Aladdin's Magic

  • I can open your eyes,

    Take you wonder by wonder,

    Over, sideways and under

    On a magic carpet ride.

    A whole new world,

    A new fantastic point of view . . .

    A thrilling chase,

    A wondrous place

    For you and me.

    THIS IS A LOVE SONG, OF COURSE. Aladdin the street rat is taking Princess Jasmine on a flight into the liberating skyland of first love. But the Tim Rice lyric, riding the lush carpet of Alan Menken's melody, also defines the sorcery of movie animation. Artists wave the wand of a pencil over a piece of paper and, like the most genial genie, create unbelievable sights, indescribable feelings. "Don't you dare close your eyes!/ A hundred thousand things to see!/ Hold your breath, it gets better!"

    And it does, in the Disney comedy-adventure Aladdin, produced and directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. Boy meets, loses and gets Girl in an Arabian kingdom of cotton-candy palaces, tiger-mouthed pyramids, wicked viziers, larcenous monkeys, misanthropic parrots, a truly magic carpet and a genie who changes shapes and personalities faster than you can say . . . Robin Williams! An enthralling new world.

    The old world -- the one of current Hollywood movies and TV shows -- is in disrepair. In its tatty bazaar, peddlers hawk worn-out notions as if the items held their former glamour. Hoary formulas (sci-fi, sitcom) near exhaustion, and a smoggy dusk shrouds the industry like crape.

    But for animation, this is a Golden Age. Not since the 1940s -- with Pinocchio and Dumbo from Walt Disney and the great cartoon shorts by Tex Avery at MGM and by Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones at Warner Bros. -- has the form been so commercially successful and artistically exhilarating. Moreover, at a time when mass art is fragmented, even divisive -- when virtually no species of entertainment has universal appeal -- the hip, comic ingenuity and emotional breadth of the best cartoons reunite the consumers of popular culture with Hollywood's surest instinct to please in a vast Saturday matinee of the spirit.

    On TV, the prime-time success of The Simpsons (the medium's best-written series, no question, no competition) and the cult appeal of Nickelodeon's gross-out, only slightly homoerotic Ren & Stimpy is matched in daytime slots by cartoon shows from Disney and Fox. In commercials and music videos, in Nintendo games and as a top-selling portion of the videocassette market, animation appeals both to adults nostalgic for their Roadrunner days and to ) kids, whose attention span just about carries them from one frenetic cartoon frame to the next. "Video has made children discriminating consumers of cartoons," says Simpsons creator Matt Groening. "My son's seen Bambi and Pinocchio countless times, so he won't put up with bad TV animation."

    The cartoon revival was dramatic on the big screen as well. Disney, which slumped after Walt Disney's death in 1966, regained its touch in the mid-'80s under the urging of Jeffrey Katzenberg, the new studio boss, and Walt's nephew Roy Disney, who godfathered a new generation of animators. The Little Mermaid (1989) not only proved that joy could again be a component of movie craftsmanship, it earned $84 million in its North American theatrical release. Last year's Beauty and the Beast outgrossed Mermaid by $50 million and was the first cartoon feature nominated for an Oscar as Best Picture.

    Such acclaim breeds competition, and in the past year half a dozen non- Disney animated features were released (Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, Cool World, Rock-a-Doodle, Bebe's Kids and Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland). Some of these had charm to spare; others were what industry analyst Art Murphy calls "spinach pictures -- family films that are good for you." Popeye eats spinach, kids don't; the six films together managed just over half the take of Beauty and the Beast. It all proves the difficulty of matching either Disney's financial commitment to animation (about $40 million a feature, compared with $12 million to $20 million for the others) or its artists' mastery of a storytelling form that the studio invented, misplaced and then, spectacularly, rediscovered. Walt meets Mickey; Disney loses touch; Katzenberg & Co. find Aladdin's lamp.

    This Aladdin is no prince in disguise. He is an anonymous thief, a homeless ghetto kid in the imperial city of Agrabah, ruled by a flustery Sultan and his Vincent Price-y adviser Jafar. On the streets Aladdin meets the Sultan's daughter Jasmine, who has rejected every royal suitor in the Middle East. Love and ambition smite Aladdin; a thirst for adventure seizes Jasmine. In fact, each of the main characters seeks freedom: Aladdin from poverty, Jasmine from her regal confinement, the Sultan from Jafar's silky domination, and the Genie from an eternity in the lamp.

    From the first moments, when a merchant (voiced, as is the Genie, by Robin Williams) offers to sell the viewer a "combination hookah and coffee maker -- also makes julienne fries," Aladdin is a ravishing thrill ride pulsing at MTV-video tempo. You have to go twice -- and that's a treat, not a chore -- to catch the wit in the decor, the throwaway gags, the edges of the action. Blink, and you'll miss the pile of "discount fertilizer" Aladdin's pursuers land in; or the fire eater with an upset stomach; or half of Williams' convulsing asides. Chuck Jones' verdict is judicious: Aladdin is "the funniest feature ever made." It's a movie for adults -- if they can keep up with its careering pace -- and, yes, you can take the kids. It juggles a '90s impudence with the old Disney swank and heart.

