and Abu to a frozen wasteland.

Using the magic carpet, Aladdin and Abu return to the palace and Aladdin tries to sneak in and steal back the lamp. Jafar proposes using his third wish to make Jasmine his queen, but Genie protests that he cannot grant that wish since it involves love. Jasmine, however, has decided to feign interest in Jafar, allowing Aladdin to make a grab at the lamp. But Aladdin gets caught and has to battle Jafar, who turns himself into an enormous cobra and traps Aladdin.

Jafar claims to be "the most powerful being on Earth", to which Aladdin argues that Genie is more powerful. Jafar uses his final wish to become a genie himself without realizing genies are not free. As he is sucked into a lamp of his own, he drags Iago with him. The Genie sends Jafar's lamp flying into the Cave of Wonders.

Despite Genie’s urging, Aladdin doesn’t use his third wish to become Prince Ali again. Instead, he keeps his promise and frees Genie. Upon seeing his daughter’s love for Aladdin, the Sultan changes the law to allow her to marry whomever she wants. The newly free Genie leaves to explore the world while Aladdin and Jasmine celebrate their engagement.

Genie goes out to explore the world.

Like most of the films of the Disney Renaissance, Aladdin is a wannabe musical. Fourteen songs were written for the movie, though only six were actually used. All the music for the film was written by Alan Menken, with Howard Ashman and Tim Rice providing lyrics; the latter replacing Ashman after he died of AIDS in 1991. For the most part, the voice actors in the film do not sing their parts. The exception is Robin Williams, who is prominently featured on two of the movie’s songs: “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali”. The former was recently used in a sing-along tribute to Williams on Broadway. (Aladdin was turned into a musical, which opened on Broadway in 2014, after playing other venues for about three years prior.) The movie would win two Academy Awards: Best Music, Original Score, and Best Music, Original Song for “A Whole New World” and another nomination for “A Friend Like Me.”

Robin Williams also voices the Narrator of the story.

Despite his billing, Williams is the star of the movie. Known for his manic improvisational style of humor, the film seems to take advantage of Williams’ ability to change his voice and accent at the drop of a hat. During the song “Prince Ali”, Williams is called upon to be a woman swooning over the prince, a small boy in the crowd as well as commentators treating the princely parade as if it were the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day or Tournament of Roses Parade. The film even seems to incorporate his ability to mimic other actors and personalities including Jack Nicholson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rodney Dangerfield, Ed Sullivan, and Peter Lorre. Likely, because it is an animated film, many other improvisations and impersonations never made it to celluloid, but in so many ways Aladdin showcases Williams’ versatility.

Robin Williams impersonates Jack Nicholson amongst others.

For a number of reasons, the film was a huge success grossing over $500 million on a budget of $28 million. This is mostly hand-drawn animation, but there are CGI elements and Pixar Animation, then it’s own independent studio does receive a credit. The film’s success spun off two direct-to-video sequels, The Return of Jafar (1994) and Aladdin and the King of Thieves (1996). On the first, Williams was replaced by Dan Castellaneta, who is best known as the voice of Homer Simpson.

After his performance as Genie, Williams had a falling out with Disney. Having done his voice work for scale out of gratitude for his success in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Williams only had a couple of conditions. First, neither his name nor image could be used to promote the film and his character from the film could not take up more than 25% of the image on a poster. He had another movie, Toys (1992), scheduled for release a few weeks after Aladdin’s release and didn’t want to be in competition with himself. But Disney went back on both of Williams’ conditions.

When Disney wanted to make a trilogy out of the story (three is a magic number in Hollywood), Castellaneta was hired to voice the Genie in The Return of Jafar and the animated television series which followed. However, a change in studio management and a subsequent apology from the then-new studio head Joe Roth brought Williams back for Aladdin and the King of Thieves. Even though Castellaneta had already recorded the Genie part, his work was replaced by Williams.

Even though the film might be aimed at children, this is definitely a film the whole family (meaning adults) can enjoy, too. While there are definitely some dark elements at play (Jafar), the comedic elements are its equal thanks in large part to Williams’ performance. Like most films from the Disney Renaissance, I would highly recommend this film. You may even find yourself watching this film more than once.

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