27 November 2009

DISNEY ANIMATION: SOARING, TUMBLING, FREEWHEELING

Once again, it all comes down to Howard Ashman: it was in the late 1980s, as animation was purring along for The Little Mermaid, and the story for Beauty and the Beast was just barely starting to take form, Ashman suggested another musical project for Disney: an adaptation of Aladdin, one of the tales in the European versions of the collection of Arabian fairy tales, One Thousand and One Nights (the earliest print version of the Aladdin story is found in the 18th Century French translation by Antoine Galland; some of our more cynical mythological researchers have contended that Galland did a bit more than "translate" this story).

Ashman and his longstanding collaborator Alan Menken put together a story treatment, and wrote some or all of eleven different songs for the project; but Beauty and the Beast was taking up most of the increasingly little time that Ashman was able to devote to Disney, as he grew progressively weaker from the disease that would ultimately take his life. Thus the story was handed off to Linda Woolverton, the Beauty screenplay-writer, to flesh out the narrative a bit; and by this point we find ourselves in late 1989. The directing team of Ron Clements and John Musker had just established themselves as the Hot Shit at Disney by knocking The Little Mermaid out of the park, and in a meeting with Jeffrey Katzenberg, they were offered their choice of three projects that were fairly well along in story development. The first of these was Swan Lake, a never-realised project that would have completed the studio's adaptations of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's three great ballets (following "The Nutcracker Suite" in Fantasia, and Sleeping Beauty); King of the Jungle, later renamed The Lion King; and the Ashman/Menken/Woolverton Aladdin. It was the last of these that appealed most to the directors, giving them the best chance to keep working on the musical play and silly comedy of The Little Mermaid, and they got to work on cranking out a screenplay, alongside a pair of young writers named Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, whose only produced work to that point was a middling Fred Savage comedy called Little Monster; this project sent them rocketing towards a future stuffed with a goodly number of massive blockbusters on their resume, including Shrek and all of the Pirates of the Caribbeans. Aladdin was at this point tossed before the usual committee of storymen, and in the end none of the three people who first got the project started received credit alongside the the other writers, but were buried deep as "pre-production story development".

Aladdin was designed to be a consciously silly movie, full of goofiness and fun and delight in everything from the jokes to the drafting of the characters (it is possible, I think, that it was meant in this respect as a palate-cleanser after the emotionally rigorous, frequently dark and mirthless Beauty and the Beast; though this is hardly something I could ever be certain of). The very character design was meant to evoke caricature, particularly the flowing, easy lines and sharp curves of Al Hirschfeld; and the tremendously significant role of Aladdin's lamp-bound genie was always meant by the directors to be a showcase for the many impressions and improvisatory skill of stand-up comedian Robin Williams, who at this point was only a tiny force of evil; and whose broad-as-a-barn shtick was anyways better suited for a cartoon character than a living person who interacts with other living people. The story of Williams's association with the film is an interesting one: briefly, he did the role for peanuts, as long as certain concessions were made in the advertising, the most important being that the genie could only occupy a certain percentage of any poster. When Disney violated this, plastering massive images of the genie on every surface, Williams called out the dogs, and period publications and "making-ofs" were legally required to avoid mentioning his name in any capacity, leading to the the promotional material having to settle for the phrase "the voice of the Genie" in all cases. The contretemps was only resolved when Williams returned for Aladdin's second direct-to-video sequel, Aladdin and the King of Thieves, for a handsome paycheck.

The character design in this film is pleasingly uniform: not because the characters look alike - the exact opposite is true - but because all of the characters are stylised to roughly the same degree and according to essentially the same mentality. It has been a constant fact in Disney's features ever since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that some characters are essentially realistic representations of the human form, while others are unabashed cartoons; the degree to which this is true changes from film to film, but at any rate I cannot quickly think of a Disney feature previous to this, the studio's 31st, in which no character stands out as especially realistic or especially caricatured. They are all cut from essentially the same cloth, and if the titular hero (Scott Weinger) and his love interest, Princess Jasmine (Linda Larkin) are a tiny bit more "human" than anyone else, this is only to nudge the audience in the direction of finding them sympathetic and appealing.

This unbelievably useful image can be found on the 2004 "Platinum Edition" DVD.

