‘Aladdin’ junket nabs flood of press interest

A steady downpour here didn’t dampen reaction to “Aladdin,” Disney’s latest animated feature, screened to hordes of media and others as a work-in-progress during a multifaceted three-day press junket.

The festivities–which saw an opulent post-“Aladdin” theme park procession drenched by sheets of rain–also incorporated TV Academy Hall of Fame induction ceremonies and a press conference. During the conference, Disney chairman-CEO Michael Eisner maintained he is “incredibly optimistic” about EuroDisneyland despite recent media reports he characterized as an “attack” on the venture.

The unfinished screening as a means of building interest in “Aladdin” repeats a strategy the studio used in marketing its last major release, “Beauty and the Beast,” although the latest campaign is far more extensive. Based on the enthusiastic response Disney appears justifiably proud of the film and may rival its performance with “Beauty,” which shattered all previous box office records for an animated feature.

Taking from ‘Thief’

“Aladdin” is a somewhat different proposition, offering considerably more comedy than its most recent predecessor in addition to being a large-scaled adventure, with the story seemingly patterned in part after the 1940 version of “The Thief of Baghdad” starring Sabu and Conrad Veidt.

Disney also plans to tout the film for Oscar consideration, including Robin Williams as supporting actor for his work as the voice of the genie–a possible first that’s not entirely preposterous, particularly in light of “Beauty’s” precedent-setting nomination in the best picture category.

The “Aladdin” print showcased (about 50% completed, with the rest either in storyboard, pencil animation or cleaned-up animation) again includes several elaborate musical numbers, three penned by the “Beauty”/”The Little Mermaid” team of the late Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, another three by Menken with lyricist Tim Rice.

Where “Aladdin” differs most from recent Disney movies is in tone and style, with lightning-fast animated sequences to capitalize on Williams’ delivery (he also performs two of the songs) and plenty of hip cultural references seemingly directed more toward parents than their kids.

Beyond Williams’ performance the sensual assault includes screeching comic Gilbert Gottfried voicing another character and an array of florid colors also reminiscent of “Thief of Baghdad.” Disney officials here indicated they expect those elements to broaden the film’s teen appeal–usually an elusive demographic for animated films.

Banking on ‘Aladdin’

Disney is banking on “Aladdin” to be a major holiday movie, just as “Beauty and the Beast” was last year. In that vein, Eisner indicated the company’s imminent release of its fiscal-year earnings will exhibit results “as though there were no recession,” though he acknowledged Disney is “aware” of the downturn and that the economy had affected certain business areas, such as owned station KCAL-TV in Los Angeles.

Eisner added that EuroDisney probably won’t be financially successful within its first six months or even first year of operation but said the studio remains bullish on its long-term viability.

On other matters, asked about a recent magazine article identifying him as one of the nation’s cultural elite, Eisner said, “I don’t think I’m shaping values in America.”

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