It’s time once again for another UFC, in which I return to a movie I haven’t seen in years and find out just how much (or how little) my thoughts on it have changed over time.
It’s very difficult for me to be critical of a movie that I grew up watching regularly – I probably first watched it before I could talk. It’s one of those movies that I think I still have on VHS somewhere, but I don’t know where, and I don’t know if it’s still playable because I wore it out so thoroughly. The 1991 Beauty and the Beast film is in that category too, and I’ve watched it twice within the past few months, so I can’t help but compare the two. After all, they came out a year apart from one another, and it’s Beauty that is usually considered the masterpiece (even though Aladdin has the more revered directors). So which is the best? Well, both.
Aladdin is the best spectacle. It’s technically and visually better. The animation, colors, and backgrounds in Aladdin are absolutely gorgeous and leave me salivating. I was surprised by just how much the technology changed between the two films, as Aladdin has computer animation that looks surprisingly better than the traditional animation of previous films, even to eyes like mine that usually have a strong preference of hand-drawn animation over computer animation. Now, I’m not just talking about the CGI in the film – although it is shocking just how beautifully that’s integrated into the flatter animation – but I actually mean how the characters are drawn, outlined, and colored in a way more visually pleasing than Belle and Ariel are. The characters move with more fluidity, too, so the Chuck Jones-like visual comedy works better here than it could have in any of Disney’s previous films, and the musical numbers all have an especially glossy flare.
The problem is that the story is weaker. Remember, Aladdin himself is voiced by the boyfriend from Full House, so when he’s in a scene with someone with the charisma of Robin Williams, he doesn’t stand a chance. The romance between Aladdin and Jasmine is entirely different from the romance between Belle and the Beast because … well, Belle and Beast actually develop a real romance, whereas Al and Jasmine are simple character types (and that may be giving them too much credit) who happen to find each other extremely attractive in an instant without reason. It’s honestly quite strange that the movie that manages to make a great, distinct character with a big personality out of something as literally flat as a carpet somehow ended up with a far flatter protagonist. The problem isn’t just the casting though – I think the story depends on Aladdin being a fairly likable character, but he spends most of the movie as a selfish jerk who’s unwilling to free his magical slave until he’s gotten as much out of the magic as possible. The film is filled with similar problems that we just have to overlook in order to buy the story, and the mechanics of the narrative aren’t always as smooth as I would expect from Rossio and Elliott (or from Clements and Musker for that matter). We may hear a lot of talk these days about problems with the narrative of the original Beauty and the Beast, if only so Disney can justify the remake’s existence, but that story manages to make a lot more sense, and have a lot more emotional depth and gripping drama, than Aladdin’s.
I think what’s most surprising about the movie is how adult it is. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised seeing as how the screenwriters behind Shrek and Road to El Dorado worked on this, but this is a bit edgy for a little kiddie film from the ‘90s. I always understood that Jasmine was sexualized to an extent in the film, but I never noticed just how far this movie went with it. Good heavens! This is one reason why I’m so amazed that my parents let me watch it a million times growing up, but the bigger reason is that it addresses a few very real things about the Middle East that I wouldn’t have expected to see in a Disney film. Sure, most of the film’s content is based on stereotypes rather than reality, so it can be kind of uncomfortable to watch 25 years later, but the sultan mentions Allah a heck of a lot. Tell me, if the Bible tells us not to worship other gods, why aren’t Christian parents boycotting this movie instead of the Beauty and the Beast remake?
Returning to the issue of stereotypes, it’s true that the film is basically taking all of The West’s ideas and fantasies about the essence of the Eastern world, cutting out the parts we don’t like, and mixing the rest together into a poignant stew of orientalism, so that’s something fans of the film (such as myself) have to handle somehow. It doesn’t phase me much though. Maybe that’s a moral failing on my part, but I don’t think so. It seems to me that, if someone from another part of the world was to make a children’s film about a kid from another continent getting lost in New York City, the version of New York that was presented would be highly exaggerated and inaccurate. Criminals in trenchcoats would fill the streets, guns would be firing constantly, buildings would reach to the heavens, paperboys would yell from the street-corners, evil businessmen with Trump-like towers would plot to buy the rights to the moon, and every cab driver would ask you with his big cigar and an over-the-top Brooklyn accent, “Where to, Mac?” As an American, I would have no problem watching this movie, and I would have no shame in showing it to my New Yorker relatives, because the wild fantasizing about this imagined New York would just be too fun to resist, even if the film focused primarily on negative stereotypes. I think it’s okay for a film to play to our fantasies about interesting places if it is, in fact, a fantasy film. Aladdin is clearly designed to be an escapist getaway, and that’s precisely what it delivers, so I’ll happily concede that, in spite of its many problems, I absolutely adore this movie.