The film's character animation finds the Disney artists finding a very comfortable groove that they wouldn't leave for the rest of the decade; like the animators of the 1930s who were brought into the fold by Walt himself, the process of creating Disney features had by this point become natural to them. In certain sense, this is not a good thing: for it was at this point also that the studio's output begins to have the feeling of product, not artistry; an encroaching sameness to the techniques used that leaves all the films feeling rather more akin to one another than e.g. Cinderella is to Alice in Wonderland. Some of the films were of course made at a much higher level of quality than others, but not in a markedly different style.

On the other hand, Aladdin is made with such skill, that one hardly wants to complain that the animators were able to mimic it so often. In sheer mechanical terms, it is a more competent film than Beauty and the Beast, lacking any of that feature's random passages of stiff movement and degradation of detail. We cannot even rightly claim that this is to do with the hurried schedule that Beauty and the Beast was forced to adopt: for Aladdin was massively overhauled relatively far into production, meaning that a lot of new material had to be put together in a fairly brief span, relative to the long production time usually accorded to animated features. So I don't know what to say other than the animation team was growing increasingly capable and confident: and this growth continued into the next project as well.

If I persist in preferring the animation in Beauty and the Beast, it is largely because I would rather have the gravity and character of that film's visuals than the sprightly cartoon exaggerations of Aladdin; I also rather find the subdued, 19th Century quality of the palette in the earlier film more appealing than Aladdin's bright and distinctly unsubtle use of hyper-saturated colors. Like Beauty and the Beast, it is coded, according to a primary color motif that also suggests the environment of a desert: blue (sky and water) is associated with good characters-

-yellow (sand) is neutral-

-and red (heat) is saved for the villains, along with good old black of course.

It's just a little too poppy for my tastes, is all, the colors don't just appear on screen, they scream out for attention, and the film ends up being just ever so slightly visually fatiguing.

This is, at any rate, not the fault of the animators, whose work is of the highest quality: the ever-fantastic Glen Keane supervises on Aladdin (famously designed as an echo of Tom Cruise), giving the subtlest performance in the movie, based largely on minute shifts in facial expression; something Keane was becoming quite good at, nearly as good as his better-known skill at creating great hulking presences. Aladdin is at any rate a fine successor to Keane's collaborative work on Ariel of The Little Mermaid: they are perhaps the two characters in the Disney Renaissance that evoke the most through facial expressions. Mark Henn, having tag-teamed on two female leads in a row, finally got his big solo coming-out, leading the Florida team in the animation of Princess Jasmine, a far stronger personality than Ariel or any of the vintage princesses; the animation bears that personality out with very nearly as much subtlety of expression as Keane's work, although the chief element of Henn's style was by now revealing itself less as a subtlety of acting, and more as an ability to draw women with curves in all the right places who exude no hint of sensuality at all.

The two most outstanding characters were both supervised by men with less experience than Henn or Keane, though. The requisite role of the villain who is far more visually exciting and thus more memorable than anyone else in the film was this time played by the wicked vizier Jafar, voiced with silky tones by Broadway actor Jonathan Freeman, and supervised by Andreas Deja, one of the poor bastards whose first job at the studio was during The Black Cauldron. This was his second supervising job (he'd handled Gaston in Beauty and the Beast), and the first of two characters who have guaranteed him a spot in Disney animator history: Jafar is a wonderfully sleek character with lots of sharp angles and a design that overall mirrors the cobra-head staff he carries, and he is also a fantastically physical bad guy, too. Basically, watching him is like seeing Maleficent done as a Looney Tunes character, and while he is much too venal and played for too much comedy to ever come across as a genuine threat, he is probably the best of all the non-threatening Disney villains; I'd readily call him the finest human male bad-guy, at the last.

The other great triumph is Eric Goldberg's genie: not only his first supervising job for Disney, but his first Disney job altogether. The great achievement of that character is not necessarily his personality (which is derived altogether from Robin Williams's performance), but his fluidity: this is the most malleable character in Disney, not only because of his ready stock of visual transformations and impressions, but simply because he appears to have no real form at all. He shrinks, expands, and seems to have no concrete mass or form at all - the very stuff of a great cartoon character, and executed to perfection by Goldberg and his team.


