FILM / A message for the little people: Adam Mars-Jones finds the Disney studio's latest offering, Aladdin, heavily overlaid with the therapy experiences of its makers

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The Independent Culture
Disney's new animated feature Aladdin (U) consolidates the studio's achievements of the last few years, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. The period of decline that followed The Jungle Book (1967) is safely over, and a new formula has been developed: conservative animation with a sprinkling of state-of-the-art effects (sophisticated perspectives, for instance, that advertise the use of computers, or set pieces intended to put video games in their place), rich vocal characterisations, and a traditional story used as a framework.

If Aladdin is in many ways as good as The Jungle Book, it is all the more striking that something has changed. Earlier Disney cartoons were confident of appealing to both children and adults. Now they require children to experience childhood in adult terms - as if it wasn't happening for the first time, but had a meaning that must be dug for. The finding-your-place-in-the- world stories that these films provide are overlaid with the therapy experiences of their makers.

Children are encouraged by a new-Disney cartoon like Aladdin to be themselves, but it is a being-yourself patterned after the laborious self-awareness of the much-analysed adult. The world of cartoon, where it is as easy to break physical laws as to observe them, is an odd place to find an obligation to realise yourself, but that is what is on offer for children. Adults may be allowed to regress as they watch, but children are given an introductory course in personal growth. 'I've got to stop pretending to be something I'm not,' is a sentiment from Aladdin that could never have been seen as having merit in The Jungle Book.

It can't simply be the economic imperative of making a broad appeal to audiences that has produced this shift. Disney himself saw early that the huge cost of animation could be off-set by its indefinite shelf life. Those two decades of Disney decline were certainly cushioned by the revenues of an unfading back-catalogue. So perhaps what has changed between The Jungle Book and Aladdin is simply childhood, or how adults picture it.

Mowgli in The Jungle Book didn't re-examine his life, he simply grew up. Selfhood was not something he needed to work towards. Aladdin at the beginning of the film, though, is troubled not so much by his poverty as by the low self-esteem that goes with it: 'Riff raff, street rat,' as he sings, 'I don't buy that.' Still he has to prove it, if only to himself. The Princess Jasmine, surrounded by every sort of luxury, has a corresponding need to shed her privilege and discover what she is without it: 'I can't stay here,' as she puts it, 'and have my life lived for me.' They're both trapped by social circumstances.

Later on, when Aladdin has been helped by the Genie to woo the Princess, he goes through a phase of self-doubt. What you don't earn for yourself, you see, isn't really yours. Perhaps people only love him for his genie. The Princess, meanwhile, has a pert self-image to go with her aerobicised midriff. She is a more plausible product of having had a private phone line since age six and credit cards from 12, than of benign imprisonment in a palace. She insists with all the certainty of modern American values that she is not a prize to be won, apparently not noticing that within the conventions of the story, and the culture that nominally houses her, she is exactly that.

The strangest moment in the film must be when the Genie saves Aladdin from drowning, and expresses his relief after the event with a men's group hug. 'I'm getting rather fond of you,' he says, 'not that I want to pick out curtains with you or anything.' Love is not an idea that children necessarily have any difficulty with, or define restrictively, but male bonding is a little different. This surge of inhibited affection, overcoming fear of a body of the same gender (and that in a medium where bodies have a compulsory innocence), with the anxiety displaced into humour - you have to be pretty grown-up in a particular way to understand that. There is no sexual feeling in the film's central romance, but there is sexual insecurity in this moment of by-play.

In The Jungle Book, Mowgli was dilutedly but residually Indian, with an all-American voice. Aladdin and Jasmine in the new film, though admittedly not blonds, are free of any ethnic correspondence with the country where the story is set. The supervising animator assigned to the hero modelled him on Tom Cruise and Michael J Fox (though he also claims, bafflingly, to have incorporated elements of M C Hammer). This is not a heady brew. The supervising animator for Jasmine made heavy weather of his job. 'In the beginning,' he admits, 'I really struggled to understand who she was as a person.' To which the answer might be: she's not Hedda Gabler, dear. Relax.

There is no vigour of caricature in the hero and heroine, but minor characters are livelier. Three of the principals have animal familiars - Jasmine a tiger, Aladdin a monkey, the evil Vizier Jafar a sarcastic parrot. The pets recede in importance once the humans start talking to each other, which is some loss in the case of the monkey Abu, who spends quite a lot of screen time transformed into an elephant. The parrot Iago, voiced by Gilbert Gottfried, remains reliably entertaining, and would be the star of the show if it wasn't for Robin Williams' all-conquering Genie.

The term 'voice-over' is inadequate to describe the process of letting Williams improvise, and then devising animated illustrations for the hyperactive vaudeville that he produces so unstoppably. Williams showed some hint of his powers when he voiced the deranged bat in FernGully: The Last Rainforest, but here he is let off the leash. The film's rate of visual change accelerates wildly to keep pace with this vocal inventions.

If Williams gives his all to Aladdin - his is the first and last voice we hear - it's worth reflecting on what the film gives him. When he played Mork on television, way back when, he had a pretty comprehensive alibi (being an alien) for the tendency of his improvisations to break free of, even to contradict, character and situations. Since then, directors and writers have tried to find ways to integrate his style with the story (Good Morning, Vietnam, The Fisher King) or to include him in a story without allowing him his style (Dead Poets Society, Awakenings). Neither method has been successful. When he's not 'on', he can be rather drearily cuddly.

Unlike any other comic actor, Robin Williams has a style but not a persona (Steve Martin, for instance, can be equally funny verbally and vocally, but needs his face and body to be seen for the effect to be felt). It seems an accident that this quick- change voice is attached to a single, particular face, let alone the furry body he bared to the moon in The Fisher King. His role in Aladdin emancipates him from building a character or carrying a story; it rewards him for the sublimity of his interruptions. Robin Williams' genius only really works when it's safely away from the centre of a film - in Aladdin, in FernGully, and in his cameo as the King of the Moon in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. He's a genie, no question, but there's relief as well as exhausted disappointment when he's back in the bottle.

(Photograph omitted)