Judge Joel Pearce has recurring nightmares about being trapped in a lamp with Robin Williams.
"Like so many things it is not what is outside, but what is inside that counts." -Merchant
At the time of its release, Aladdin was a bit of an oddity in the Disney canon. Instead of calling on European fairy tales and folk legends, it instead used a tale from the Arabian Nights as a source. It didn't sacrifice the main elements that had worked so well in The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, but the success of a different look and story source paved the way for The Lion King, Hercules and Mulan.
In some ways, Aladdin hasn't aged quite as well as some of the others mentioned above. It is still grand animated entertainment, though, and this new disc from Disney is a great way to experience it.
Facts of the Case
I'm not sure how necessary this section will be. A young street urchin named Aladdin gets caught up in a serious mess when he is chosen as a "diamond in the rough," the only one who can collect a magical lamp that houses an all-powerful genie. He also manages to fall in love with the princess Jasmine, who refuses to accept the pressure of choosing a husband within the next few days. After Aladdin becomes a prince in order to be eligible to marry her, he manages to win her affections, but he still isn't willing to risk telling her the truth about his true background.
Aladdin has everything that we have come to expect from Disney's top-end production studio. The highlight is the slick, detailed animation, which has a slightly different look than past offerings, but never fails to impress. The backdrops have a remarkable look, with a wider range of colors than are usually shown in Disney animated productions. The characters are consistent and detailed, and each of them oozes with personality. Aladdin also has several wonderful action sequences; the chase through the cave of wonders and the Arctic scene towards the end are two of the most exciting moments in the Disney canon.
Of course the fantastic animation would mean nothing if it wasn't part of a solid story with well-written characters. The story of Aladdin is brilliantly crafted, as the funny yet intriguing opening with the caravan merchant sweeps us into a world of magic and adventure. This is not a fairy tale, as so many Disney films had been to that point, but it certainly has a similar tone. The morals of the story—don't judge a book by its cover and always tell the truth—are only occasionally presented in a heavy-handed way. Most of the time, they fit seamlessly into the plot. The characters are all colorful and memorable as well, belonging perfectly in this exotic world.
Although the film is called Aladdin, the central character is unquestionably the Genie. This highly improvisational performance by Robin Williams was the beginning of a major shift in tone for future Disney films, and with good reason. Genie tosses out a steady stream of pop-culture references with which the animators just barely manage to keep pace. You could watch the film several times in a row and still not absorb everything that happens with the character. Although some of the references aren't as fresh as they were in the early '90s (Arsenio Hall for instance), kids will be entertained by the energy and physical humor of the genie, while adults will laugh at all the references that are flying over their children's heads.
Most of the other characters are well-designed as well. Aladdin is probably the least developed of the major characters, but he does the job that is set out for him. Jasmine makes a fine addition to the list of strong female protagonists that appeared during that period of Disney history, and makes a great contrast to the passive princesses of earlier folk stories. Jafar and Iago make delightful baddies, with Iago's humor softening the fact that Jafar was probably the creepiest kid's movie villain since Cruella DeVille. I find the Sultan extremely funny as well, in a way that's much more subtle than many of the other elements of the film.
I am sure you don't need me to tell you how good the film is, though. What you really want to know is whether this disc is worth the upgrade from your old, worn out VHS copy. I am pleased to inform you that it is.
As with the other Disney platinum editions, the transfer of Aladdin is simply gorgeous. The anamorphic image, presented in the original ratio of 1.66:1, handles every challenge presented by the animation team with ease. Animation in general isn't the easiest thing to transfer to DVD, and this particular film contains some extra difficulties. There are many scenes with vivid red placed against dim blue backgrounds, which would have spelled disaster for most DVD transfers a few years ago. Here, however, it's impossible to find even the slightest flaw. The colors are represented perfectly, there are no signs of digital artifacts or edge enhancement, and the black level is really black.
The sound is great, too. The disc features one of the Disney "home theater" remixes, much like the one recently included on The Lion King. If you have a 5.1 setup, it's definitely the track of choice. It makes heavy use of the surrounds and subwoofer, but never lets things get too carried away. If you find that track to be a little too active, the original 5.1 track is also included.
And then there are the special features. As expected from a Disney special edition, there are a lot of these, some appealing to children and others directed at those of us who like to know about the inner workings of an animation studio.
