Think about your favorite animated Disney film and what it would have been like if the starring roles (normally a prince and princess) were filled with different kinds of people. Whether its looks, ethnicity, or temperament, these alterations could completely change the course of a story. But just like any memorable movie (or play, or book, etc.), the supporting cast also plays a significant role in how a story progresses even if they are only featured in a string of scenes.
Think Cinderella without Gus-Gus or Ariel without Flounder. The sidekicks help to bring more dimension to the main characters; they help us to get to know them better. Ever hear that saying, you are who your friends are? Case in point: like Lucifer to Lady Tremaine or Meeko to Pocahontas, the sidekicks are extensions of the main characters.
The same could be said for the relationship between Aladdin and that adorable monkey pal of his, Abu. Think about their outfits. They wear basically the same one – the fez hat and the vest – even though one is a human and the other is an animal. I think this decision was a deliberate one. You immediately get the feeling they are more like siblings than just friends, and that they have been a team probably since Abu was a baby. They have grown up together, struggling for food and finding a place to call their home.
The strength of their relationship is clearly painted in one of the first musical sequences, One Jump Ahead, as Aladdin and Abu slip and slide and fool around just trying to steal food from the street vendors and make a meal. The “neighborhood” smiles and teases knowingly because they have pulled these antics time and time again, yet there is a lightheartedness to their actions as well. The first time we see Abu he is pulling a hat over a scary security guy’s eyes in an effort to create a diversion until Aladdin can successfully steal the bread.
Even if Abu is limited to monkey sounds and occasional grunts, he and Aladdin speak the same language. Their routines have clearly made it easy for them to communicate with one another in different ways. They know each other’s moves better than their own. They trust each other. If they didn’t, they never would have survived this long to begin with.
By the end of the song, it’s obvious that Abu is the little brother. He has a lot to learn. When Aladdin sees the young children eyeing their food and sifting through the trash, he doesn’t hesitate when it comes to giving them his half. For Abu, he’s a bit more selfish. He just went through all of that to get the bread, and now as he is taking a bite, he has to give it up? Aladdin leads by example and even though it takes Abu a few minutes to finally be the good monkey, he does do it. He genuinely looks up to Aladdin.
The magic of animation truly steps in when it comes to a character like Abu, as he has very little dialogue. Duncan Marjoribanks, the supervising animator of Abu and other favorites like Sebastian from The Little Mermaid and another mute character like Pascal in Tangled, was able to evoke such human emotion from a tiny monkey. It’s so obvious to audiences that Abu feels mad, threatened, frightened, excited, and playful that I think it is easy to take the skills of an animator like Marjoribanks for granted. He really makes it look like Abu was always a vibrant personality and never just a flat drawing on a page or even a real monkey in a zoo. Abu was animated to be relatable and even us as humans (most of us at least) can find a little bit of ourselves in Abu throughout Aladdin.
What was so surprising after rewatching Aladdin for the millionth time was how much Abu’s character affected the plot of the story. Seriously. Without him, we would have no story. His love of shiny things causes him to destroy the Cave of Wonders; after their wild, fiery adventure Abu is the one who steals the lamp from Jafar. Enter Genie. Prince Ali. Another chance with Jasmine. He’s a little character who has a big effect on the whole plot. Later, it is Abu who breaks the ice between Prince Ali and Jasmine. “It’s a shame Abu missed out on this.” Suddenly, Aladdin is caught in his disguise.
Abu is also pretty hilarious. While Aladdin is dealing with “street rat” fate and Jasmine is being forced into a marriage she doesn’t want for herself (even though it’s a Disney movie, those are some pretty dire situations), there is good old Abu to ease the burden with his impersonations of the sultan, funny interactions with the Carpet (another great “sidekick”) and his time as an elephant (while he wasn’t too fond of this transformation in the first place, he was positively beaming when it came to marching in the Prince Ali parade). Who knew a monkey could be such a comedian or so easy to fall in love with (for most of us, anyway)?
It’s not surprising that Aladdin flourished into a success when it was first released and remains such a favorite among fans almost 20 years later.
At first sight, it’s the classic love story with the humor, adventure, the creepy villain, and an annoying bird. But it is the attention to detail that brings it into a whole new world.
Imagine an Aladdin without Abu. Who would get our main man into trouble and then get him out of it? If you think about it, he is the only “family” of Aladdin’s that we meet. He is a part of his history; Aladdin and Abu are a packaged deal. Sure, Aladdin could have had a sidekick that wasn’t a monkey, wasn’t named Abu… I dare you to come up with a better fit. You can’t, right? Abu, the loveable, loyal furball that he is, is practically perfect in every way even if he’s constantly distracted by shiny things.
Now what are you waiting for?! I think it’s time to pop Aladdin into your DVD player.
Also see… Animation Month: A Guide to Beasts & Men