Unfairly, 1992’s Aladdin had to live up to the new standards set by Beauty and the Beast, and although it’s a lesser film artistically it was sufficiently entertaining and colourful enough to be considered an instant classic. It’s the first Disney film to mine a non-Western public domain mythology, and with terrific elements like genies and magic lamps and flying carpets, it’s surprising it took them this long to get around to it.

Is it racist? Obviously it couldn’t be made today without being a lot more loaded. Disney always attracts criticism when it attempts to do something non-Caucasian (just look at The Princess and the Frog), and while Aladdin portrays the citizens of ‘Agrabah’ as grotesque and bumbling, it’s not malicious, it’s just kind of a dumb film. Lazily, it conflates Arabia, India, China and Egypt together, and gives some One Thousand and One Nights stereotypes a good workout. The hero and heroine are the least Arabic-looking of the characters, but at least they’re brown! Browner than the usual depiction of that famous Galilee citizen, Jesus.

The villain Jafar is a hypnotist like Kaa from The Jungle Book and Sir Hiss from Robin Hood, and resembles in silhouette the splendid Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. Another saturnine, slightly effeminate schemer with a little beard. Just to spell it out, his parrot sidekick is named Iago, one of several apparently random Shakespearian references and quotations. Aladdin and Princess Jasmine also each get an animal sidekick. In fact, if you added an anti-religion subtext you’d get Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

The character design is supposedly based on the curvy lines of caricaturist Al Hirschfeld*, but this is really only apparent in the contortions of Robin Williams’s Genie. The Genie steals every scene (not always in a good way) with exuberant but anachronistic impersonations. Ironically, after 18 years some of these anachronisms are pretty dated. The exuberance of the Genie, and the increased scope for action afforded by the character of the flying carpet, helps detract from the lack of character development, one of the strengths of Beast. Building on the technical innovations of that film, Aladdin has further integration of traditionally-animated characters into computer-animated environments. There’s also subtle use of CG in the digital mapping of the flying carpet’s pattern, something which would’ve been a lot harder to do in ink and paint.

The songs are witty, if inconsequential, with Howard Ashman’s last work for Disney (before his death) augmented by Tim Rice, who would feature in The Lion King. It’s still Broadway, but that template starts to look a little strained when imposed on an atmospheric Arabian Nights setting. The days of that specific style were numbered.

*The excellent Rhapsody in Blue sequence of Fantasia 2000 is also an extended homage to Hirschfeld.


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