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Ask the Critic: How Aladdin changed animation

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Disney

This week, we sifted through the Ask the Critic mailbag and found numerous questions and comments about Inside Out and the so-called Second Golden Age of Animation. Pixar’s smash hit is the rare summer movie that is thriving at the box office and with critics, and I’ll also suggest additional prescriptions to cure the summer CG blockbuster blues. And, because it’s never too early, we’ll dip our pinky toe in the pool and take the temperature of this year’s larval Oscar race. Let’s get to it…

After the publication of my Inside Out review, we received a lot of feedback taking issue with my claim that 1992’s Aladdin ushered in the Second Golden Age of Animation. We also got this…

“Is the writer saying that what sets the earlier Disney movies apart from today’s is a ‘richer sense of narrative sophistication’ pointing to William’s ‘topical gags and celebrity impressions’ as an example? The early Disney movies weren’t just for kids. The animation was beautiful and the stories moving. Watching Aladdin again recently with my young one I found it to be relentless, noisy, and unwatchable. So did my child. I do think that some of the Pixar movies are lovely and can be enjoyed by all ages for example Wall•E and Up.” —Suzy

First, let me try to clarify what I meant about Aladdin. Technically, Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast came before Aladdin and were the first two blockbusters in what we now refer to as the Disney Renaissance. The First Golden Age, of course, dates back to the late 1930s, when Walt Disney’s Mouse House began a miraculous run with artisanally hand-drawn masterpieces such as Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi. Then, around the time of Walt’s death in 1966, Disney animation went into a long slump—a sort of artistic Dark Ages when mothball-scented snoozers like The Aristocats failed to capture pint-sized imaginations in the same way that the studio’s best films did. 

In the early ‘80s, the top brass at Disney changed, bringing in Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who recognized the potential in the studio’s glorious past, broke out the defibrillator, and shocked new life into the flat-lining genre. Not only did they dust off the gems in their library and re-release them on home video for a new generation to discover and embrace, they also invested in creating new classics. In 1988, the studio collaborated with producer Steven Spielberg and director Robert Zemeckis to make the live-action hybrid Who Framed Roger Rabbit—one of my favorite movies which also became a huge box-office success, reigniting the public’s taste for ‘toons. That quickly led to The Little Mermaid in 1989 (the studio had actually been developing the project as far back as the 1930s). Next came 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, which not only cleaned up commercially, it was also nominated for a Best Picture Oscar—the first animated film to ever be so honored. (It lost to the decidedly kid-unfriendly The Silence of the Lambs). Disney was firing on all pistons at this point. Which brings us to 1992’s Aladdin.

So why did I say in my Inside Out review that the Second Golden Age began with Aladdin? Well, if you go back and read the context of what I wrote, the point I was trying to make is that the new Amy Poehler/Pixar flick is the heir to Aladdin in the sense that it is a children’s film that works on two levels: as a candy-colored kiddie entertainment and as a more sophisticated joke delivery system for the grown-ups in the audience. As wonderful and beautiful and seminal as The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were, it was Robin Williams’ antic, pop-culture-riffing Genie who really invented that one-for-the-kids/one-for-the-adults joke formula that has become the contemporary blueprint of just about every animated film, whether it’s created by Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, you name it, ever since. The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were the blockbusters that revitalized Disney, it’s true. But I’d argue that when it comes to which film casts the longer shadow in terms of narrative influence, it’s Aladdin, hands down.

It sounds like the reader thinks that maybe a little of Williams’ Tasmanian Devil shtick goes a long way. And I totally get that point. Part of me even agrees with it. But his and the film’s brand of demographic-agnostic comedic anarchy was completely revolutionary in a kids film at the time.     

“It’s almost July which is traditionally the point of the summer when I suffer from blockbuster fatigue. What are the better (probably smaller) films out in theaters that you keep recommending to friends that might help me maintain my sanity?” —ENuff

This is an excellent question. Between Memorial and Labor Day, any movie that doesn’t feature codpiece-clad superheroes or CGI annihilation is at risk of getting lost in the shuffle. But summer is also the season of counter-programming; you just have to be willing to have the extrasensory instincts and tenacity of a pig sniffing for truffles. Summer is loaded with small-scale indie films and documentaries that, like the last kid to be picked for kickball, desperately want to be selected by you! It used to be that if you didn’t live in a big city with an art-house theater, you were totally out of luck. But with VOD, even cineastes in the sticks have access to must-see movies that are blessedly free of infinity stones and high-speed car crashes.

