I made a surprising discovery the other day. Back in the 1990s, Disney was so disorganized that they animated and released almost the same movie twice, and not in the “both movies have princesses and talking animals” sort of way. Here’s a challenge for you.
Guess the movie: the dark silhouette of a sinister robed figure meets with a humble thief in the solitude of the desert. The thief puts out his hand to bring the dark man with a dark purpose a treasure that will lead them to a magic lamp. The dark man hatches a plan to send an unwitting hero into the treasure cave to retrieve the lamp. Once the morally ambiguous, misunderstood protagonist finds the treasure, the dark man betrays him and leaves him to die in the cave, only for the dark man to realize he has mistakenly left the lamp in the cave with our hero.
Little does the hero know, the lamp contains a shape-shifting, wise-cracking, fourth-wall-breaking genie full of pop culture references and a burning desire to be free from granting wishes. After all, he’s been trapped in that lamp for a few millennia. The genie grants wishes, but there are rules, for instance: no wishing for more wishes.
Before the movie is done the genie falls into the hands of the dark man, the hero’s one true love is forced to serve his enemy, the palace is raised up to the sky by a reluctant genie, and the hero must fight the sorcerer (who is now in animal form). In the end, the morally ambiguous hero defeats the sorcerer and fulfills his promise to free the genie, who loses his powers and dons a baseball cap before he goes off to live a more human life.
So what’s the movie I just described? If you guessed Aladdin, you’d be technically correct, but that’s obviously not the movie I’m talking about. There’s another movie that also fits that description to a tea, and Disney was working on it at the same time: Duck Tales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp.
Duck Tales: The Movie was released in theaters in August of 1990, just two years before Aladdin hit screens in November of 1992 with it’s bigger production values, hit Alan Menken / Howard Ashman soundtrack and more Robin Williams ad-libs than any school-aged child could comprehend. The plot is almost exactly as I described above, except it asks the essential question never contemplated by its more famous (and arguably lesser) counterpart: “What if instead of Aladdin being a handsome, nimble, street urchin, he was a ridiculously wealthy anthropomorphic duck with a Scottish accent and a penchant for bathing in money?”
While Duck Tales: The Movie was a theatrical Disney release, it’s technically not in the official list of Walt Disney Animated Features since it was not animated by the official studio, but by a separate division: DisneyToon Studios (known as Disney MovieToons at the time). Duck Tales was their first theatrical production, later followed up (hilariously) by the direct-to-video Aladdin sequels (Return of Jafar and King of Thieves), and the terminally underrated A Goofy Movie.
So why did Disney rip most of the story beats from Duck Tales and incorporate them into Aladdin? Probably because nobody watched Duck Tales: the Movie. Duck Tales was an undeniable commercial flop, grossing less than such other classic Buena Vista releases from the same year as Ernest Goes To Jail, Dick Tracy, and the re-releases (not remakes or sequels) of Jungle Book and Fantasia. Disney MovieToons was not off to a great start.
I remember watching Duck Tales as a kid, and it’s an excellent addition to the Duck Tales universe. Christopher Lloyd turns shines as Merlock, Rip Taylor delivers a top notch comedic performance (as long as you don’t compare him directly to Robin Williams in his prime), and who couldn’t use more Scrooge McDuck in their lives? As far as the music goes, everybody know the Duck Tales theme song.
Having three kids, I get the opportunity to watch either version of the magic lamp story every month or so, and both of them hold up. Both of them are entertaining. It’s just that one of them is almost completely forgotten. Each time I watch, I find another quirky similarity, like that voice over legend Frank Welker voices the stuffed animals come to life in Duck Tales and Abu the monkey and the Cave of Wonder in Aladdin. Also of note: both of these movies contain just the right amount of insensitivity to Middle Eastern culture that was a hallmark of Hollywood movies of the 1990’s.
So how did this happen? In the end, it’s probably just that these divisions didn’t talk to each other. If it was ever discovered, there was no way Disney CEO Michael Eisner was going spend money sending either of these movies back to the drawing board on the off chance that kids would notice the overlap.
With the Aladdin remake starring Will Smith coming in the next few years, I think it’s important we point out that Disney has been remaking their own movies for a long time. Nothing is off limits, so I only need to ask one question?
Where is my live action Darkwing Duck?