The Lion King was the Disney film that dominated my childhood, but right alongside it was its immediate predecessor, Aladdin. And because it was one I watched as a child, it was only later that it struck me how very bizarre a film this is. It’s unlike other Disney films, unlike other comedies of the period, unlike other musicals and visually extremely bold. And key to it all is Robin Williams and the free reign he was given to put his hyperactive brand of improvised comedy on tape.
Released in 1992, it came during a strong period for Disney, in the wake of success stories like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. This was also when I was a happy child consumer, so I not only had the video tape and the songbook, but the tricky SNES game and, when it came out, the slightly-above-average video sequel The Return of Jafar.
Aladdin was familiar to me through the pantomime interpretations of the Arabian Nights story: thus I felt a bit surprised when I first saw this. I expected a Chinese setting and a rather younger Aladdin. Indeed, early production had Aladdin in his early teens and a mother planned, even if she probably would have resembled Widow Twankey very little. I soon came to see the reinterpretation as I do now: a very wise and intelligent one. The fantasy Arabian setting is a defining point gives the film so much character, and let’s face it, Ala’ ad-Din never sounded very Chinese. Aladdin in the orphan tradition actually manages to be a role model as a loveable rogue, despite ‘gotta steal to eat, gotta eat to live’ not really being very excusable, and as an 18-year-old is much more believable as a romantic lead.
And of course, Robin Williams’ Genie character is what makes this such a bizarre and excellent animation. His freewheeling style is matched perfectly with animation that brings experimentalism back to Disney after a long absence. Having 90s pop culture references and innumerable anachronisms is braver than it might seem in hindsight and could have fallen flat. But it works brilliantly and makes the film unique and startling. I’d rather they hadn’t let Williams do his slightly dubious generic-Arab voice for the turbaned peddler at the start, though. I’ve never been quite comfortable with him.
The plot is simple, the romance mawkish despite excellent songs and the supporting characters obvious, but this film reminded the world Disney could take risks and produce some images with incredible visual flair.