Just Gimme a Rub
Who is the film Aladdin actually about? Sure, yes, it has "Aladdin" in the title, but if you look at the film from the perspective of 30 years and the whole of the Disney franchise, you'd think that Princess Jasmine is the most important part. She's the one that still shows up the grander Disney scheme, with the toys and shoes (and an appearance in Ralph Breaks the Internet) while title character Aladdin is nowhere to be seen. She's the Disney PrincessesReleased in 1937, Disney's Snow White was a gamble for the company: the first fully-animated, feature-length film ever created. It's success lead to the eventual creation of the Disney Princess franchise, which has spawned 13 main-line films and multiple spin-off movies and shows., he's just the street rat main character.
That said, Jasmine really doesn't have much of an arc, or a story, here in 1992's Aladdin (something they tried to fix in the 2019 live action remake, to mixed results). She starts the film not wanting to marry, but then falls for a boy she just met, and then she gets to watch as all the evils of the Grand Vizier Jafar happen to her (and her kingdom) but she doesn't really get to take an active hand is saving herself (or the world). She may be the one that's had the longest Disney career post-film but she has the least to do in the actual movie.
Aladdin, of course, is the title character and the film is ostensibly about him. He has the arc of the film and shows the most character growth. Aladdin (Scott Weinger voice, Brad Kane singing) starts off as a pauper on the street, stealing the good he needs alongside his best buddy, the monkey Abu (Frank Welker). Fate sends him on a new course, though, when he meets Jasmine (Linda Larkin voice, Lea Salonga singing). Jasmine had just snuck out of the castle but quickly fell into trouble and it's Aladdin who saves her. They have a grand time running from the city guards, and then share a quiet moment together before the guards catch up to them. Aladdin is arrested, and Jasmine is told he was put to death, but that was all a ruse. Jafar, having found the location of the mystical Cave of Wonders, needs Aladdin to head into the cave to retrieve a most important treasure, a golden lamp. Aladdin is the only one that can do this as the cave will only allow "a diamond in the rough" to enter (and that's ol' Al, through and through).
Aladdin goes into the cave but danger strikes when Abu tries to steal one of the other cursed treasures in the vault. Aladdin brings the lamp back to a disguised Jafar, who then tries to kill Al. Abu steals the lamp, leaving Jafar empty handed, and then Aladdin rubs the lamp, revealing the Genie (Robin Williams), and setting the whole plot really in motion. Aladdin wishes to be a prince so he can court Jasmine. Jafar, though, suspects there's more afoot, and when he sees the lamp on Al's person, it sets the big climax of the film into motion. Then Al has to decide if he wants to be a prince or if freeing the Genie, and removing the temptation for evil in the world, would be the greater blessing. Lessons re learned, the Genie is freed of, well, having to be a genie, and the princess ends up with her street rat prince anyway. Love and fireworks cap the film.
The story for Aladdin is "be careful what you wish for", with a quite literal lesson on that front. Aladdin wants to escape who he was, gets himself remade to be the person he thinks Jasmine wants. What he learns that is that the identity he makes for himself, that of Prince Ali, isn't the person Jasmine needs, or the guy he has to be to save the world. Where Jafar only wants power and will do anything to get it, Aladdin realizes that he can do more good as himself, and getting rid of power, and temptation, is the best thing he can do. He grows and changes, realizing he's rather be a street rat than a prince, and only then does he get everything he desired.
And yet, the film isn't really Aladdin's movie either. Let's face it, the real scene-stealing character of the piece is the Genie. The movie was basically tailor-made for Robin Williams so he could do his thing. After the animators convinced Williams to be in the movie, they basically let him go and do his thing. Williams was able to improvise all over the place, creating hours and hours of voice work for the Genie, only a small sliver of which actually made it into the movie, but the resulting performance is a master-class in voice work and animation together.
The thing about Williams was that he couldn't really be controlled. He had so much energy in his performance that he couldn't really be stopped or reined in (not that the producers wanted to). The goal was to get Williams to do just enough of the script to get the movie together, and then let everyone else basically react to him. Aladdin, in essence, plays straight man in his own movie (not that he doesn't get some good one-liners in on his own), while the genie takes over every scene, laying on jokes, doing impersonations, and filling every single frame with wild, over-the-top energy. It works, oh so well.
Going back and looking at the performance with a critical eye, what's truly impressive is how Williams is able to put his style not only on the speaking parts for the Genie but also in the singing. Despite th songs being tightly worked productions, Williams still layers in his asides, his impersonations, and everything that made his specific performance so wonderful (and so singular). Where the other voice actors has singers to handle the musical parts for them, Williams did everything himself because he had to. The Genie was his character and no one could replicate his style (as evidenced when Williams refused to return for sequel The Return of Jafar and Dan Castellaneta came in to do the voice, unimpressively). Williams made the Genie, every second of ever frame.
Naturally enough the movie really feels like Genie's movie. Aladdin is great, and Jasmine is solid in what little she's given, but it's the Genie that makes the movie. It's understandable why Disney wanted to put the Genie front and center on all marketing materials for the film, despite this going against William's wishes (which is where the static between the actor and the studio came in). When you think of Aladdin you remember the Genie first, everything else second. Williams wanted the film to be about more than him but, honestly, no one works this movie the way Williams could.
While that's great for Aladdin, and it keeps the film watchable all these years later (seriously, the Genie is still infectious for everyone that watches him, a timeless character for the ages) it did also send the wrong message to Disney. "Robin Williams is a star and this movie was a hit, so that means we need to hire other stars to do voice work and make our movies hits." They did that for The Lion King, which had an absolutely star-studded cast (and very few traditional voice actors), and that was an even bigger smash hit. And that's how we got Mel Gibson in Pocahontas, Danny DeVito and James Woods in Hercules, Minnie Driver, Glenn Close, and Rosie O'Donnell in Tarzan, and on down the line. The age of celebrity voice acting had begun and we still haven't left it.
I don't blame Williams for that, mind you. He clearly had an inkling of what could happen and he wanted his gig to be a one-off. But the studios (and not just Disney) saw how audiences reacted and took the wrong conclusion. It's not the voices that sell a movie but the performances and Williams gave a performance. He delivered a role that stole the show and it's magical. It's hard to think of another film where the celebrity voice is so essential to a character that no one else could perform it. Williams was one of a kind and Aladdin sings because of it.