Benjamin’s Stash

Too bad the Genie couldn’t get D. J. Tanner back for him. Scott Weinger, Jonathan Freeman, Gilbert Gottfied and Academy Award winner Robin Williams lend their voices to the Disney animated classic Aladdin.

AladdinCast of Characters:
Aladdin – voiced by Scott Weinger
The Genie – voiced by Robin Williams
Jafar – voiced by Jonathan Freeman
Princess Jasmine – voiced by Linda Larkin
Abu – voiced by Frank Welker
Iago – voiced by Gilbert Gottfried
The Sultan – voiced by Douglas Seale

Director – Ron Clements & John Musker
Screenplay – Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio
Based on the folktale “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp” from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights
Producer – Ron Clements & John Musker
Rated G

Jafar (voiced by Jonathan Freeman), Grand Vizier to the Sultan of Agrabah (voiced by Douglas Seale), desires a mysterious oil lamp from the Cave of Wonders, but must find the “Diamond in the Rough”, the lone soul deemed worthy by the cave to enter.

Meanwhile, the sultan is having a hard time finding a suitor for his daughter, Princess Jasmine (voiced by Linda Larkin). Fed up with the idea of an arranged marriage, she flees the palace, disguised as a beggar. While out, she bumps into a street rat named Aladdin (voiced by Scott Weinger) and though they strike up a friendship, he’s arrested by the sultan’s guards for an assumed kidnapping of the princess. However, when Jafar discovers that Aladdin is the Diamond in the Rough, he helps the boy escape to help him seek the magic lamp.

The hunt for the lamp backfires, though, leaving Aladdin and his monkey pet Abu (voiced by Frank Welker) trapped inside the cave. With the lamp in his possession, he rubs it, unexpectedly unleashing Genie (voiced by Robin Williams), who reveals that he will grant Aladdin three wishes.

Robin Williams was what I refer to as a triple-threat performer. It’s rare to find a talent that excelled at stand-up, sitcom and film – both comedic and dramatic – at the awards level (1 Oscar, 6 Golden Globes, 2 Emmys and 5 Grammys) Williams achieved so effortlessly. As much range as he had as an actor and the variety of films that he performed in, it’s odd to think that the character most everyone identifies him with is an animated one he simply provided a voice for. Then again, knowing how animated he was, it seems more than fitting.

To say Williams (the Genie was created with him in mind) was the show stopper here is an epic understatement. Bringing much more humor than we’ve typically gotten in past Disney movies, he literally became the star of the film. If there’s any criticism I could throw at that, it’s that the Genie overshadows the main character of the film, who’s a bit of a dud. That’s no slight to Scott Weinger, who turns in some fine voice work (he must’ve done something right since Disney brought him back to voice Aladdin in both sequels and the TV series), but there’s not as much depth to him as you’d expect in a lead role. Still, though, Williams hit it out of the park, and the Genie was the perfect role for him that captured both the manic, rapid-fire energy and the restrained, soft-spoken heart Williams was so good at bringing. His riffing in the studio was so spontaneous, animators would design jokes around his improvisations. Known more for his adult stand-up humor, this was a comic role from him that could entertain the whole family. As a kid, I would laugh non-stop even at pop-culture jokes that went way over my head, just ’cause of the way Williams would deliver. Now, years later, watching it again, the role becomes even funnier ’cause you catch the numerous references and impressions from Ed Sullivan, Jack Nicholson, Rodney Dangerfield, William F. Buckley, etc.

What Williams accomplished here, though, went beyond just a great, funny performance. He paved the way for A-list stars to be considered for voice roles. Before him, you had a few well known stars such as Oscar winner George Sanders (Shere Khan from The Jungle Book), Buddy Hackett (Scuttle from The Little Mermaid), and a few others, but not really any A-list talent. It was mostly people that specialized in voice work. Casting Williams was certainly a risk. What if his larger-than-life persona distracted viewers from the character? Thankfully, it worked like a charm, and following him Disney would later bring in highly-recognizable talent such as Tom Hanks, Jeremy Irons, Kevin Kline, Mel Gibson, James Woods, Kevin Spacey, Holly Hunter, Tim Allen, James Earl Jones, and Paul Newman.

It was also the first time critics actually made a push for Williams to be the first voice-over artist to be nominated for an acting Oscar.

Co-writers/directors Ron Clements and John Musker and their team of animators make a rather routine tale, based off the Arabian Nights, come alive through the animation. And that’s just with the Genie and his off-the-wall antics alone. The fact that these animators were able to keep up with Williams’s non-stop energy, creating his numerous impressions into wonderfully hilarious animated caricatures, is a testament to their skill as well. But their skill stretches beyond just the Genie. There’s a superbly drawn animated sequence featuring a death-defying escape from the Cave of Wonders by Aladdin and a magic carpet. Speaking of that magic carpet, it’s quite ingenious how they were able to give an inanimate object such personality using only tassels and various forms of body language.

The scene stealer within the supporting acts is Jonathan Freeman as the villain Jafar (who’s complemented well by an effective, surprisingly non-irritating, turn from Gilbert Gottfried as his bird Iago), whose voice ranges from deep and dark sinister to cackling with evil glee. Freeman’s delightfully devious work is almost under-appreciated when compared to what Eleanor Audley before him and contemporary Jeremy Irons brought to their Disney villains. If there’s anyone in Aladdin that comes close to matching the enthusiasm and energy that Williams brought, it’s Freeman.

The title character isn’t as endearing as what Disney has given us before, but if one of the most memorable voice performances from Robin Williams doesn’t compensate that for you, I don’t know what else will. The animation shows a little age now, but for the early ’90s, it was first-rate. Top-notch voice work and the catchy, Oscar-winning musical numbers, from Tim Rice, Alan Menkin and the late Howard Ashman, only add to this film’s magic. It’s not the best Disney animated feature, but it’s still a worthy addition to the Disney Renaissance (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King) of the late ’80s and early ’90s.

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