Those of you expecting the comfy family-sedan ride of Beauty and the Beast are in for a shock-the immensely enjoyable Aladdin roars off the Disney production line like the latest-model sports car. Not that the studio has tampered with its basic blueprint. But Aladdin is suffused with the conscious choice to move away from the fairy timelessness of the instant classics Beauty and The Little Mermaid. Despite a similar setting-the never-never land of the ”Arabian Nights” — the new movie is hipper, faster, more topical.
It’s tempting to ascribe Aladdin’s sense of pell-mell adventure to the studio’s decision to fashion the project around a male lead. Mermaid and Beauty essentially followed their heroines out of Daddy’s house into the world; Aladdin is already there when the movie starts. He’s a ”street rat,” living off his wits in the alleys of mythical Agrabah. There is a link with the earlier movies in Princess Jasmine, a spark plug who meets our hero while spending an incognito day among the commoners. Aladdin and Jasmine fall charmingly in love, but she’s returned to the palace by Jafar, her father’s evil vizier, who sees in Aladdin the prophesied ”diamond in the rough” needed to retrieve a magic lamp from an enchanted Cave of Wonders. The intrepid lad ends up with the lamp, of course, and thereby with the big blue Genie with a franchise in wish fulfillment.
As you can see, we’re already far beyond girl-meets-Beast/girl-loses-Beast/girl-gets-Beast. But Aladdin rarely sacrifices clarity as it rockets along, delivering set piece after set piece of jaw-dropping animation. Technically, the Disney artists have rung several changes. Beauty’s velvety textures have been dropped in favor of flatter, bolder compositions influenced by classic Arab design and the show-biz caricatures of Al Hirschfeld. The colors are richer, at times approaching the dizzy saturation of a Maxfield Parrish painting. Most crucially, there are more showcase scenes featuring computer animation — and a good thing, too; while in concept Aladdin’s flying-carpet escape through a field of molten lava is imitation Indiana Jones, in execution it’s actually an improvement.
Where Aladdin falters — though only in comparison to Beauty and Mermaid — is in the musical numbers, most of which were written in hotcha Broadway style by Alan Menken with his late partner, Howard Ashman (lyricist Tim Rice stepped in to finish the rest). Aladdin’s introductory number, ”One Jump Ahead,” comes at the audience too fast to pick up most of the lyrics; the Genie’s big showstopper, ”Friend Like Me,” isn’t up to Beauty’s ”Be Our Guest” or Mermaid’s ”Under the Sea”; and the love ballad, ”A Whole New World,” is just a bit too lite-FM for these ears.
But the splendidly conceived characters pick up the slack. The film’s publicity notes describe the hero as a mixture of Tom Cruise, Michael J. Fox, and Hammer; he’s not that gruesome, thank God, but is sharp enough to avoid the ”boring hero” trap. Princess Jasmine is the most full-bodied (in every sense) of the new Disney heroines, and bad-guy Jafar comes on like Basil Rathbone as doodled by Gustav Klimt. Surprisingly, with the exception of Jafar’s parrot sidekick (given voice by cranky Gilbert Gottfried), the usual ”familiars” are mute this go-round: Aladdin’s pet monkey, Abu; Jasmine’s pet tiger, Rajah; a frisky, unnamed flying carpet. That they still burst with personality is a tribute to the animators’ art.
Then there’s Robin Williams, who bestrides this movie like — well, like a big blue genie. With the exception of Good Morning, Vietnam, Williams’ live-action films have too often smothered his improvisational genius. Here all bets are off — he’s playing a mythical cartoon, after all — and the madness flows in torrents. It’s as if, by being cut off from his physical body, Williams is free to reach newer and purer levels of gonzo.
Many of the laughs come from Williams’ celebrity impressions, and that’s what gives Aladdin its odd modernity: As Williams skids into a Jack Nicholson imitation, the Genie’s face shifts into the familiar devilish features. The gimmick threatens to turn self-indulgent — Williams also does Schwarzenegger, De Niro, Arsenio, and Ed Sullivan — but it’s a gamble that mostly works (I could have used fewer smug Disney in-jokes, though). Never mind that 20th-century references are out of place in medieval Araby; even if kids don’t know from De Niro, they’ll like the silliness, in the same way that modern viewers of old Warner Bros. cartoons don’t have to know who Fred Allen is to laugh at the caricature. Don’t be fooled: Williams’ impersonations may be ”mere” pop-culture gags, but like everything else about Aladdin, they’re built to last. A