Robin Williams helps a genie out of the bottle and it steals 'Aladdin'

MOVIE REVIEW

November 25, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Aladdin" conjures up a story Scheherazade wouldn't have thought up in 2,002 Arabian nights. For how could even the world's greatest storyteller have imagined a Robin Williams?

Is this a man or a spirit or a deeply dysfunctional human being? Like, maybe he is a genie. That certainly would explain the endless torrentof personality that seems to gush through his presence, on screen or off, the literally unbelievable way in which he takes up and puts down new voices, rhythms and world views within the confines of a single sentence or two.

Thus the big news in "Aladdin" is all Robin Williams. In fact, the movie might be considered something of a gimmick, a technical trick, in which the challenge was simple and daunting: Could the Disney animators stay with Williams through all the hairpin curves of his vocal performance?

The answer is a thunderous YES. The movie has been conceived pretty much as a showcase for Williams and the boys with the pens. It doesn't begin to compare to the deeper and more resonant Disneys of the near or far past, such as "Beauty and the Beast" or "Snow White." The animation itself is lighter, wispier, sketchier; the colors don't boast that deeply felt luster of the old masters; the settings lack detail. The character visualizations are all unremarkable. The music is spirited but unmemorable. It's as if they've cleared out the clutter to make room for Williams, much in the way the 76ers used to pull to one side of the court to let the Doctor (Julius Erving) operate.

The story is piffle: Aladdin, an innocuous but spirited camel boy in the mythical city of Agrabah, meets and falls in love with Princess Jasmine, who is disappointed in the prospects of her impending marriage. He's then manipulated into recovering the long-lost lamp in a dangerous (and brilliantly animated) cave, but retains possession and unleashes the Williams genie.

This is a large blue apparition that originally appears in the guise of a grumpy Jewish delicatessen owner and quickly enough has pretty much run the gamut of the available: at one point he segues effortlessly into a version of Jack Nicholson and then Peter Lorre. He is truly the world -- black, white, male, female, famous, obscure, he just rifles through the known permutations of human flesh at the speed of light.

The Disney boys stick to him all the way. It's like watching a kaleidoscopic presentation of vaguely human shapes, as he permutes quicker than mercury, louder than a skyrocket. It's one of those out-of-scale performances that all but drives the movie around it into blur.

The central problem, of course, is that in making the tale "hip," the Disney team has removed it from its roots in fairy tale and, thus, its wellsprings of unconscious meaning. It has no mythical resonance. Is this necessarily a disaster? Not really. It's shallow as a puddle, but lots o' fun.

'ALADDIN'

Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements.

Released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Rated G.

*** 1/2

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