As much as we have tended as a culture to love stories about people in places of royalty, we also love stories about the poor and the downtrodden. We can relate to them, to a certain extent, and when we see them succeed, it tells us that we can succeed as well. So naturally, Disney decided in 1992 to combine both of these elements in Aladdin.
The basic story is familiar to a lot of people. A street rat known as Aladdin falls in love with the princess Jasmine, is commissioned by the megalomaniac Jafar in disguise to retrieve a magical lamp, which Aladdin then uses to become a prince, and thereby attempt to court and marry the beautiful Jasmine.
There are other elements too, of course. Aladdin’s comical buddy Abu, Jasmine’s awesome pet tiger, not to mention the hilarious Robin Williams as the genie. But to truly appreciate what the story is trying to get across to us, we have to understand a little bit of the film’s setting, and why the filmmakers likely decided on that setting.
Like many Disney movies, especially the ‘90s films, this one was based on a story that someone else wrote, although it’s not very close to its source material. This story was taken from the classic literature piece The Arabian Nights. The backdrop of that entire book isn’t important, but it’s basically a collection of Middle Eastern fairy tales. In the story of our titular character, Aladdin is a poor nobody in a remote village, whom a sorcerer approaches, posing as his long-lost brother. In a chain of events similar to the film (becoming trapped in the cave, using a genie to get out), Aladdin escapes, marries the princess, and becomes rich and powerful. The sorcerer then comes and tries to trick Aladdin’s wife into giving him the lamp, and Aladdin eventually defeats the sorcerer. Then the sorcerer’s brother comes to revenge, whom Aladdin kills, leaving he and his wife to live happily ever after, Aladdin eventually ascending to his father-in-law’s throne.
A pretty typical fairy tale. Here the main difference is the sorcerer. His identity is more closely tied to being the vizier (royal adviser) than a sorcerer. His plan is to ascend to the throne (although we have to wonder why he doesn’t just use his magical staff to do that to begin with), and he plans to use the genie to do that.
The setting, being Arabic, contains what would probably be most troubling to Christian parents—some slight nods at Islam. These are few and far between, granted, but there are a couple present. Jasmine’s father says “Praise Allah!” when she reveals that she’s chosen a suitor. Women (other than Jasmine) are depicted as being fully clothed with veils, a slight nod to Islamic culture. This is an important change, because the original story took place in China. Was this an intentional change? Is that integral to the point of the story?
It might have been intentional, but probably more for the point of having an Arabic setting instead of an Asian one, simply for the different style. The true meaning of the story is more noble.
Jafar certainly gets a lot of time in the film as the primary villain, but the true story is about Aladdin and Jasmine. Aladdin is a street rat who falls in love with a princess. So in order to make marrying the princess viable, he becomes a prince. Or, to be more precise, he becomes a sort of faux-prince. All of the gimmicks don’t actually make him a prince, as is pointed out several times in the film.
But here’s the kicker: Jasmine loves him anyway. When she finds out, her question “Why didn’t you tell me?” shows that she didn’t care. Ironically, it’s Aladdin’s insistence on keeping up the charade that causes Jafar to gain the upper hand in the first place.
I’ll leave the rest of that for you to find out.
So then, there are really two points here. First, the most obvious point, is that love cannot be based on a lie. Within that same point is to be yourself. This is an often misused point in our modern culture, used to justify homosexual activity or some other sinful lifestyle choice, but in this case it’s absolutely the right message. Changing yourself for someone else is never the right thing. It’s deceptive, really, and a lying tongue is one of the first things God mentions with the seven things that He especially hates (Proverbs 6).
The second has more to do with Jafar. He’s a megalomaniac. He wants power. To be fair, Jasmine’s father is a pretty horrid ruler. The country is clearly suffering from poverty and he spends more time playing with his toys than actually ruling. This is actually one of the things I dislike about the film, as it follows the 90’s Disney trend of in some way discrediting the father figure. That’s not what this point is really about, though. It’s more about Jafar and his quest for power. By all accounts, he should have won. There’s no way that Aladdin should have beat him. But he did. This suggests that in order to get good things, you don’t just have to have power. You have to have nobility. We can argue about whether or not that’s actually the way it plays out, but that’s certainly a good message. Good things come to the virtuous.
At the end of the day, the film is pulled off quite nicely, exquisitely, even (I like big words. They make me feel smart). Aladdin is oozing personality, Abu and the Magic Carpet are hilarious, Genie makes the entire show, Jasmine is cute, even being animated, and Jafar is pretty much terrifying, without ever feeling too over-the-top. That doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns, but overall it’s a good movie with a good message.
This review was originally posted on Let There Be Movies.