Disney Animation unearthed sunken treasure in the late eighties when their amazing animation department teamed with lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken to create a little ocean-faring project called The Little Mermaid. That magic combination sparked a success that continued through two more films with Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin culminating in the creation of the three greatest pieces of animation storytelling since the days of Disney himself.
Sadly, those golden days are gone. With Disney’s insidiously sequel-happy animation department running on fumes and the media giant’s relationship with Pixar on the rocks, it’s hard to get excited about anything the Mouse might have coming down the pipe. Despite any advice that Timon might offer about putting your past behind you, the past is all we have in these dark days of Disney’s depression. Thank goodness for the arrival of the breath of fresh air that is the Special Edition release of Aladdin. Aladdin is a good-at-heart young “street rat” in the mythical city of Agrabah. He spends his days with his furry monkey pal, Abu, scratching out a meager survival stealing food while trying not to get caught by the royal guard. Jasmine is the princess of Agrabah, daughter to the Sultan. She spends her days with her gruff but lovable tiger, Raja, chasing away pernicious suitors who are only interested in marrying her as a prize, not a person. Jafar is the nefariously evil, power hungry advisor to the Sultan. He spends his days with his bitter, wise-cracking parrot Iago (you know a movie is gonna be good when all the main characters have animal pals!) plotting and scheming ways to steal the throne from the Sultan.
Jafar’s latest and greatest scheme to become Sultan involves finding the legendary Genie’s lamp. After years of searching for its hidden resting place, he finds himself forbidden from entering the Cave of Wonders to retrieve it. “Only one may enter here,” the tiger shaped cave tells him, “the Diamond in the Rough.” Who might that be? Hmmm.
Meanwhile, tired of her palace prison, Jasmine decides to sneak out of the palace to see the real world beyond. When it turns out to be a place she’s not quite ready for, the heroic Aladdin steps in to rescue her, only to find out there’s more to her than meets the eye. When he discovers her identity is one of a royal princess, only able to wed a royal prince, he’ll do anything to win her heart, even follow the disguised Jafar in search of the mysterious lamp. But both Aladdin and Jafar get more than they expect when the lamp’s wacky resident Genie begins granting wishes to whomever possesses his golden lamp.
Aladdin is a brilliantly animated work of art that combines great storytelling, talented voices, inspired animators, astounding music and good ol’ Disney magic. While famous folks have been lending their voices to animated movies since Snow White, very few have left such a memorable impression as Robin Williams. Williams’ improvisational skills played a huge role in shaping the character and the movie. His vocalization of the blue bodied, free spirited Genie set a bar for character voicing that hasn’t been topped since the movie was released over ten years ago. Along side him are Scott Weinger (Aladdin), Linda Larkin (Jasmine), Jonathan Freeman (Jafar), Frank Welker (Abu/Raja), Douglas Seale (Sultan) and the unmistakable Gilbert Godfried (Iago). The stunning cast are perfectly suited to their roles thanks to wonderful voice casting, an art which, like Disney’s hand drawn animation, seems to have been lost in recent years.
The visual design of Aladdin is a treat, full of witty nuances and hidden tidbits, not to mention being chock full of visual impressions and cameos of all kinds including celebrities from Rodney Dangerfield to the Governator himself. Like Scheherazade’s thousand tales, each viewing of the movie will almost always bring some new delightful discovery. Inspired heavily by the artistic style of cartoonist Al Hirschfeld, the film’s Arabian look has a much more relaxed, cartoon feel when compared to it’s more precisely crafted predecessor Beauty and the Beast. When you mix that visual appeal with Williams’ energy and Ashman and Menken’s award-winning musical talents you get an hour and a half of pure Disney magic that begs to be watched again and again.