I’m thinking particularly of movies like Rick Famuyiwa’s Sundance sensation, Dope, which channels the nostalgic joy of old-school hip-hop into a modern-day inner-city caper that has both smarts and a giddy “sometimes you gotta say WTF” Risky Business vibe. Or Patrick Brice’s riotous adult sex comedy, The Overnight, starring Adam Scott, Taylor Schilling, and Jason Schwartzman, who’s quickly turning into the rare actor that you should really seek out in anything. I’m also thinking about director John Maclean’s surreal New Zealand-shot anti-western, Slow West, starring Michael Fassbender and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Clocking in at a svelte 84 minutes, it’s the kind of film that you don’t have to be a fan of westerns to enjoy. (Plus, the lyrical finale is a honey). And because no summer is complete without at least one below-the-radar French import, why not check out Thomas Lilti’s Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor? It’s a cold-eyed but compassionate portrait of a pair of first-year Parisian doctors making snap life-or-death decisions in the E.R.

Since summer is a boom time every year for some of the best documentaries looking to gobble up a few of the box-office crumbs left behind by studio tentpoles, I’d direct you toward The Wolfpack, which is a stranger-than-fiction true story about six New York City brothers who grew up almost entirely confined to a cramped apartment, where they only had their imaginations and a passion for movies to fill in the blanks of the outside world. The Seven Five is a gripping account of the dirtiest cop on the New York police force during the wild-west crack epidemic of the 1980s. And Liz Garbus’ stirring new film, What Happened, Miss Simone?, about the brilliant chanteuse and civil-rights crusader whose unforgettable voice packed a potent message like a velvet glove cast in iron. If none of those piques your curiosity, then let me suggest what I’ve been suggesting to everyone I’ve spoken to for the past three months: go on Netflix and binge-watch Bloodline!        

“We’re almost halfway through 2015, and even though most of the Oscar-caliber films don’t arrive until fall/winter, what films/performances have you seen so far this year that you hope get some consideration once the race really takes off?” —Lane

Jeez, it feels like it was just yesterday that we were watching Neil Patrick Harris in his tighty-whities during the Oscar telecast. But you’re right, we’re almost at the mid-point of the year, so I suppose it’s not too early to start reading the Academy Awards tea leaves. So, as of late June, what do we know about the 2016 Oscars? I’m afraid not a lot. Usually a slow-building buzz starts to emerge out of the Cannes and Toronto film festivals, giving us some hint of the year’s potential Best Picture nominees. But since Toronto is still a couple of months off, all we have to go on is the chatter out of the Cote d’Azur. Judging from that, I’d say that Todd Haynes’ Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara seems to be a film to keep an eye on. But that doesn’t open here until mid-December. So who the hell knows?

Of the film’s that have already opened, the only probable Best Picture contender I’ve seen (and I’ve seen almost everything that’s been released) is Inside Out. It’s so clever and touching and beautifully made that I think the film stands a very serious chance of being not only a shoe-in for Best Animated Film, but also Best Picture nomination like Up and Toy Story 3. I know there are a lot of people that are praying for Mad Max: Fury Road to become an outside-of-the-box Best Picture nominee, but I don’t think that will happen. I think the best it will get is a bunch of technical awards—though I’d love to see Charlize Theron get nominated for her performance as Imperator Furiosa. I thought Xavier Dolan’s gut-wrenching French-Canadian domestic drama Mommy was fantastic, but realistically, it doesn’t have a chance. I thought that both Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart were mesmerizing in The Clouds of Sils Maria and should be part of the Best Actress/Best Supporting Actress conversation when we finally get around to having it. If you care about the costume category, then Cinderella might surprise some folks. The best foreign film I’ve seen this year, Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly from Iran, was actually made back in 2009 even though it finally was released in the U.S. this spring, so it will take eggier Oscar egg heads than mine to determine whether it’s eligible for Best Foreign Film. Oscar Isaac’s charismatic performance in Ex Machina is worthy of consideration, though I’m not sure he’ll get it, and I keep telling people how great Jason Segel is in the Sundance movie The End of the Tour, which arrives in theaters on July 31. 

Honestly, I’m not trying to dodge your question. It’s just that, 1.) It’s too soon to know anything without a bigger sample size, and, 2.) I honestly think the year’s been a little underwhelming so far in terms of Oscar-caliber movies. So do me a favor; check back in October and let’s have this conversation again.      

Join us again next week and don’t forget to email your movie questions and opinions to me at CriticsMailbag@ew.com or send me a tweet at @ChrisNashawaty, or just comment below.

 

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