Robin Williams’ genius is a comedic genius

To return to the 1992 Disney animated classic Aladdin, it must be remembered that there are elements of the film that simply would not be acceptable given today’s sensibilities – the use of white voice-over actors for non-white characters and the Arab stereotypes on your mind. Not to excuse these elements, of course – they were controversial then, prompting to make changes to the lyrics of “Arabian Nights”, for example – but it’s important to acknowledge their presence before watching and critiquing the film on its own merits. Whether that’s enough to color one’s view of the entire film or not is entirely up to the viewer, but for the purposes of this review, we’ve cast that aside as an unfortunate coincidence.

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In Aladdin, Robin Williams as Genie, Scott Weinger as Aladdin
Picture via Disney

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Aladdin was the third release in the early ’90s Disney animation revival, arriving on the tail end of The little Mermaid and The beauty and the Beast. First, a brief recap. Based on the Arabic folk tale of Thousand and one Night, Aladdin follows “street rat” Aladdin (Scott Weinger), who has just possessed a magic lamp containing a genie (Robin Williams). The genie grants Aladdin three wishes, and with the first Aladdin asks to be made a prince in order to obtain the sultan’s (Douglas Seale) favor for the hand of his daughter, Princess Jasmine (Linda Larkins). However, Sultan Jafar’s evil vizier (Jonathan Freeman) has his eyes on the magic lamp for his own selfish desires to overthrow the sultan and rule the kingdom.

The value of being true to yourself is a key theme throughout the film, and on that front it largely succeeds. The happy ending only comes when the characters confess who they really are: Aladdin isn’t a prince, Jafar is evil, Jasmine is resolute, and the sultan does what he should have had all along, change the law to allow the princess to marry whoever she wants. The animation is rich and beautiful, bringing the markets and streets of Agrabah to life in an array of tans and reds, and the film’s pacing is excellent, especially the WB-like action around “One Jump Ahead.” . The Cave of Wonders is suitably large, rising from the sands to form an awe-inspiring, bellowing protector of the riches within. The musical score of Alain Menken complements the settings perfectly. The seven songs created for the film – three by Howard Ashman and four by Mr. Tim Ricewhich came after Ashman’s untimely death – did not stay in the public consciousness like the songs of Aladdin‘s two immediate predecessors, but are classics in their own right (especially the Oscar- and Grammy-winning song “A Whole New World”).

Robin Williams as Genie in Aladdin
Picture via Disney

The characters in the film are one of the most powerful ensembles in Disney’s deep history. Weinger’s Aladdin is a lovable scoundrel, with Weinger’s delivery able to convey the character’s ever-important “diamond in the rough” quality. Princess Jasmine is beautiful, with a strength and determination rare among her Disney Princess peers. Jafar falls into that classic Disney villain look, with the long, thin face of legendary antagonists such as The Lion KingScar or Hercules‘Hades. Freeman gives Jafar a satisfying mix of harmlessness, condescension, and genuine menace that deepens what could easily have been a one-note character. The monkey of AladdinAbu (Frank Welker), is the quintessential example of Disney’s animal sidekick, a sassy yet devoted sidekick to Aladdin. Speaking of sidekicks, Gilbert GottfriedIago is definitely fun, although Gottfried’s signature squeaky voice gets a bit annoying. The real treasure of the movie, so to speak, is Aladdin’s magic carpet. Besides being a groundbreaking hybrid of hand-drawn and computer animation, it speaks volumes in film through pantomime alone. If for no other reason, look Aladdin again for the mat actions. What the animators were able to do with a tasselled rectangle is absolutely amazing, bringing the magic carpet to such vivid life that it becomes a key character in the events of the film.

Frank Welker as Abu in Aladdin 1992
Picture via Disney

No reviews for Disney’s Aladdin can be done without evaluating the genius of the genius of Robin Williams. Genius is the perfect pairing of character and actor, with the character’s presence in the film arguably the closest that has ever captured Williams’ genius brilliance on screen in all its glory. It’s larger than life, with a quick-witted pace that’s full of jokes, puns, impersonations and more. It’s truly a “wink, and you’ll miss it” for the ages. What’s amazing is how animated Williams makes this character. Williams’ performance imbues Genie with a deep sense of humanity. Is genius a comedic tour de force of Williams? Of course it does, but he deftly scales it down as the story dictates, letting certain moments breathe when they need to and only filling in the gaps with his creative riffs only when the story calls for it. The only minor knock against Williams is his use of impersonations that are dated (how many kids today, even how many adults today, know who Groucho Marx Where Rodney Dangerfield are?), but the energy behind these pieces is intact regardless. Plus (sarcasm alert, don’t take it on purpose), you’re failing as a parent if your kids don’t know who Jack Nicholson is anyway. Will Smith gave genius the old college essay in 2019 Aladdin live-action remake, but the role will always be associated with the late great Williams as a testament to his unique talents.

Up to point: Aladdin is worthy of its status as a Disney classic. The story and its lessons are timeless. The animation is inventive and imaginative. The characters are outstanding, with rave reviews for Jasmine’s non-Disney Princess, a silent but vibrant magic carpet, and, of course, the genie that encapsulates the deep, comedic greatness of the late Robin Williams. Drop a ½ wish for its controversial elements, Aladdin gets 2½ wishes out of 3.

Evaluation: B+

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