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Disney's Got a Brand-New Baghdad

The ''Aladdin'' gamble -- Disney takes a chance on a thoroughly modern approach to its new cartoon

Heroes get mowed down by cars and pop right up again. Villains get conked on the noggin, shake off the damage, and blunder on. Lately, Hollywood's biggest live-action movies, like Lethal Weapon 3 and Home Alone 2, seem to unfold in a cartoon universe. Funny thing is, exactly the opposite transformation has just been accomplished at the movie studio that virtually owns the cartoon franchise. With Aladdin, its 31st animated feature, Disney has drawn up a blockbuster that aspires to look and sound, more than any of its past cartoon films, like a ''real,'' contemporary movie for grown-ups.

The wide Thanksgiving-weekend release of Aladdin marks Disney's most aggressive effort yet to engineer the cross-generational appeal that can make the difference between a solid hit and one for the record books. The film's cast of characters, from a homeless, hormone-driven-teen-hunk leading lad (think Persia, 90210) to a sexually aware, proto-feminist princess to a father anxious about his advancing age, have cares and concerns that will be inscrutable to young children. Moreover, the film polishes off the storybook timelessness of past Disney fables and substitutes topicality, with lines and situations that take satirical swipes at America's pop-culture landscape, including game shows, recent movie hits, TV commercials, even presidential politics (one power-mad character croons, ''Read my lips and come to grips with reality'').

Building on the happy hey-this-isn't-just-for-kids response to 1989's The Little Mermaid and last year's Best Picture Oscar nominee Beauty and the Beast, Disney clearly sees Aladdin as a chance to lock up that new appeal — and the studio knows it has the perfect lure in Robin Williams' vocal turn as the Genie, a big, blue, lamp-dwelling landmark in 'toon history.

While other animated films have mirrored the adult world with caricatures of famous figures (like Garbo and Hitler in the old Warner Bros. shorts), — Aladdin expands the trick exponentially with Williams' mimicry. At the drop of a straight line — any line, really — the actor's uncorked alter ego contorts into impersonations of such boomer-generation icons as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Arsenio Hall, Groucho Marx (in black and white), Robert De Niro, Peter Lorre, and William F. Buckley Jr., who shows up to explain a few Latinate limitations on Aladdin's wishes.

If it were up to Disney's artists, directors, and story people, Aladdin would be even more boldly irreverent than it is, but they don't run the place. That falls to micromanager Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was hired to oversee the studio's film and television division in 1985 and within a few years had settled on feature animation as his overriding passion.

While Katzenberg nourishes his staff's desire to show off for a more mature audience, he's also not about to abandon Disney's base: the little ones (an Aladdin Saturday-morning TV series is already under way, sans Williams). Keeping close tabs on producer-directors John Musker and Ron Clements (last teamed for The Little Mermaid), Katzenberg has seen to it that the feature-length Aladdin tempers the shock of the new with doses of the tried and true.

''Jeffrey's real fear was, 'This is going to turn into a Saturday Night Live skit,''' says Clements. So for every wild Williams riff — or acidic aside from the villain's parrot (whose voice is provided by comedian Gilbert Gottfried) — there's a kid-pleasing element that proved successful in Mermaid and Beast: the carny pizzazz of big production numbers, the toy-box allure of lovable, diminutive supporting characters — the kind so useful for whipping up sentiment (not to mention sales of tie-in toys). And in the person of Jafar, an anorexic vizier in a scythe-sharp getup, Aladdin honors the most enduring Disney tradition of all: a hissably vain villain.

Yet even with these trusty ingredients wrapped around Aladdin, Katzenberg insists that the up-to-date comedy at the core of the film has him in a flop sweat.

''It's been four years of such constant effort, my eyes are blurry,'' he says. ''There's no perspective yet. And as enthusiastic as everybody is, there's this unassuming thing we're up against called Home Alone 2.'' Nobody at the studio likes being reminded that when it faced off with Twentieth Century Fox's Home Alone in November 1990, Disney's cartoon adventure The Rescuers Down Under pretty much bombed, earning only $28 million in theaters.

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