Naturally, the use of CAPS was smoother here than ever before: though the combination of CGI and regular 2-D animation remains unnerving and unconvincing (as it will for a number of films yet), it has taken a baby-step forward from Beauty and the Beast's lovely but uncanny ballroom scene. There are also some truly bravura effects animation showpieces, particularly the use of drifting gauze curtains that obscure and tint the action behind them - exactly the kind of thing CAPS was invented for.

As much as Aladdin is a pretty unimpeachable example of the art of animation, I am far from certain that its plot is up to anything like the same level. Comparing it to the outrageously wonderful Beauty and the Beast is just mean-spirited, but it holds up no better stacked next to The Little Mermaid, with largely the same creators and much of the same attitude.

My biggest single problem with the film is its significant pacing issues: at 90 minutes, it was, if I am not mistaken, the second-longest Disney film ever upon its release (after the 125-minute Fantasia), and it doesn't use this extra length to the best effect. In particular, everything before the genie's first appearance at very nearly the exact 30-minute mark, has always struck me as a bit pokey and slow, giving us not just enough time to meet the characters but to meet them in some detail, and with three plot threads to follow (Aladdin's desire to be more than a thief and beggar, Jasmine's desire to live her own life, outside the palace grounds, Jafar's quest for the individual who can help him find the magical lamp), there are a whole lot of scenes that all have a "point", but not nearly energy. I blame the songs, personally, but I'll get into that.

The curious thing about the film is not that Robin Williams shows up and is funny and delightful, although it is hard to believe in these latter days that he could ever be either of those; it's that once Robin Williams shows up, everything is better, even when the genie is nowhere to be seen. He brings life to the whole movie; everything is more fun and funnier and the crazy cartoon lines and color are finally matched with an appropriately cartoon sensibility.

It remains the case, though, that Aladdin has rather less dramatic ambition than the best Disney films: it is far more concerned with being wacky than with establishing character, and the big character moments all tend to fall desperately flat, to my tastes (Aladdin's short, wistful "what I yearn for" song is tremendously clumsy; but then, the songs in that particular subgenre have a noted tendency later in the decade to be the dullest part of their respective films). I admire the notion behind the story: it's basically a princess film in every respect, except that the girl lead is swapped for a boy, meaning that all the sexual-political issues get weirded up (Jasmine certainly fits the Disney princess model as far as burying her personal interests after she finds a mate; but Aladdin does exactly the same thing; and given her place in the narrative structure, it is better anyway to compare Jasmine to the various Princes Charming, none of whom have a patch on her personality). I like the film much more when it's content to steal unashamedly from the 1940 The Thief of Bagdad: adventure, spectacle, good humor and adventure, leading me to suppose that if Aladdin wasn't going to commit to being a dramedy like Beauty and the Beast, it should at least have gone for being a straight-up comedy swashbuckler that didn't take its romantic subplot seriously at all; as it stands, it's awfully close to being a great story, but it keeps having to settle for pretty damn good.

I teased about the music, didn't I? Well, let me finish that up: you see, Howard Ashman died before the soundtrack was finished, and only three of the songs he had ready made the cut (I have heard that an additional three of his total of eleven were in complete enough state to be used). Those three are characteristically great: the opening theme "Arabian Nights" probably less so than the others, but the two production numbers for the Genie, "Friend Like Me" and "Prince Ali" are both absolutely marvelous, fun, big songs; the first has all the bombast and swagger, the second has the intricate wordplay, and together they would equal more than one "Be Our Guest", if only such a combination could be arranged.

