This may not be the best of the decade-long Disney Renaissance, but I think most people would agree that it’s the funniest. It barrels right along, full of action and song, for the first third, doing quite well, and then everything is amplified, ramped up a notch, and thrown into anarchy by what is surely the biggest star turn in any Disney animated feature: the appearance of Robin Williams as the Genie. I mean anarchy in the best possible way. Animated features are never improvised, they are scripted to a fare-thee-well. But not here. They gave him a plot line, dialogue suggestions, and a microphone, and let him loose. The result is an explosion of funny stuff that must have kept the animators scrambling to keep up with the rapid-fire imagery. He did impressions of around 50 people, from Ed Sullivan to William F. Buckley to Groucho Marx, far too much to put into one movie, and the animators selected the best of it all and did a brilliant job of caricaturing them. The Genie is plastic, elastic, frenetic, kinetic, and always, always, always funny. Williams anticipated the anachronistic tone of movies that came later, like Shrek, and after at first being shocked, I was soon delighted. I think it’s safe to say Aladdin wouldn’t have been half the movie it is without Robin Williams.
Which is not to say the rest of it lacks anything. The story is good, and the characters, particularly the villain, Jafar, are well-done. In particular, bringing a magic carpet to life and making it a full-blown, expressive (though mute) character was sheer genius. Gilbert Gottfried, a man I find almost impossible to listen to as himself, was perfect as the evil parrot Iago, who must have been squashed a dozen times. Aladdin’s sidekick, a monkey named Abu, is funny, too. This is another song-filled feature that was turned into a stage musical, only this one was a 45-minute extravaganza at Disney’s California Adventure. We saw it and loved it. (I understand it’s closing in August, 2010, so if you haven’t seen it, hurry!) Again, the Genie stole the show, but there was more magic involving the carpet, which Aladdin and Jasmine flew out over the audience. In another incarnation, the carpet was played by a small, extremely gymnastic woman who brought it to life in an entirely different way. This is one of Disney’s best.