Ty Burr
August 16, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Aladdin and the King of Thieves

Current Status
In Season
Robin Williams

We gave it a B

What separates a Disney movie from all the animated flotsam that’s out there? What makes an Aladdin or a Hunchback different from an All Dogs Go to Heaven 2 or a Thumbelina? Aladdin and the King of Thieves, the second and far more entertaining of the company’s original feature cartoons to go directly to home video, begs the question. The Disney Television Animation division, with its lower budgets and second-tier composers and animators, is responsible for the first Aladdin sequel, 1994’s The Return of Jafar, and now King of Thieves, and there’s an unmistakable sense of factory goods here rather than the handcrafted burnish of the Feature Animation department. Jafar and King of Thieves are, simply put, cheaper productions — and quite useful in figuring out whether the Disney touch is a matter of money or inspiration.

The answer, in the case of King of Thieves, is a resounding…both. In purely artistic terms, the new tape is a vast improvement over The Return of Jafar, which, despite its profits (with 10 million copies sold, it’s the best-selling direct-to-video feature of all time), practically had quickie stamped on every image. Jafar was saddled with a weak, curses-foiled-again plot, substandard musical numbers, and, most crippling of all, a big blue Genie voiced by Dan Castellaneta. Nothing against the actor — how can you fault the guy who gave us Homer Simpson? — but there’s only one Robin Williams.

It’s a relief, then, to report that Williams has been coaxed back to the role for this third Aladdin, and his demonic energy boosts King of Thieves above the knockoff level. In a weird way, the shape-shifting Genie may be Williams’ most natural role, since it allows him to channel and parody any number of characters: Here he gets to goof on, among others, Marlon Brando, Tinkerbell, Woody Allen, Forrest Gump, Mrs. Doubtfire, Bing Crosby, Pumbaa, Senor Wences, Ozzie Nelson, Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie, and Bill Paxton in Aliens. At one point, the Genie says he’s having an ”out-of-movie experience,” and that’s the best way to describe Williams’ liberating frenzy: You can feel the synapses forming in your head.

The Genie is a sideshow in King of Thieves, though. The main story concerns Aladdin’s getting to know his long-lost father, Cassim, who, it turns out, is the titular king, of ”Open sesame” fame. He’s a dashing varlet on a lifelong quest for the golden Hand of Midas, and there’s a clear connection to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (John Rhys-Davies, Indy’s man Friday in that film, even does a decent Sean Connery impression as the voice of Cassim). King of Thieves gets sticky as it details the father/son rivalry (a line like ”I’m your son, but I can’t live your life” is better left as subtext, thank you), but at least there’s more emotional substance than in the shallow Jafar.

Where King of Thieves falls short is in sonic and technical oomph. The five new songs, by David Friedman and the Jafar team of Randy Petersen and Kevin Quinn, lack the original film’s Howard Ashman-Alan Menken sparkle (there’s a love duet for Aladdin and Jasmine that’ll clear your rec room in seconds). And despite quality work from Disney’s Japanese and Australian animation outposts, there’s little of the vast, mythic visual sense that made Aladdin soar. It’s not just a matter of lacking the bucks to computer-animate the Magic Carpet’s patterns. One of the final scenes, in which Aladdin, Cassim, Jasmine, and the villainous Sa’luk (voiced by Jerry Orbach) find the Hand of Midas on a huge island situated on the back of an even huger tortoise, misses the head-spinning dazzle of the first movie’s Cave of Wonders sequence. It’s big, all right, but not miraculous. It’s TV instead of the movies. It’s proof, perhaps, that Disney cartoons need to be big — in screen size, in budget, above all in commitment — to be 24-karat Disney. B

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