Boy Wonders

Originally published on November 30, 1992 | New York Magazine | written by David Denby

I think even children may sense that the real subject of Aladdin, the new Disney animated feature film, is not the boy who rubbed a magic lamp and got three wishes but the wish-granting pleasures of show business itself. The movie is so filled with grinning references to television, movies, and old Disney films that it's practically a celebration of the magic-carpet ride of modern entertainment. Before we start lamenting this latest bit of technological sophistication (postmodernism for 5-year-olds), we had better remind ourselves that Disney animated features were never in any sense "pure." Anyway, it may now be impossible to do the Aladdin tale without teasing the story.

Teasing is certainly what you get. Cultural historians will note that Disney has brazenly violated recent barriers of taste and cultural respect and has filled the movie with the ripest of Hollywood's "Arab" clichés. Aladdin begins with an Alan Menken-Howard Ashman number ("Arabian Nights"), a bit of neo-Old Broadway in which a crooked bazaar salesman introduces us to his hometown ("They cut off your ear if they don't like your face"), quickly succeeded by a passel of scimitar-waving guards and girls with dancing belly buttons, tiny waists, and ripe breasts just barely covered. Reviewers have referred knowingly to the elegant Thief of Baghdad, but I would say the Arabism here is more on the level of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

And then Robin Williams comes along and saves the movie from possible embarrassment. Aladdin, a butch little street thief, gets hold of the lamp and rubs it by accident, and out pops an expansive blue genie who speaks in the voice of Williams. In a regular movie, Williams is always a bit uncomfortable -- you sense that he's artificially slowing himself down. But if Robin Williams's delivery goes faster than the minds of mere mortals, it doesn't go faster than animated movement. As the genie introduces himself in the number "Friend Like Me," Williams runs through a battery of impressions and impersonations, almost a history of show business, and the genie takes different forms, circling around Aladdin, a swelling blue demon. Robin Williams, of course, is a genie, a granter of wishes who has an endless desire to please and can do anything. But because each of his inventions is now embodied, his mind -- for all its speed -- seems more substantial than ever before.

Williams leads a group of fine voices, including that of Jonathan Freeman as Jafar, the elegantly sadistic vizier, and Gilbert Gottfried as Iago, Jafar's irritable parrot. I was also impressed by the wide emotional range of the material, from the scary descent into the gullet of a desert monster to a blissful, globe-hopping ride on a magic carpet. In their recent run of phenomenally lucrative animated features, the Disney people have gone as far as professionalism, good humor, and commercial calculation can take them. To make still better animated films, they would have to recapture something like innocence, and for this group of Hollywood artisans, innocence may no longer be possible. At least they make the most of their fallen state.


Wall of Tributes >