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Review: “Aladdin” Diamond Edition – Rawk! Polly Wants This Blu-ray!

by on October 20, 2015
 

Aladdin Blu-rayAladdin was another successful part of Disney’s “renaissance:” the period that started during the late ’80s with The Little Mermaid that revitalized interest in the Disney brand, thanks to a renewed interest in quality storytelling, Broadway-worthy musical numbers, and state-of-the-art visuals. Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were both top notch films, but Aladdin, in my opinion, is even better, successfully balancing all sorts of tones (action, comedy, romance, music) effortlessly.

Aladdin, a lowly “street rat” who is smitten with the independently minded Princess Jasmine, comes across a magic lamp. The Genie inside it grants him three wishes, which he quickly exploits to form a cover story that he’s a rich prince in an effort to sweep Jasmine off her feet. Meanwhile, Jasmine’s father, the sultan, is being manipulated by his grand vizier Jafar, who has his eyes on seizing power over the kingdom of Agrabah.

Why has Aladdin held up so well since 1992? First of all, the characters. In some Disney movies, the heroes are the least interesting characters, while the villains or the side characters are the main attraction. Not so in Aladdin, where both Aladdin and Jasmine have distinct personalities that make them just as much fun to watch as the villains. Part of what makes them distinct is their common bond, with both feeling trapped by their upbringing. Aladdin is dirt poor and has to steal (with the help of his monkey sidekick Abu) to survive; Jasmine wants for nothing, but has no free will of her own, since she is required to marry a prince and can’t leave the palace. Aladdin’s also ashamed of his economic situation, and tries to hide it at all costs, which is a mistake since Jasmine hates phonies. At the same time, he has a moral center, as evidenced by giving up an “acquired” loaf of bread to some starving kids, so there is always some internal conflict. By establishing these traits early on, the rest of the movie writes itself in how the two interact with each other. I especially like the scene when Aladdin, posing as the royal Prince Ali, gives himself away as his true identity by asking Jasmine, “Do you trust me?” which he asked earlier in the film, and also by bouncing an apple off his elbow. The way Jasmine puts the pieces together in her mind (as evident by her facial expressions) without using any words is just wonderful. Of course, the villain in this movie is also memorable, with the swarthy-but-slimy, scheming Jafar immediately leaving an impression by being both intimidating (due to his hypnotizing wand and abuse of power as second-in-command to the Sultan) and oddly funny due to his design and his dry lines, not to mention his hammy hurricane of puns in the climax.

AladdinThe movie is also very well-written and paced. A lot happens in only 90 minutes, but none of it feels rushed or poorly explained. Each sequence flows naturally into the next, and the few breaks in the action make it easy to stay interested in the story. For instance, early in the movie, when Aladdin first meets Jasmine at the marketplace, Aladdin manages to fast-talk Jasmine out of having her hand cut off for giving an apple to a child. But the two are found by the guards later that night, and Aladdin is locked up. This turns out to be a ruse by Jafar who, disguised as an old man, breaks Aladdin out of prison and takes him to the Cave of Wonders, where he promises Aladdin rich rewards if he retrieves the magic lamp from within. In the cave, Abu breaks the cardinal rule of not touching any of the treasures but the lamp, forcing Aladdin and Abu to make a quick escape from the collapsing cave. The two are eventually trapped, but luckily Aladdin has the lamp and, once he frees the Genie, is able to escape the cave. I also appreciated the foreshadowing throughout, such as when Aladdin is informed early that being a genie means having to live in a lamp until they are released to be a slave to a new master. The way this carries out in the finale is really clever, and one of Disney’s finest endings.

Presentation-wise, Disney’s at the top of their game with this movie. As usual, it has the full animation and gloss that Disney’s known for, but for this movie they went above and beyond by being more “cartoon-y” than Disney had done up to that point (The Emperor’s New Groove eight years later and, to a lesser extent, Hercules, would carry the tradition). This is especially true for Genie, who is a tour-de-force of sight gags, comedic body distortions, and squash-and-stretch movement. In terms of art design, Agrabah is a fully-realized Middle Eastern city, giving the movie an exotic atmosphere that’s alluring. Finally, the character designs are all memorable and distinct from each other. You can easily identify a character just based on their silhouette, whether it be Genie’s rounded figure or Jafar’s angular, pointed, rigid stature.

