LEAVE it to Walt Disney Pictures to teach us something new about an old story. According to the Disney studio, the tale of "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp" did not originate in the collection known as "The Arabian Nights" or "The Thousand and One Nights" more than 1,000 years ago. Rather, it first appeared in a French storybook of the early 18th century, translated by a scholar who probably learned it from a Syrian colleague.
Just about anything can be grist for the Disney mill, however, from Brothers Grimm classics to contemporary fables. In its new "Aladdin," the studio has done its usual excellent job of making the origin and evolution of its story seem infinitely less relevant than its moment-to-moment impact on the wide screen.
Our hero struts and sings his way through surroundings influenced by centuries-old Persian miniature paintings and Arabian calligraphy - and through it all he seems as modern, accessible, and Disneyesque as if he'd been dreamed up yesterday morning by a Hollywood story consultant.
In this respect as in others, "Aladdin" is a worthy successor to such recent Disney hits as "The Little Mermaid" and "Beauty and the Beast," which appealed not only to children but also to the grownups who carted them to theaters in astonishing numbers.
The movie won't deepen your understanding of Eastern mythology, Arabic culture, or anything else of consequence, and it's regrettable that negative ethnic stereotypes are reinforced by some aspects of the picture. But since the point of the show is to revel in sheer fantasy, whimsy, and energy, the most sensible response is to sit back and enjoy the evanescent eye candy it provides.
The title character of "Aladdin," a street thief who wins a princess and vanquishes a vizier with help from a friendly genie, fits the usual Disney pattern. Openly modeled on contemporary media types like Tom Cruise and Michael J. Fox, with a dash of rap-music star M.C. Hammer for good measure, he's simultaneously brash and bashful in ways designed to mirror pop-psychology notions of teenage behavior. Jasmine, the princess of his dreams, is less carefully worked out but equally likable as a personality t ype.
Typically for a Disney production, though, the movie's best fun arises not from its hero and heroine but from a secondary figure who helps them reach their goals: the hyperactive Genie, modeled directly on the hyperactive Robin Williams, who provides the character's voice. "Character" is really the wrong word here, since this Genie is a one-person variety show of imitations, impressions, and Post-Modern pastiches whose voice and appearance can change in the twinkling of a Hollywood edit - mimicking child ren's favorites like Pinocchio, grownup icons like William F. Buckley Jr., and others too numerous to mention or even keep track of. Rarely have Mr. Williams's talents been put to better use, and all this without even showing his face!
Also worth special mention is the music score by composer Alan Menken, lyricist Tom Rice, and the late wordsmith Howard Ashman, who died not long after "Beauty and the Beast" was completed. Although there's no single song in "Aladdin" that equals the catchiness of "Under the Sea" from "The Little Mermaid" or the hilarity of "Gaston" from "Beauty and the Beast," their work is consistently genial.
When the animators pull out all their stops to match a particularly ebullient song - most notably the "Friend Like Me" production number, which recalls "Be Our Guest" from the "Beauty and the Beast" score - the results are simply dazzling.
All kinds of technical wizardry went into the making of "Aladdin," including computer-generated effects that allow for visual feats (the contortions of an anthropomorphic flying carpet, for example) that would have been impossible a few years ago. Still, most youngsters and parents will care more about the movie's on-screen appearance than its behind-the-scenes calculations, and "Aladdin" manages to be spectacular without seeming gratuitous or pretentious.
To my eyes, "Aladdin" has less narrative wit and from-the-heart imagination than true Disney classics like "Pinocchio" or "Dumbo" in years gone by, but such comparisons won't matter to young spectators who take "Aladdin" on its own high-stepping terms. Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, it's the best animated fun of the year, and you don't need a lamp or a genie to enjoy it.
* "Aladdin" has a G rating, although some moments might be too intense for the youngest children.