FILM / Disney's new hit: very pulpable

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The Independent Culture
IT'S NOT often that a voice steals a cartoon. Donald Duck had his squawk and Yogi Bear his deep, dumb burr, but both toed the drawing's line. Mickey Mouse was no conversationalist, and Tom and Jerry, until their recent disastrous feature film, spoke in blows. In Aladdin (U), Robin Williams changes all that, matching his hair-trigger vocal impressions to the protean form of the Genie of the Lamp. With more metamorphoses than Ovid, he riffs through film and TV voices - De Niro, Schwarzenegger, Phil Donahue - while his blubbery blue body races to catch up. It's fun - though the catchphrases hit the mark more often than the mimicry - but also a little wearing. The Genie, like the film, is too eager to please.

Distortion, not contortion, is the screenplay's trick. It takes the oriental tale and turns it into an American dream of rags to riches, and all-conquering love. Gone is the sorcerer and his 'new lamps for old' ruse. Here, instead, is a stage-villain Vizier standing in the way of scape- grace Aladdin's match with Princess Jasmine. Gone is the skulduggery by which Aladdin won the lamp. There's now a line about it going to 'one whose rags hide a heart that is pure . . .' - which sounds like a positive discrimination clause. The shady complexity of the original has been swapped for a tale of black and white - or, judging by the skin colours of villains and virtuous, black and lighter.

You can also tell good from bad by their large eyes - Jasmine's are each as wide as her waist - and their teeth. The heroes don't have individual teeth, just a dazzling milky slash, which fits their toothless roles. The devil has the best toons: the evil Vizier, with his mean, stick-like frame and thick black eyebrows permanently arched in disdain; and on his shoulder, a wise- cracking parrot who looks more like a scarecrow.

The animation is everything you'd expect from Disney and modern computers. They will show you magic in a handful of dust - the lamp sprinkles gold powder, which settles as stars across the inky sky. A cartoon world has never looked so three-dimensional: when Aladdin and Jasmine sit overlooking the city, they seem perched on a precipice, houses spread beneath, palace minarets towering afar. The detail is meticulous, skin colour changing with the light. But still the characters' movements are a flickery blur. Like the songs, which scuttle by, these twitchy images cater to a tiny attention span. Details are plucked out at speed so you never have a sense of the whole world. Whereas Disney's classics relaxed as well as seduced, Aladdin flurries to the market place, seeking to satisfy all tastes. Were it not already the most successful American cartoon ever, I'd say they'd got the formula wrong.

To move from Aladdin to Satyajit Ray's last film, The Stranger (U), is to leap from frenetic commerce to unhurried artistry, craven superficiality to knotty profundity. As Ray's career went on, his style simplified and his vision deepened. The Stranger, shot in an almost square frame, largely takes place in one Calcutta living room. The scenes are long and, by Western standards, wordy, but they seem to glide into one another. Ray's eye for elegant but natural compositions, and the colour of India, prevent the film grinding into austerity. As the film begins to unravel its ideas about tradition and identity, the room seems to open out and reveal its secrets.

It starts with a letter - formal, graceful, deferential - which Anila Bose (Mamata Shankar) reads to her husband, Sudhindra (Deepankar Dey). It purports to be from her great uncle, requesting the traditional right of hospitality - which in the old days extended even to strangers - during a stay in the city. The couple's wary, agonised reaction reveals a wealth of detail about their lives, and their dilemma seems symptomatic of their, and many other Indians', divided lives. Their hold on their traditions is loosened by the pull of the West. Ray's supple screenplay makes the point even in the way people speak, breaking from Bengali into English words and phrases.

When the self-proclaimed uncle Manomohan (Utpal Dutt) arrives, he's like a figure from Ibsen (Ray filmed a version of An Enemy of the People in 1989), or J B Priestley's inspector calling - an uncompromising truth-teller who shakes up the lives around him with his wisdom. When Sudhindra makes to touch his feet in respect, Manomohan draws away: 'When your mind is free of doubt, then you can touch my feet.' Anila is less sceptical and more welcoming. She's typical of Ray's women characters, who tend to be more rounded than the men - less tainted by the British, having had little contact with them. In her saree and with her red spot on her forehead, she is more intuitive and less Westernised than her husband, who wears a pin-stripe suit. When they discuss throwing out the guest, he talks of 'showing him the door', while she uses a more domestic phrase: 'I'll whisk him away with the broom.'

As the uncle, Utpal Dutt, with his sad, bloodshot eyes, has a wonderful weary dignity. He has travelled in the West and Africa, as an anthropologist, but his knowledge of civilisation has sent him back to basics - he compares a cave drawing to a Leonardo. In the rush to progress, he seems to be saying, we've trampled over tradition. Ray is arguing for a gentler, slower pace of life, as well as film-making. The uncle, who is cross-examined on his identity by the couple's Rubik Cube- twirling lawyer friend, argues that getting to know a person takes time.

That was also true of Ray's films, which were exquisite miniatures. At times they were accused of being too rarefied, detached from the bustle and turmoil of the society around them - humanism makes nothing happen, seemed to be the charge. But The Stranger shows how the personal can examine the universal, how Ray's films were about, in the title of one of their greatest, The Home and the World. And despite a Rayishly benign ending, The Stranger feels like a despairing lament for a society vanishing before its people's indifferent eyes.

Mel Gibson makes his directorial debut with The Man Without a Face (U), the story of a deformed ex-teacher (Gibson) who lives as an outcast until he starts to tutor a small boy from a troubled family. It's a limp hybrid of Edward Scissorhands and Dead Poets Society. Though Mel's supposed to have been involved in some shady business with a former pupil, the film is blatantly rigged in his favour. It's made clear that he's a good egg - even if his face looks like a scrambled one. (In fact, only half of it is patchworked in scars - fans can feast on the perfect left profile.) The Man Without a Face might be Mel, the director, so characterless is his work behind the camera. It feels as if he has been too indulgent to his fellow actors, never goading anyone into a performance.

If you must see a comedy this week, go to I Married an Axe Murderer (15), in which Mike Myers (of Wayne's World fame) plays Charlie, a comic performance poet, who gets into the eponymous marital pickle. There are more laughs in Myers's portrayal of Charlie's boozy father, a cantankerous Scottish conspiracy theorist. And Brenda Fricker gives a winning cameo as his blowzy wife. Follow their example in tanking up on beer, and it might be a riot.

No amount of alcohol could raise a laugh out of The Concierge (PG), in which Michael J Fox plays a bell-boy with big ambitions. If you like spending aimless hours in hotel lobbies, it's for you.