Can the magic of 'Aladdin' endure?

October 01, 1993|By Scott Hettrick | Scott Hettrick,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Many films are not well-received during their initial release an become classics decades later. Others make millions their first time out and fade from memory over time.

I suspect that "Aladdin" may wind up as one of the latter.

The story is based on the tale from "The Arabian Nights" about a street-smart peasant boy named Aladdin who falls in love with a free-spirited princess named Jasmine, whom he cannot legally marry. The adventure begins when he finds a magic lamp from which a genie emerges to grant him three wishes. But he must outwit an evil sorcerer who is masquerading as the loyal assistant of the father of the princess.

The opening minutes are filled with some fantastic animated special effects that find Aladdin on a magic carpet ride that rivals an Indiana Jones adventure and may send younger viewers running to hide behind the couch.

But if "Aladdin" has staying power over the years, it may be due as much to its Academy Award-winning musical score by Alan Menken, Tim Rice and the late Howard Ashman as for the primary element that encouraged audiences to make it the most successful animated feature ever, with more than $215 million in gross box office receipts: the relentless humor of Robin Williams.

Williams, who is the voice of the genie, is hilarious, and he inspired the Disney animators to concoct some wonderful visualizations of his verbal blitzkrieg. But much of the humor is based on references that are so topical, such as Arsenio Hall-like gestures, that one wonders whether they will have any meaning for audiences of tomorrow.

But more than that, "Aladdin" is quite a departure for Disney in that, though it has a warm, fuzzy story, it is primarily a comedy. That is the reverse of most Disney classics, which are fundamentally heartwarming stories that often feature amusing elements, such as "Peter Pan," "101 Dalmatians," "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (a 54-year-old movie that earned another $40 million in its theatrical re-release last summer) and "Beauty and the Beast," which seemed to play more to the mold of the old classics than "Aladdin."

Finally, although audiences will be doubled over with laughter through much of "Aladdin," it is laughter that is more of a comedy-club nature than of cleverly entertaining sight gags, mishaps and cute characters. Compare "Aladdin" to "The Little Mermaid," for instance, and you'll recall a more subtle style of amusement in the form of a stressed-out little crab named Sebastian, and even in the eminently more singable reggae songs, each lyric and each note filled with clever charm. Although they're fun to watch, few people left the theater singing the Academy Award-nominated "Prince Ali" and "Friend Like Me." Only the Oscar-winning "A Whole New World" has the timeless elegance of many of the Menken and Ashman collaborations from "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Little Mermaid." In fact, it sounds not unlike the similarly named "Part of Your World" from "The Little Mermaid."

This is actually more of a Robin Williams movie than a Disney movie, with Williams so dominating the film -- even when his character is not on screen -- that it should have been called "Genie" instead of "Aladdin."

In his last animated feature, "Ferngully: The Last Rain Forest," Williams had a smaller role, as a manic bird, and the limited screen time worked well as comic relief without becoming the main attraction. In "Aladdin," that position was filled quite well by comic Gilbert Gottfried as the villain Jafar's evil and cynical bird, Iago, who gets off some of his own great lines.

Whether "Aladdin" joins the likes of "Pinocchio" and "Dumbo" will not be known for some time, but it is certain that at present it is immensely appealing.

Disney is offering the film on video in several configurations, including the standard cassette priced at $24.95, a children's activity kit that includes the movie, a storybook, a bubble lamp and bendable play characters ($34.99) and a limited deluxe collector's edition, featuring the movie, a second videocassette and a book on the making of the film, a numbered lithograph and a compact disc of the soundtrack (price unavailable at press time).

ALADDIN

Walt Disney, $24.99, rated G, 1992

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