And now, the 90s. And also, Disney. Turns out that these two things ended up meshing together quite well and would continue to do so through the rest of the decade, as the animation studio was knee-deep into a resurgence in creativity and popularity known fondly today as the Disney Renaissance. Hot off the trails of their mega critical and financial success 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, there was even more pressure to recreate this magic with their next film the following year. This next film would be Aladdin, a musical adaptation of One Thousand and One Nights, and while its overall critical and commercial reception didn’t quite mirror that of Beauty and the Beast (nor The Lion King a couple years later), its mark left is nonetheless pretty notable.
Much can be said for the many qualities of the film itself, both positive and not-so-positive – but this is a music review! Composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Tim Rice, the romantic duet “A Whole New World” is one of five original songs used in the film and arguably the most beloved. The original version was performed in the film by Brad Kane as Aladdin and Lea Salonga as Princess Jasmine, and is pretty much the sweeping centerpiece of the film, as far as the love story’s development is concerned. Practically every film in the Disney Renaissance era had a Broadway-style song like this somewhere in the soundtrack, usually in the form of a romantic ballad or a grandiose soliloquy by the protagonist who desires something greater than what they have at the moment. And of all such songs, “A Whole New World” is one of the most definitive.
So then, the decision was made to recreate this into a longer, slower R&B duet, releasing it as a single and including it in the end credits of Aladdin itself. But why? Well, it does make sense once one considers the previous success of the pop ballad of Beauty and the Beast‘s title song, which was performed by Céline Dion and, yes, Peabo Bryson. This version made the top ten, marking a triumphant return for Disney songs into the pop charts and helping catapult the newcomer Dion into superstardom. So of course, there would be a demand to repeat this success with the next film in the Disney canon – they even brought back Bryson to sing the male parts and yet another relatively little-known pop performer for the female parts. Commercially, “A Whole New World” proved an even greater success than “Beauty and the Beast”, hitting #1 on the pop charts and thereby ending Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” record-setting 14 weeks at the top. Although, unfortunately, Regina Belle’s future never came even close to mimicking that of Céline Dion’s. Can’t win ’em all, I guess.
But how does the single version of “A Whole New World” hold up to its original? Well, they both have positive qualities in very different places. While Brad Kane’s singing in the movie version has never been a favorite of mine, Lea Salonga’s is always so divine and her enthusiasm in the climactic key change remains a favorite quality of the recording. With Bryson and Belle’s cover, however, things get a little trickier. It’s clear that the both of them possess a remarkable vocal talent, but this may not be the track to show it off. The song was, from the start, meant to be more of a midtempo sing-along tune; when slowed down for an adult contemporary vibe, there is just far too much breathing room. There really aren’t too many lyrics to the original song, and once the singers have to resort to repeating previous lyrics by the middle of the recording in order to fill out the extra two minutes remaining, you know trouble is afoot.
Needless to say, though, this isn’t bad. As mentioned before, the singers are perfectly competent, even when they do over-sing. While some of Tim Rice’s lyrics don’t exactly translate well in this context (namely, “Tell me, princess”), for the most part it remains pretty lovely. Nonetheless, the production feels dated from the very first second, with the super 90s twinkly keyboards throughout and a pathetic guitar solo before the final third. And like I said before, it just goes on way too long – certainly not helped by the false ending that occurs before Peabo comes in again with another “A whole new world…”. It certainly could have been a whole lot worse, but ultimately the only reason this existed was to turn another profit for the folks involved, and there’s really no need to rush out to give it a listen in the first place. It does hold a place in heart, though, if only for nostalgia’s sake. I guess that’s the one big thing it’s got going for it.