Drawing On The East
For better or worse, the current state of cinema's animated output can be traced back to 1992's blockbuster film "Aladdin." Not only was it a groundbreaking film with its breakneck pace, marvelous songs, and increased use of computer-aided animation, but it also established the "star turn" in animated films, with its zany genie voiced by Robin Williams. There was so much talk of an Academy Award nomination for Williams that year that I continually have to remind myself that he didn't actually get the nod. But Williams' performance led to Hollywood's acceptance of animated films as a respectable gig; Will Smith is currently being marketed as the "star" of "Shark Tale," even though he doesn't appear on screen.
"Aladdin" spent many years in development before finally making it to the big screen, suffering numerous setbacks along the way. Originally, our hero was to have been a much younger boy, his aspiration to please his mother. At one point, after a treatment of the story, and several songs had been written, the production team was ordered to scrap their plans and start over. A deleted song from the earlier version of the story, "Proud of Your Boy," written by the late Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, is included on the new two-disc DVD set of "Aladdin," and it's a wonderful song. Clay Aiken's version on the DVD is syrupy, and it is composer Menken's demo recording that seems to capture the true spirit of the song. Lyricist Ashman died of complications from AIDS during the film's production, and Tim Rice was brought in to complete the other unfinished songs with Menken, including the Oscar-winning "A Whole New World."
Of course the story of "Aladdin" is based on one of the stories from the Arabian Nights. In the Disney version, Aladdin tries to win the heart of Princess Jasmine with the help of the Genie of the Lamp (Williams), all while dodging the Sultan's evil vizier, Jafar. After the aforementioned rewrite of the film, decisions were made to have Aladdin be an orphan, and a petty thief with a good heart, to make Jasmine a strong-willed girl, and to make each of their characters a little bit older, to better establish a romantic relationship between the two. The role of the Genie was also expanded once Williams signed on, and it's clear that the animators and directors loved his shtick.
Williams' many improvisations and impressions (among them Arsenio Hall, Jack Nicholson, William F. Buckley, and Ed Sullivan) are so memorable, that his performance threatens to overwhelm Aladdin and Jasmine's story. Just look at the DVD cover. Who gets the most "box space?" The genie. But Aladdin and Jasmine are given life through their respective voice actors (Scott Weinger, Linda Larkin), and through their animators. A scene with Jasmine and Aladdin watching a fireworks display contains genuine warmth and humanity, as the animators include some subtle body movements that emphasize how the two are testing each other. And as animator Eric Goldberg states on the DVD commentary track, their eventual kiss may be "the hottest ever animated in a Disney film."
"Aladdin" is full of visual flourishes. A magic carpet is given life despite having no arms, no legs, and no face. Animators studied MC Hammer to get the right look for Aladdin's baggy pants. The art of Al Hirschfeld served as an inspiration for the design of the Genie. Several Disney in jokes reference Pinocchio, Mickey Mouse, "The Little Mermaid," and those famous Walt Disney World commercials that ended with "[Famous person], you've just [won a major prize]…what are you going to do now?"
However, one drawback with the film is the somewhat stereotypical depiction of Arabia and its people. According to the animators, Aladdin was modeled on Tom Cruise, and Jasmine on an animator's sister. The other characters are large and/or fat (the Sultan, guards, older women in the marketplace), sultry (veiled dancing women, G-rated versions of course), or mustachioed hooked-nose Arab men (Aladdin is remarkably clean-shaven, despite his life on the streets of Agrabah).
Two years after the smash "Aladdin," Disney would soar again with "The Lion King," arguably the greatest post-golden-age Disney film. Thereafter, the company seemed to lose its way, with the too new-agey "Pocahontas" and the too-weird-for-kids "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Returning to the East in 1998, Disney adapted the centuries-old Ballad of Hua Mulan, a young Chinese girl who saved her father's life by disguising herself as a boy and enlisting in the army in her father's place.
As with "Aladdin," the first attempts by Disney writers to update the original story "Mulan" ended in failure. Producer Pam Coats explains on the "Mulan" Special Edition DVD that they originally made Mulan into a rebellious young girl that ran off to join the army to spite her parents. Of course, that completely ruined the story, which is all about honor, courage, and family. A second crack led writers to concentrate on the original legend, which they embellished with additions like Mulan's helper Mushu (Eddie Murphy), the Genie, oops, I mean, dragon.
Mulan is a girl who uses both her physical skills and her wits to succeed. She's a kick-butt Asian heroine. "Mulan" was the perfect film for the rise of "girl power" in 1998. The villain in "Mulan" is Shan-Yu, leader of the Huns, and as Disney villains go, he's not one of the greatest. But Mulan's fight against the Huns is not the central part of the story. It's not the reason she joined the army. She did that for an honorable cause, to save her father's life. It so happens that she defeated the Huns in the process. Even after receiving the adulation of the Chinese emperor and a crowd of people for saving the country, what Mulan really wants to do is be at home with her family.
Familiar bits of Chinese architecture work their way into the settings of Mulan, and again, the smaller details are what make the film a visual feast. Doorways, screens, and even trees look distinctively Chinese. Featurettes on the two-disc DVD set show early designs and storylines for the Mulan character, and how color was used in the film.
Other interesting features on the DVD set include deleted scenes and songs, and three music videos worth noting. Martial arts star Jackie Chan (who knew he was a singer?) sings a Chinese-language version of "I'll Make a Man Out of You" while demonstrating some moves. A pre-"dirrty" Christina Aguilera sings "Reflection," and leaves no doubt that in the great Britney vs. Christina debate, Christina has the better pipes. And "Reflection" is given another treatment by Latina singer/actress Lucero, though in an odd move, she is not identified on the disc. I had to access www.ultimatedisney.com for that information.
"Mulan" is a perfect family film, and a welcome antidote to the "Disney Princess" image that the company has been foisting upon little girls as of late. Let's hope this re-release of the film on DVD finds some new young fans.