Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Disney is an odd beast. On one hand, pop in a DVD of one of their movies, and it becomes immediately apparent that they are a coldly commercial operation, using their brand to sell all manner of irredeemable garbage - including the awful direct to DVD sequels to this movie, Aladdin - to their constant attempts to squeak every dollar out of every film they make. On the other hand, they also happen to have earned that brand, by making some of the most beloved children's films of all time.

Aladdin, for example, came during an era when Disney had rediscovered how to make really good movies. The Littlest Mermaid, the Lion King and especially Beauty of the Beast managed to bring the Disney brand back to the forefront, win awards, and be genuinely fantastic films all at the same time. Not for 30 years had Disney had a winning streak like they did in the early 90s.

They did this by finding a good formula, which they use more often than not (though I think The Lion King avoided it). First step was finding a love story, often involving a headstrong young woman, an enraptured young man, someone evil and a bunch of magic on the periphery. So, we have princess Jasmine, who won't marry anyone even though it's an archaic law. In comes Aladdin, who lives on the street. Evil someone Jafar needs him to get a magic genie lamp for reasons that aren't entirely clear, and with the lamp Aladdin gets Robin Williams to grant him three wishes, mostly devoted to getting laid. Oh, and there's lots of catchy music, so buy the soundtrack, since it's Disney and your experience is not complete without an assortment of merchandise (ironically, the film opens with a man selling crap. Way to get back at corporate!)

Yeah, it's a formula, but Disney is really good at the formula. They've won Oscars with that formula, made millions of dollars, and then it helped them basically become the most irrelevant part of their own studio after Pixar figured out how to work outside it. It works here because you've got a hero and heroine that you root for, and Disney's so adept at making animation that you care. The animation here is beautiful, expressive and detailed. The visual gags keep it interesting and it's clear the studio gives a crap about the look of the film. This is good.

What isn't good, in this case, is how annoying the picture is. The blame for this can be placed squarely on two men - though the casting director who put them in the roles isn't innocent either. First, Gilbert Gottfried as Iago. On one hand, the voice suits the character, a slightly obnoxious evil parrot. On the other hand, Gilbert Gottfried sounds like a cat being assaulted while being dragged across a blackboard. He has the worst voice in the world, and should find a nice career where he never has to talk again. Nothing against the man, he's cursed with that sound, but god he should have been a mime or something.

Second, Robin Williams as the genie. Robin Williams can be a good actor, this is in the realm of possibility. Unfortunately, he's often allowed to go off and do a million impressions and wacky voices in a breathless free-associative ramble with the slightest encouragement. Some people find this amusing, I find it very annoying, and it's what he does here, with the help of animation to give a visual accompaniment. It is like what I imagine Robin Williams' head to be like, all flashing neon, bizarre pop culture cues and enough voices to fill a large sized truck. I hate it when that happens, and I found myself getting quite tired of the Genie's shtick very early on.

For a kids movie you can do worse, and it does have that trademark really beautiful animation to fall back on - plus, not every scene features the genie, which is nice. But, for a kids movie, even limiting yourself to Disney movies of the same era, you can also do a lot better.

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