    The studio was just regaining its animation stride in 1989 when lyricist Howard Ashman (who with Menken wrote the songs for The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast before dying of AIDS last year) suggested a Disney cartoon musical of the Aladdin story. After he wrote six songs and a story treatment, Musker and Clements (The Adventures of the Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid) took over. But something was wrong with the story. "It just wasn't compelling," Katzenberg says. "Aladdin's journey didn't engage." At first, the hero had a mother with a personality forceful enough to overwhelm the callow hero. But then, every character and event did. "We would look at the story reels," Katzenberg said, "and even Jasmine was blowing him away." A year into development, the boss junked the script.

    Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio made Aladdin "a little rougher, like a young Harrison Ford," and dispensed with the mother. Jasmine was also made stronger, and the Genie's wish capacity was reduced from "unlimited" to the traditional three.

    These decisions were relatively simple to implement. But the drawing process is exacting, medieval labor, even in an era when computers can paint the backgrounds; an animator will spend a full day on a single second -- 24 drawings -- of character movement. To devise and execute the Genie's production number, A Friend like Me, supervising animator Eric Goldberg (the man in charge of the Genie's scenes) made perhaps 10,000 drawings.

    Casting is as crucial a decision for cartoons as for live-action films. Aladdin's voice cast includes curmudgeonly comic Gilbert Gottfried as Jafar's parrot and Lea Salonga, the original Miss Saigon, as the singing voice of Jasmine. But the true inspiration was to have the Genie voiced by Williams, whose comedy routines pinball from one manic impression to another. Every time Williams would lurch into a new character, even if for a second, the Genie would assume that form. In five recording sessions spanning 15 months, Williams simply revolutionized cartoon voice acting. "Until now," Katzenberg notes, "we have been entertained by hearing the genius of how Robin's mind works. Now, like an erupting geyser, in full living color, we get to see him thinking."

    In his half an hour onscreen, the Genie makes dozens of eyeblink metamorphoses: a Scotsman, a Scots dog, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Senor Wences, Ed Sullivan, Groucho Marx, a French waiter, a turkey, the crows from Dumbo, Eddie (Rochester) Anderson, a rabbit, a dinosaur, William F. Buckley Jr., Robert De Niro, a stewardess, a bashful sheep, Pinocchio, a magician, a Jean Gabin-style Frenchman, Sebastian the crab from The Little Mermaid, Arsenio Hall, a finicky tailor, Walter Brennan, a TV parade host and hostess, Ethel Merman, Rodney Dangerfield, Jack Nicholson, a talking lampshade, a bee, a U- boat, a one-man band and a quartet of cheerleaders. Many of these apparitions show up in the Cab Callowayish A Friend like Me, a showstopper in which the Genie displays his awesome versatility.

    Goldberg had a giddy challenge with Williams and the Genie. Animator Randy Cartwright faced a daunting one: to create a character, the Magic Carpet, literally out of whole cloth. The Carpet has no head, no voice, and mere tassels for hands and feet. Yet it has a personality that puts most live- action stars to shame. It can mope, strut, cringe. It is a gentleman and a matchmaker. It holds and kisses Jasmine's hand. It makes zigzag stairs of itself at the end of Aladdin's ride with Jasmine and, as she stands on her balcony, coaxes the lad up to kissing level with the princess. "He's very sensitive," says Cartwright, "and always trying to please. It's abstract pantomime."

    The man who paid for the Carpet, who gets to say no (and, more than occasionally, Wow!) to Disney features, is Katzenberg. "Animation films represent the heart and soul of the company," he says. "It's the blood that flows through this worldwide enterprise. And Aladdin is creating new blood." He is speaking in part as a movie executive; he knows that, where there's a popular Disney cartoon, there will soon be a sound-track album, a best-selling videocassette, a Genie cookie jar, a new ride to lure the customers to the Disney parks. He also knows that cartoon characters, and the folks who animate them, don't get gross profit points in the dozen theatrical rereleases and possible sequels. Last year the studio exhumed its 1961 feature One Hundred and One Dalmatians for theaters and took in $60 million -- most of it clear profit.

    But Katzenberg is also a moviemaker, justly proud of his studio's work in reviving the American cinema's unique contribution to 20th century art. Aladdin, with its headlong, death-snubbing herobatics, is a cartoon Raiders of the Lost Ark. Today's best animators, excavating and restoring the medium of Walt, Tex and Chuck, are triumphant raiders of the lost art.

    Animator: wonderful word. It means life giver. And, for the movies, life restorer.