In a time when Disney’s animated magic is flickering like a poisoned Tinkerbell, it’s a comfort to know that the classics are still out there for us to fall back on. Too bad the powerful applause they draw may not be enough to bring the waning Disney back to life. Nevertheless Aladdin is a classic worthy of the legendary story it portrays, and it will always be one of Disney’s greatest animated triumphs. When Disney throws a party, they really throw a party. The Platinum Edition (as opposed to the Gold and Silver Editions that never existed) of the Aladdin DVD is, by far, one of the best releases of the year, likely not to be topped until Jackson reveals his Tolkien trilogy capstone masterpiece. The 2-Disc special edition has everything you would hope for and a few excitingly unexpected surprises as well. It’s a magic carpet ride of bonus features that will reveal a whole new world of Aladdin to you.
OK, now that I have the cliché, movie-reference ridden paragraph out of the way, I can babble on like a giddy school kid about all the wonderful stuff to see and hear. The most obvious place to start is the movie’s digital face lift. I remember seeing Aladdin in the theatre and on VHS dozens of times. This digital rendition is so clear and so strikingly smooth that I discovered things I never remembered seeing before. Or maybe I’m just getting old and I forgot them. Either way, it’s exciting to see details that were too fuzzy to see or remember before.
The THX optimization of the sounds and songs are incredible. Singing along to all those memorable tunes, completely unaware that you’re doing it, has never been so much fun. And since optimization wasn’t nearly enough, Disney has dedicated a whole menu screen to the movie’s music. In grand Disney style, the Aladdin and Jasmine of the pop world, Nick and Jessica, show up to sing the iconic “A Whole New World”. But lovers of the classic rendition need not worry, Peabo Bryson & Regina Belle’s original R&B video version from the 90’s is right there too.
Many people aren’t aware that music legend Howard Ashman, the lyricist for Aladdin, passed away while the film was being produced. The disc includes a special biography of his works and life. One of the songs he originally wrote, “Proud of Your Boy”, was cut from the film due to story changes made after his death. In a moving homage, the song has been resurrected for the DVD with two recordings, one done by Ashman himself before he died, and another by Idol star Clay Aiken. It wouldn’t be Disney without behind-the-music montages. Curious viewers can get a cutesy sneak peak at both Aiken’s and Lachey/Simpson’s recording sessions.
Animated movies are such a laborious process that the final result is usually crafted way in advance of final release. As a result, deleted scenes are rare. But Disney managed to dig up a few from the movie’s early production days. There is even an original storyboard reel of the deleted song “Proud of Your Boy” thrown in for good measure.
I’m usually not excited to turn on commentary tracks, but the creators of Aladdin put on quite a show with their off screen thoughts. Maybe it’s because they’ve had more than a decade to let the experience of making the movie set in. Maybe Disney pumped a little happy gas into the room before the session. Either way, they all have a non-snobbish, story-telling attitude that blows most commentaries away. They continually cut each other off with one anecdote after the next of great stories that truly enhance your enjoyment of the story. They are also eager to point out every hidden cameo that you’re not likely to recognize. By the time you’re done with the producers’ and animators’ commentaries you’ll be amazed by the level of fun detail you never knew was there. All that was missing was a session with Williams and Godfried to really spice things up.
Of course there’s a making-of-featurette. Aptly named A Diamond in the Rough: The Making of Aladdin, it’s actually a string of some twenty-odd mini featurettes that can be played in various combinations or all together in order as a nearly two hour long documentary. With Gilbert Godfried and Disney historian Leonard Malten helming the show, and plenty of never-before-seen footage of Robin Williams at the recording microphone, A Diamond in the Rough is anything but boring.
I haven’t even gotten to the games yet. Disney, as they always do, has thrown in all kinds of great stuff. It’s mostly aimed at the younger set, but grown ups may find it amusing too. There’s a virtual tour of the genie’s lamp, a carpet ride adventure and a wish granting game that has Jafar dolled up like a mechanical machine a la Big.
Naturally, there’s more to explore…production photos…trailers…still shots…the whole Kasbah. Disney has left no urn unemptied in this revelation of a disc set. This is definitive DVD goodness covering one of the greatest animated movies to ever come out of Disney’s studio. You couldn’t…well…wish for anything more.
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