`Aladdin': Dream Of A Genie

XXX 1/2 "Aladdin," feature-length cartoon with the voices of Robin Williams, Brad Kane, Douglas Seale, Scott Weinger, Lea Salonga. Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, from a script by Musker, Clements, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. Alderwood, Bay, Broadway Market, Crossroads, Everett Mall, Factoria, Kent, Oak Tree, Renton Village, Seatac Mall. "G" - General audiences.

More like a vintage Bugs Bunny cartoon stretched to feature length than a replay of what worked in the phenomenally successful "Beauty and the Beast" or "The Little Mermaid," Disney's latest animated feature is a thoroughly satisfying musical-comedy romp.

Because of the show-bizzy emphasis, the title character, a street urchin who's fallen in love with a liberated princess, has to work hard to make the story his. From the moment he rubs his magic lamp, the movie is stolen by an impudent, wisecracking genie who is anything but subservient to his latest master.

This creature gives playful advice about how Aladdin should handle his three wishes (he quickly eliminates the possibility of wishing for more wishes), he gives him hints about what might work, but most of all he wants to entertain with the obsessive fervor of a stand-up comic who just can't quit.

The idea of playing the Arabian Nights for laughs isn't exactly new. The near-sighted Mr. Magoo bumbled through as Aladdin's uncle in the feature-length 1959 cartoon, "1001 Arabian Nights," and the 1924 and 1940 live-action versions of "The Thief of Bagdad" thrived on comedy relief.

But Disney's animators have turned the storyline into an opportunity for nonstop comedy, thanks largely to the vocal improvisations of Robin Williams, whose performance as the sassy genie is the chief source for the movie's visual-aural inspirations.

Williams did essentially the same thing earlier this year as the demented Batty Koda in "FernGully . . . The Last Rainforest," but the animators on that film didn't follow his lead and illustrate his lightning-quick impersonations.

Encouraged by Eric Goldberg, an outsider who was brought into the Disney ranks to become supervising animator on the genie's character, "Aladdin's" animators do. They match Williams' impressions of Jack Nicholson, Ed Sullivan, Senor Wences, Rodney Dangerfield, Arnold Schwarzenegger and William F. Buckley with drawings inspired by Al Hirschfeld's witty portraits of celebrities. Pinocchio even makes a cameo appearance, along with Sebastian from "The Little Mermaid," and there's even a reference to "Fantasia."

The result is a cartoon that's visually as dense as Williams' verbal flights. Just to catch everything, you'll want to see it again almost immediately.

Usually it's the villain who gets this kind of treatment in a cartoon fantasy. Yet even if Williams overwhelms him, the evil vizier, Jafar, is effectively voiced by Jonathan Freeman. As he schemes to depose the sultan, marry the princess and do away with Aladdin, Freeman and the animators create a formidable foe.

Modeled on Tom Cruise in "Top Gun," Aladdin is played by Scott Weinger, though his songs go to Brad Kane. He's more forceful than previous Disney cartoon heroes, but his princess (speaking voice by Linda Larkin and singing voice by Lea Salonga) owes quite a lot to the politically correct Belle in "Beauty and the Beast." Their truly splendiferous magic carpet owes a lot to computer animation.

Although composer Alan Menken's name is placed quite prominently in the credits, the music man behind "Beauty and the Beast," "Newsies," "Little Shop of Horrors" and "The Little Mermaid" has turned out his most formulaic score to date. This is not to say that it's unpleasant or lacking in charm, but even the catchiest of the tunes, "A Whole New World," has a commercial quality that is unfortunately underlined by Tim Rice's lyrics and an elevator-music rendition that plays under the closing credits.

"Aladdin" marks the last collaboration between Menken and Howard Ashman, who completed the lyrics to three of the songs before he died of AIDS last year. These include an amusingly brash opening number, "Arabian Nights," and Williams' clever shape-changing song, "Friend Like Me." While they're not as instantly, insistently hummable as "A Whole New World," they may turn out to be better company during repeat viewings.