AladdinThe songs? What can I say, they’re all classic. From the mysterious and grand, mood-setting “Arabian Nights” to the well-storyboarded, variety-filled, big band-esque “Friend Like Me” to the magical “A Whole New World” (which, appropriately, evokes images of flying) to the over-the-top “bragging” song “Prince Ali” (and its dark, ironic reprise sung by Jafar later on), it’s really hard to choose a favorite. They’re all memorable, with quote-worthy lyrics and great visuals to go with them. But I will say that “One Jump Ahead” deserves special mention for killing two birds with one stone. Too many times in musicals, a song will stop the plot dead in its tracks so the characters can sing. But “One Jump Ahead” advances the story, since it’s our introduction to Aladdin and his daily routine of outwitting merchants and outrunning guards to get food. Instead of having two separate sequences for this, the movie wisely combines them into one action-packed, fun romp where the catchy song syncs with the fast-paced visuals.

It’s also Disney’s funniest movie next to The Emperor’s New Groove. A lot of this can be attributed to Genie, played by the late, great Robin Williams, with his non-stop celebrity impersonations and boundless energy. But Genie’s not the only funny character in the movie; Iago, Jafar’s pet parrot and second-in-command (played by Gilbert Gottfried), is a great snarky presence who treads that fine line of being obnoxious but hilarious. Even “straight” characters like Jafar, Aladdin, and the sultan get in some good moments that still feel organic to their personalities. There’s a great line from Aladdin about a snooty prince who knocked him into the mud: “Look at that, Abu: It’s not every day you see a horse with TWO rear ends!” Or take Jafar mangling Prince Ali’s (Aladdin in disguise) name into “Prince Abubu”. Aladdin is one of those movies where multiple age groups can enjoy the humor; kids will enjoy the Genie’s goofiness, but adults will know who he’s parodying. And some jokes, such as the sight gags, are universal, and succeed due to execution.

Aladdin JafarAladdin is one of those movies where I honestly can’t think of any glaring problems or flaws. Everything just clicks, which is impressive when you consider how many changes were made to the story during its troubled development. Even some of the criticisms occasionally leveled against it (i.e. the “implausibility” of the Genie spouting modern pop culture references in this past setting, or how this film supposedly being to blame for the trend of stunt-casting celebrities in animated movies) are debatable. Bottom line, Aladdin is still one of my favorite Disney movies, for all the above reasons.

As with virtually all the Disney Blu-ray re-releases, this set contains both new features and old ones from the previous DVDs. First, the new. Genie Outtakes (running 8:53) showcases mere tidbits of unused Robin Williams ad-libs during his recording sessions, with layout drawings to the dialog. It gives a good taste of what must have been a riot to witness, but as he was often recording for hours, it’s only a sample of the fun. My personal favorite unused impressions were of Richard Nixon, Bing Cosby, and Marlon Brando, and it would’ve been fun to see them fully animated. Directors John Musker and Ron Clements reflect on Robin’s then-recent (and tragic) passing as well.

Next up is Aladdin: Casting Broadway Magic (18:53), my personal favorite of the special features. As the title implies, it chronicles the making of the Broadway musical version of the film, with two of the main problems being: How do you do the reality-bending Genie in real life, and how do you make a flying carpet look plausible on stage? I haven’t seen the show (yet), but I kind of want to based on this featurette.

Unboxing Aladdin (4:40) is a light piece hosted by Joey Bragg (Liv and Maddie) that’s all about movie trivia. I knew some of it, but I must admit the Mickey ears hidden in the movie eluded me.

Genie 101 (3:59), hosted by Aladdin himself Scott Weinger, explains the various celebrity impressions Genie does in the film. I knew the references, but it’s helpful for the younger crowd.

