The Wonders of Aladdin is a cousin to the sword-and-sandal films churned out by the Italian film industry in the late fifties and early sixties. Except that, instead of being set in some vaguely Biblical or classical period, Aladdin takes place in an Orientalist fantasy world of turbans, fakirs, flying carpets, and, of course a magic lamp that comes complete with a helpful genie (played somewhat improbably by the distinguished Italian actor and director Vittorio De Sica).
Like the sword-and-sandals films, Aladdin is long on spectacle and short on sense, with the particular stars in this case being the costumes by Rosine Delamare and Giorgio Desideri and the art direction by Flavio Mogherini, which look marvelous in this restored version. Another point of interest is the appearance of the well-known giallo director Mario Bava as second unit director; one of his responsibilities was the movie’s special effects, which are reasonably impressive considering this film was made in 1961.
The point of departure for The Wonders of Aladdin is the well-known “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” story from the Arabian Nights collection, but all it takes from that story are the name of Aladdin and the idea of a wish-granting genie in a lamp. In this version, Aladdin’s widowed mother (Adriana Facchetti—the cast is mostly European, and there’s a corresponding amount of dubbing) buys her layabout son (Donald O’Connor), a lamp so he “can have light at night, like a rich man.” OK, whatever, and that’s the best response to much of what happens in this Aladdin.
The plot is just a string of episodes designed to display the maximum amount of female flesh and to show off the aforementioned special effects. Aladdin has one adventure after another, accompanied by the beautiful Djalma (Nöelle Adam) and the comic-relief Omar (British actor Milton Reid). Who knew there were “Amazons” in the middle of the desert, for instance? Or that they dressed like the Las Vegas version of harem girls? It’s all very silly, and the Orientalist stereotypes prevalent throughout are offensive to modern eyes–slavery and torture are accepted as givens, and of course the Grand Vizier (Fausto Tozzi) is a letch—although for that reason Aladdin is useful as a document preserving what was considered acceptable in the cinema at the time. Of course, Disney’s animated Aladdin, made 31 years later, is guilty of some of the same sins, so perhaps things don’t change as much as we think they do.
O’Connor is the biggest name attached to Aladdin, but at 35 he was much too old for a role intended for a 19-year-old. Still, he’s charming enough, and makes a sincere attempt to appear sprightly, but he still comes off like one of the boy-men in a Judd Apatow film who, despite approaching middle age, are determined to continue living like entitled adolescents as long as possible. Sad to say, Aladdin doesn’t give O’Connor much to do in the way of either dancing or acrobatics, so don’t expect to see the kind of brilliance he displayed in Singin’ in the Rain, a film made only 9 years before this one.
For his part, O’Connor found the film to be a trying experience in more ways than one. Not only did he suffer a hemorrhage during filming that required a trip to the hospital, but he and director Harry Levin and writer Henry Motofsky were arrested when they accidentally crossed the border from Tunisia (where the film was being shot) to Algeria. O’Connor is reported to have declared, after that experience, that the only location he was interested in going to in the future was his own backyard. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Wonders of Aladdin is distributed on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber, as a 4K restoration that looks and sounds amazing. Extras on the disc include an audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas and trailers for several films.