I will begin with the extras on the first disc. First up are several deleted songs, to which the producers still have a strong emotional attachment. Alan Menkin's demo tracks are included. Many of these are slower songs, and would have slowed the film down significantly. It's interesting, though, to see that Aladdin's mother was originally supposed to be a character in the film, but was eventually cut out completely. There are also a pair of deleted scenes, which are shown through the production sketches. They look pretty rough, but I love seeing the huge decisions that need to be made during production.
Next up are a couple music videos. One features Clay Aiken singing the excised Proud of Your Boy, which sounds far too much like The Little Mermaid to have fit in with this film. There are some background featurettes as well. Clay sings it well, though, which is more than I can say for the duet between Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey. The singing is pretty annoying, and the video is poorly produced. There are some interviews with the two of them, which are actually pretty funny. The original music video is here as well. Although it's a bit dated, it at least features a couple of good singers. For those who just can't get enough of the music, there is also the option to jump to any of the songs in the film with the lyrics on-screen. Just don't tell your six year old…
The other major features on the first disc are the commentary tracks, one with some of the producers and another with a few of the animators. The producer track is full of fascinating details, filling out information about decisions that were made and some entertaining stories. Considering that the film was made over a decade ago, they remember a surprising number of details. The animator commentary is, as expected, a good deal more geeky. They make lame jokes, describe what's on the screen, and all of those things that we love. There are a number of good contributions as well—but they have a lot of animators to mention, and it tends to get a little repetitive.
The second disc is loaded up too. First on the menu is a games and activities section. The first of these is a "Search for Jasmine" game featuring a number of characters from other Disney movies. It has some passable 3D animation, but it's not especially interactive. Next is a tour of the genie's lamp. Very annoying, but the kids may like it. The third game is the wishes game, where you can play the game and maybe make a wish if you are lucky. (Mine didn't come true, but that's another story.) The last game is the genie world tour, showing where the genie has gone after being freed. I guess even Disney didn't think this was sequel material.
The real meat of the second disc is in the backstage section, which is built around a two hour documentary on the making of Aladdin. The documentary, as expected, is aimed towards younger viewers, but it has slick production values and includes a number of interesting sections. It's broken up into small segments, which can be explored in several ways, so if you are interested in the animation process you don't have to sit through half an hour of interviews with the voice actors. There's quite a bit of good material, and not a whole lot of stupid studio fluff. If you are a fan of the film, check it out.
The other large section on the second disc is a documentary on Alan Menkin, which is entitled "Musical Renaissance Man"—high praise indeed. While the previous documentary was a pretty straight look at the making of Aladdin, this one is quite self-congratulatory. And now I have Be My Guest in my head. Thanks a lot. The section dealing with Howard Ashman's sickness is touching, though. There was something about the Disney films of this period, and some of that needs to be attributed to the musical theater elements that were ported in by these men.
The final section is some art from the film and publicity material, which shows how much work goes into the creation of the look of an animated film before real production even starts, as well as how much needs to be worked on even after the film is complete.
There's no denying it—that's a whole ton of extra material to sift through. No matter how old you are, the disc has worthwhile things to explore.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Great family film or not, I would not be able to write this review without at least mentioning my own issues with Disney's treatment of international folk legends. Aladdin is, at its core, an Arabian folk legend. In the original tale, Aladdin was an irresponsible youth who was chosen to get the lamp because of his laziness, and who picked up some ambition when he fell in love with the princess. Essentially, Disney manages to shift this story into a proclamation of the American dream. Aladdin becomes an unfortunate street urchin, separated from high society but capable of advancing through honesty and his own effort. The whole society makes a shift towards democracy at the end when the Sultan changes the rules for marrying the princess. I'm not arguing whether or not this is a good story, simply that it is not really an adaptation of the original story. I felt the same way when Hercules became a retelling of the Christ story. Disney's animated films will only become as good as they can be once they start to respect the cultures from which they mine their stories.
The complaints that I raised really are minor ones in this case. No matter how you look at it, Aladdin is a very fun family film that can now be enjoyed on a better format for a new generation. And for the rest of us, too, because I think that anyone who grew up with this film will want to check it out on this disc.
Technical perfection, oodles of extras and a fun film. Aladdin freed the genie, I'm freeing the disc, and you can feel free to pick up this cool new special edition.
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