Ron & John: You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me (5:36) is a rather fluffy piece where the two Aladdin directors sit on a park bench and reminisce about the Disney studio. I normally don’t mind retrospective featurettes, but I don’t feel like I learned much from this piece.

AladdinAll the supplements from the 2004 Aladdin DVD have been carried over:

First up are some deleted songs (13:57): “Proud of Your Boy”, “You Can Count on Me”, “Humiliate the Boy”, and “Why Me?” All of these are from an earlier version of the story where Aladdin had a mother who factored prominently into the story. Of these, Jafar’s jazzy “Humiliate the Boy” is probably the strongest, but I’m glad they went with a reprise of “Prince Ali” instead. “Proud of Your Boy” is a pretty, heartfelt song but it felt out-of-place, both tone-wise and story-wise, when the story was changed, so it’s good that it was cut.

Next are some deleted scenes (5:43), both from an earlier version of the story and thus only in storyboard form. The first is an alternate version of Aladdin first meeting Jasmine, and the second has Aladdin’s mom disappointed in Aladdin’s lying once he uses some of Genie’s wishes.

A music video of Clay Aiken singing the excised “Proud of Your Boy” (2:20) is also featured, along with a behind-the-scenes featurette of the shooting of the video (3:20).

Disney Song Selection is merely a quick way to skip to the various musical numbers in the film. Isn’t that what Chapter Selection is for?

Inside the Genie’s Lamp: A Guided Tour (6:13) is pretty pointless; it’s just Iago being given a tour of Genie’s lavish lamp, which is rendered in fairly dated CG visuals. It’s like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, especially since Robin Leach himself narrates it. Aside from the nice new 2D animation by Eric Goldberg (supervising animator for Genie in the film) and Leach’s narration, there’s not much to say here. Genie’s World Tour (3:14) is more of the same, except Jafar and Iago narrate the various trips that Genie took after the events in the first film.

Aladdin Sultan Jafar IagoA Diamond in the Rough: The Making of Aladdin (1:10:52) is obviously the most extensive special feature on here, going in-depth at the making of the movie. In-between the making-of stuff, there are also some non-informative interstitials taking place backstage at an Aladdin retrospective (which mostly consist of Gilbert Gottfried making sarcastic comments), but they’re entertaining so I can’t complain. There are two great parts of the documentary: The first few minutes, which highlight the differences between the original 1001 Arabian Nights Aladdin story and Disney’s version, the next section, which discusses how the movie was majorly re-tooled after a disastrous internal test screening (Aladdin’s mom was one of the first things to go!); and early sketches of the main characters, since it shows just how different the final product was from said first version. I’d praise it more highly, except that I’ve seen it before, on the old 2004 DVD.

Alan Menken: Musical Renaissance Man (19:55) is a look at the composer of this film and other Disney movies such as Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Hercules, Pocahontas, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. For a time, he was Disney’s go-to composer, and it’s not hard to see why; nearly all of his songs are still remembered and sung today, and his scores are ear-pleasing and well-orchestrated. Who knows how much different the Disney brand would’ve been today had he not been an integral part of its renaissance?

The Art of Aladdin: A Filmmaker’s Commentary (8:45) isn’t an audio commentary as the name suggests, but a video showcasing early backgrounds and designs with Musker and Clements narrating. Of particular note is the “color guide” for the whole movie, with the colors red and blue being most dominant. Indeed, when I think of Aladdin, these two colors (and shades therein) immediately spring to mind.

Finally, there is a feature-length audio commentary with Musker, Clements, and co-producer Amy Pell, though it’s the same one from the 2004 DVD. It’s a good track with hardly any silence gaps, but be prepared for a couple references to be dated, such as mentioning the “recent” Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

All in all, it’s a fine collection of extras and you’ll want to go through them all if you’re even remotely a fan of this movie.

Twenty-three years after its release, Aladdin still holds up. It’s entertaining, stills looks and sounds great (especially on Blu-ray), and has a memorable cast of characters who play off each other well. There’s a reason why I watched it every day after school for a brief time when I first got it on VHS; it’s a lot of fun and does most everything right.
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