After Ashman's death, lyricist Tim Rice came on board, writing two new songs, and a reprise of "Prince Ali". The first of these, the primary introduction to the plot (after a fun, beautifully-colored scene introducing Jafar's wicked scheme - the first time we've met the villain before the hero in a Disney feature since Snow White, I think, though Cinderella could mount a counterargument, and Sleeping Beauty might qualify based on whom you consider to be its protagonist), is "One Jump Ahead", a song strongly built on the "Belle" model: the hero is maneuvering through town, several people are singing their opinion of him, and we get a sense of who it is that we're going to be spending time with for the next while. Since I first saw the film in 1992, I've found "One Jump Ahead" to be a somewhat unsatisfying opening number enough so that it left me kind of detached from the film until the Genie came and saved the film with "Friend Like Me", and it wasn't until somewhat recently that I figured out why, even though the evidence had been in front of me all along: Tim Rice is a talentless hack, and despite Menken's attempts to prop him up with some customarily beautiful melodies, "One Jump Ahead" is a horribly flimsy attempt to capture the character-defining, fascinatingly arrhythmic language of Ashman's "Belle". A passage like
"One jump ahead of the hitmen
One hit ahead of the flock
I think I'll take a stroll around the block"
is awkwardly phrased and obscure in intention ("one hit ahead of the flock"?) but it is particularly offensive contrasted with Ashman's strangely beautiful combination of uncommon but regular meter and almost spoken-word style:
"Look, there she goes, the girl is strange, no question
Dazed and distracted, can't you tell?
Never part of any crowd
'Cause her head's up on some cloud
No denying she's a funny girl, that Belle."
At least Rice's Oscar-winning love song "A Whole New World" isn't so painfully slangy as "One Jump Ahead" or its irritating, slowed-down reprise ("Would they see a poor boy? No siree"), though neither is it a very good love song, and its perpetual ranking near the top of Disney's most popular musical numbers confuses me almost as much as the similar status accorded to "Colors of the Wind". At least Menken works overtime to give the song a soaring romantic melody, managing to distract me from the fact that I am meant to find Hallmark card banality such as
"But when I'm way up here
It's crystal clear
That now I'm in a whole new world with you"
to be in some way moving. The staging of the song, a world air tour with a cheerful "screw you" to even the barest vestiges of historical accuracy, doesn't do much to improve my feelings towards the piece.

Having now angered most of the ardent Disney fans in the audience (you're all going to want my head on a pike after I finish up with "Circle of Life", by the way), I shall try to make it up by closing with one last statement of praise: I have throughout been talking about the silliness of this film in fairly descriptive terms: but I have not so far come right out and admitted that it works fantastically well. Aladdin is perhaps the movie that introduced the modern vogue for animated features that are heavy with pop culture references and contemporary, one of my least-favorite trends ever in any genre. But it all works in Aladdin despite some appallingly dated references (Arsenio Hall!), perhaps because it is fresh, perhaps because of the endlessly bright palette (this is one of the most candy-colored of all Disney films) that gives the whole thing a cheerful energy. Maybe it's just because of the pleasant nature of so many of the jokes, rather than the calculated snarkiness of a DreamWorks film: playful references to other Disney characters (I think it has more cameos than any other Disney film), and a gag in the "Friend Like Me" number stretching all the way back to the 1936 Mickey short "Thru the Mirror" for its winking reference. Not exactly the same thing as tossing a crappy Smash Mouth song on the soundtrack and having characters lip-sync.

Of all Disney's true comedies - a shorter list than you might think - I don't suppose that any of them is nearly so funny as Aladdin, a film which sees all of the animators and storymen indulging in their love of gags. It's this comic energy that keeps the film alive despite sometimes grave missteps in other areas, and the same energy - coupled with the hefty, contract-busting marketing push involving Robin William's name, the first true celebrity stunt casting in animation history - pushed the film even farther along the box office race than its predecessor: at $217 million, Aladdin was the hit of the year, and the most successful animated film yet produced, continued proof to the accountants at least that there was no stopping the Disney renaissance; and storytelling quibbles aside, there's nothing about the animation quality that would suggest that the post-Mermaid adrenaline rush was even close to running out.

9 comments:

Oliver said...

Surprisingly, as much as I love Beauty and the Beast (and I love the holy fucking shit out of Beauty and the Beast), my main complaint with THAT film is the pacing and specifically, the pacing in the scene that sets up the climax (Gaston doesn't seem too vexed about the magic mirror showing an image of a howling beast and shooting green fire).

I agree that the opening thirty minutes don't do a whole lot to introduce the characters, but Aladdin and Jasmine are pretty shallow characters in any case. As far as the story's pacing and us getting familiar with the characters, I think it works great. I'm no authority on Disney, but Aladdin always struck me as a character made to appeal to the young girls that apparently had no one to fall in love with in Beauty and the Beast (the amount of lessons Disney did not learn from that films success are also pretty apparent in Hunchback). As a result his chief characteristic is he's a shallow object of female affection.

Similarly, if any character in the Disney Renaissance is to be accused of fake feminism, it's the incorrigible bitch Jasmine.

Stephen said...

