We’ve all got swords.
I forgot how refreshingly simple Aladdin is. Disney and Pixar utilize such elaborate narrative set-ups today that their films don’t rely on charm and fun alone anymore. That’s not to say this one does since its ability to put its hero and heroine on equal footing rather than blindly relegating the latter into mere “love interest” status is very effective for this era. But you wouldn’t be blamed for having a good time with Robin Williams‘ manic impressions regardless of the plot his larger-than-life presence augments either. Without worrying about sequel potential (two direct-to-DVD releases were inevitably made) or overwrought emotional weight, the desire to let love survive between two strong yet compassionate souls struggling to be themselves despite the world inconveniently getting in the way ultimately prevails.
It wasn’t always this way, though. Howard Ashman‘s original treatment supposedly stayed very true to the story from One Thousand and One Nights. From there changes were demanded, revisions were made (with Linda Woolverton earning a “pre-production story development” credit for introducing elements of “The Thief of Baghdad”), and eventually Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio molded it into what was shot by directors Ron Clements and John Musker. Ashman wrote some songs with Alan Menken before passing away during production wherein Tim Rice came onboard to fill his shoes (Ashman and Rice have three tracks each included in the final film)—a soundtrack one could argue was more popular than the movie itself. It all came together to deliver a modern animated classic for the entire family.
The plot goes as follows: the evil Jafar (Jonathan Freeman) seeks unchecked power to ascend from his position as vizier to a throne currently occupied by the genial and highly malleable Sultan (Douglas Seale). To do so he must find the fabled Cave of Wonders and claim the genie’s lamp at its center so his three wishes can seize control. He’s on a clock, though, since suitors from all across the globe have begun courting Princess Jasmine (Linda Larkin). If she marries, her husband will become the next sultan and Jafar’s dreams would be officially dashed. The only person who can acquire the lamp is a so-called “diamond in the rough” and it just so happens that the boy (Scott Weinger‘s Aladdin) is already positioned to ruin everything.
He’s a street urchin stealing to survive alongside best friend Abu (a monkey). We revel in his enthusiasm to wreak havoc on the palace guards and always prevail, but we also commend his charity upon giving the bread he hoped to eat to two starving children instead. This miscreant is therefore shown to have a worthy heart—one granting him access to the Cave of Wonders and Jasmine’s good graces as an example of everything the pompous rich kids who’ve sought her hand in marriage are not. His empathy wins over the lamp’s genie (Williams) too with a genuine promise to set the latter free with his final wish. Genie uses magic to get Aladdin in the door, but the boy must be true to himself to remain.
That’s of course easier said than done for someone who has only known poverty. This newfound celebrity following him around goes to his head as he spends too much effort adhering his image to a law that states the princess can only marry a prince rather than to the person he is inside that Jasmine has already fallen for. She becomes the perfect foil to his insecurities by proving herself to be the most confident character of them all—a feat considering how effortless Jafar is in his nefarious dealings alongside trusted parrot Iago (Gilbert Gottfried). The plot becomes a product of their disparate motivations colliding until those who’d willingly give up a chance at ruling can prevail over those who’d do anything to possess it.
And there’s absolutely no filler. The film starts with Jafar laying out his plan, continues with Aladdin and Jasmine revealing their true selves, and carries into a suspenseful magic carpet ride through the horror of a collapsing sand cave to place everyone in position for their subsequent collision at the palace. Genie gets a long leash to be wild and crazy in the margins, but his antics never bloat Aladdin’s trajectory. If anything this fun makes us fall in love with him enough so that Jafar’s logical chance at being his master causes honest sadness about the result. We don’t want Genie’s happy-go-lucky persona to be chained by this villain’s antagonistic whims and yet the power he provides makes us question whether things will ever be put right.
This uncertainty is helped by some truly scary set pieces from the deep-voiced tiger-headed cave to the sorcery of an unstoppable Jafar. We therefore need the more sentimental moments like Aladdin and Jasmine flying through the skies to “A Whole New World” and the Genie’s show-stopping “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” filling the frame with infectious humor and unbridled delight. Even Gottfried’s Iago proves a crucial cog to the whole, his angrily acerbic wit complementing Jafar’s calmly severe duplicity. Add a sprinkle of the Sultan’s bumbling innocence and Carpet, Abu, and Rajah’s (Jasmine’s pet tiger) mostly silent expressiveness and you realize you could spend hours with these larger-than-life characters facing real world problems beneath the façade of a gender-swapped, Disney-fied happily ever after from street to castle.
That the music endures and the animation astounds only adds to the film’s legacy since watching it today is just as entrancing as it was in 1992. Yes, its politics are glossed over and oftentimes used to progress the narrative via increased emotion whether humor (a citizen threatening to cut off Jasmine’s hand for stealing before Aladdin makes a fool of him) or tragedy (Jasmine believing Aladdin was beheaded for his criminal activities). And yes, its whitewashing of Middle Eastern culture is exaggerated by appropriation. But its core theme of never compromising your identity beneath appearances shines through boldly enough to pull the audience’s attention away from what’s missing to embrace what’s present. I actually feel nostalgia for when America reduced the region to “exotic” rather than “terrorism.”