Perhaps you never pondered the racial origins of the Genie from Disney’s Aladdin. Turns out he’s part of an exclusive subset. In extensive documentary material accompanying the film’s DVD debut, composer Alan Menken says he and lyricist Howard Ashman conceived him as a jive-singing Cab Calloway type who’d sound black, even while working blue. Animator Eric Goldberg says he was inspired by Williams’ improvisational Yiddishisms to make Aladdin’s voluminous azure pal Semitic, so that the film might become — subliminally, anyway — a Jewish/Arab buddy picture.
Sammy Davis Jr., eat your late heart out.
Just as the Genie combines two ethnicities, so does the film bridge two eras: Disney’s earnest past (whenever magic-carpet rides command the screen) and animation’s in-jokey future (whenever the Genie riffs on William F. Buckley). For good or ill, this set the stage for ‘toons like Shrek and Shark Tale, with their endless, exhausting pop-culture references. But to recall the exhilaration Aladdin inspired 12 years ago, put on a sleepy ’80s kid pic like Oliver & Company followed by Robin Williams’ freedom-craving puck and you’ll be chanting, Let his people go!
If the ADD-addled Genie puts you in a multitasking mood, fire up either of two filmmaker commentaries while turning on the trivia subtitles. It would’ve been nice if there was even a passing mention of post-release controversies (an Arab-American organization’s protest of an ear-chopping lyric, removed for video; Williams’ onagain, pissed-again relationship with Disney). But archivally minded Aladdin fans will find at least two and seven-eighths of their wishes have come true.