The last time I saw this film was just a couple weeks ago, but I was watching it more with an eye towards gender politics than anything else (it was as part of a project for my gender sociology class), so I can't say exactly why this is, but I find the Genie's introduction (excepting "Friend Like Me") to be extremely irritating, fitting in with my, to put it mildly, dislike of Robin Williams. But after that I like him a lot more, even though he continues pretty much the same shtick through the whole movie.

I was afraid you'd be a bit more savage with this film, though I'm really afraid for your Lion King review.

Hallvarður Jón Guðmundsson said...

Hi there.
Really enjoying this blog. Aladdin was the first film I ever saw on the big screen, so it's a sentimental favourite for me, I can't really disagree with your criticism, but I still love this movie, warts and all.

shawna said...

"Prince Ali" is my absolute favorite song in any Disney movie. I find it so funny and cute and witty, even more so than "Under the Sea". And they continued on the whole "animate common household objects" theme from "Beauty" with the magic carpet, who expresses so many emotions without the use of voice or a face! Amazing.

And when Jafar takes Jasmin and her Father as servants after he wishes himself king, it really reminds me of the moment in Star Wars when Leia dons the bikini :)

However as a child I was genuinely frightened of the beginning scene with the tiger in the sand and the huge snake at the end, and therefore my favorite pure comedy has always been "The Emperors New Groove".

Zev Valancy said...

This was always my favorite, but I think it's been a good decade since I've seen any non-Pixar DIsney film, so I can't really refute any of your arguments. The only argument I can make is one of taste in that, dammit, I find Robin Williams funny sometimes. I do have a few small comments.

1) I thought it was odd so I looked it up on IMDB--Jasmine is voiced by Linda Larkin, not Lavin. As Linda Lavin is primarily known as the interpreter of many a complainy Jewish mother, this makes sense.

2) With the exception of Beauty and the Beast, I might call this one of the best characterized pairs of lovers in Disney. While Aladdin is the protagonist, Jasmine has at least as much personality as he does.

3) No love for the particularly expressive singing from Brad Kane and Lea Salonga? Sad.

Meg said...

I never realized how bad some of these lyrics were until I read this. Soaring, tumbling, freewheeling? I always thought it was soaring, tumbling, believing. Not that that makes a whole lot of sense either.

javi75 said...

I don't like this movie. Some people find good things in it even acknoledging the charactes are shallow (I can never "believe" them as I can with other movies, and I agree completely with the "facke feminism" comment above) but I don't. I really don't care what happens to them, and I'm not entertainned by the spectacle around them. The humour is not my kind of comedy, I guess.
I don't like the backgrounds at all, I don't like the character design much, the songs are indifferent.
The pacing is frantic, I believe only to try to hide the fact that there's actually nothing going on underneath the noise.

Aye-K said...

This will always be one of my fav Disney flicks ever. It was the first one I saw and I love absolutely every minute of it!

Atrophy said...

Aladdin was one of the dozen Disney movies I put on rotation when my age was still in the single digits. It does not take my place as my most watched Disney movie of all time (that will always be Sleeping Beauty for reasons I can never articulate), but it had always been one of the funniest to me.

The biggest reason of all is the Genie, in my mind the best animated character in the canon. I imagine it must have been hell for all the animators who had to keep up with his numerous shifting appearances and malleable physical properties. But the thing that made the Genie the MVP of the entire movie has always been Robin Williams.

I know he's not the most beloved comedian and he gets a lot of flak for all of his bad spots (and he probably has more bad performances than good), but I think that when he's good, he's one of the best, and damn me if the Genie wasn't that. His rapid-fire line readings, never-ending vocal changes and stellar energy was what made the character such a memorable one and the single thing which turned Aladdin from what could have been (a cookie-cutter coming-of-age story), into what it is (a force of cartoon anarchy).

Yes, the Genie is responsible for the pop-culture infused wasteland in the animated world over the last two decades, but it was Robin Williams that made me a Disney fan. It was Robin Williams who got me interested in the entertainment business. It was Robin Williams who made me want to become an entertainer someday, back when I was an impressionable pre-pubescent.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman's death was awful, as was Heath Ledger's, as we feel that they have not reached their peak and are capable of so much more. But Williams' hit me in the gut, far more than I expected. I never knew how much he shaped me, how present he was in my childhood. I feel awful about it and I can only imagine how much more his family must be going through currently.

"Genie, I'm--I'm gonna miss you."

RIP Robin Williams.