A small change in plans. With the passing of Robin Williams, it seemed to be fitting to look at something of his. A look at his filmography, though, shows a large number of potential reviews, from Popeye to Good Morning, Vietnam, based on Adrian Cronauer’s experiences on Armed Forces Radio, to The Birdcage, a remake of the French-Italian film La Cage aux Folles, and to Insomnia, a remake of a Norwegian film of the same name. A wealth of possibilities to choose from showcasing his range as an actor. However, one of his iconic roles channelled his stand-up comedy – Disney’s Aladdin.
The part of the Genie in Aladdin was written specifically for Williams, but he almost turned down the role. It wasn’t until he saw one of his stand-up routines animated with the Genie did he accept. The result was animated magic. Williams almost stole the movie as the Genie. And while the part was written for him, Williams performed his manic improv throughout the movie.
The original story of “Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp” is a folk tale from the Middle East, passed down through oral tradition before being recorded in writing. The tale was added to 1001 Arabian Nights by translators in the 18th Century, becoming one of Scheherazade’s stories keeping her alive. Aladdin, according to the tale, was recruited by a sorcerer to enter a cave filled with traps to retrieve a special oil lamp. To help, the sorcerer gave Aladdin a magic ring. Stuck in the cave, Aladdin rubs his ring, summoning a djinn who helps him escape with the lamp. At home, he cleans up the lamp, summoning a more powerful djinn. The new djinn helps Aladdin become rich and marry Badroulbadour, the Emperor’s daughter, despite her being betrothed to the vizier. The sorcerer finds out about what has happened, though, and tricks Badroulbadour into trading for the lamp. Aladdin tracks down the sorcerer with the help of the djinn of the ring. After a fight, Aladdin triumphs, retrieves the lamp, and returns to Badroulbadour.
Disney’s Aladdin follows the general story closely. There are a few changes. The sorcerer and the vizier were rolled into Jafar, the Grand Vizier, and there was just the one Genie. There was no room for a second Robin Williams in the movie. The Emperor’s daughter received a name change, from Badroulbadour to Jasmine. While Badroulbadour means “the full moon of full moons”, an name implying great beauty, the name doesn’t flow naturally to an English audience, thus Jasmine. The story was moved from the far east to the fictional sultanate of Agrabah, a land with classic Arabic stylings. The changes are minor, though. The core of the story still focuses on Aladdin and his dream to become rich. Disney added a few morals to the film, but again the story could absorb the additions with no loss to the core.
With the main plot already handled, other subplots were added. The Genie wants freedom. “Phenominal cosmic power! Itty bitty living space.” Robin Williams turned in a performance that made the Genie larger than life but still human. He took a character with absolute cosmic power and made him funny, made him sympathetic, made him memorable.
Disney’s Aladdin works as an adaptation. It only adds to the story, not removing anything from the core of the tale of “Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp”. Robin Williams, though, added to the story, using his talents to entertain, thrill, and enchant a new generation. He will be missed.