Defending Disney: Aladdin

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I think that when critiquing the ’90s Disney films a lot of people forget just how different they all are from one another. The Little Mermaid is very much a step to make Disney up to date with a new teen culture, but Beauty and the Beast is a mega-musical style romance, and now we have Aladdin. In some ways, we could say that Aladdin is the natural child of the two previous princess films. It’s a sassy, anachronistic, teen-culture film, and it is a mega-musical-style romance. It even has Lea Salonga doing Jasmine’s singing voice, coming from Broadway’s Miss Saigon. (She would later go to do the singing  voice for Mulan, and played Eponine in the 10th Anniversary edition of Les Miserables.) But, while the movie does have this natural inheritance, it is again its own thing, and really quite different from its predecessors.

The most obvious change is that this isn’t from a female perspective. It is noteworthy for being the first Disney prince story. Yes, Princess Jasmine is a major character, but it’s not her story. It’s Aladdin’s story, and that’s where the emphasis falls: on a male hero, who is also kind of a wise-cracking scamp, a little street, and who has more action-based adventures. For some reason when Disney made Tangled there was a lot of buzz about how the studio was stepping away from female-focused princess movies and doing something totally new. I guess everyone had amnesia, because before Flynn there was Aladdin. This isn’t new. The Disney Company, for being a studio known for such a recognizable image, has been noteworthy for not wanting to do the same film over and over again. That was a real concern all the way back to Sleeping Beauty, and it was only when the company was in a slump that its films looked more generically like one another. As for having male characters, from the start, Disney made a male-focused, scamp-type character who has more action-based adventures, and that was Pinocchio, the second Disney feature. However, the company had not decided to combine the girl-focused princess movies (of which there is only actually a small handful in a long list of features, by the way) with a more boy-driven story. It aimed to bring boys to princess movies without compromising girl interests. So, again, like Tangled (why do people think that movie is so unusual?).

However, the movie is radically different from the previous two ’90s Disney pics in other ways, as well. While The Little Mermaid has expanded character development and more playful songs and anachronistic references to being a teen, it’s still played very straight. It’s a late ’80s early ’90s youth culture, but, like the ’50s style in Cinderella, this doesn’t dominate the film. The era’s concerns are “cast” in the film’s fairytale world. And, Beauty and the Beast takes itself very seriously and is a very mature story, one of the reasons why it was a Best Picture nomination. So, what were they going to do with Aladdin?

I think that a lot of people who make something that was as much of a hit as Beauty and the Beast feel the need to do the same thing again, to recreate that success story. And, usually that doesn’t pan out very well. Disney made a great choice. Like their decision in the past not to make Sleeping Beauty a re-treat of their (successful) previous films, they chose to take Aladdin in a radically different direction. If Little Mermaid was Disney’s first blatantly teenaged movie, and Beauty and the Beast was its first straight-up romantic movie, Aladdin was a fairytale  buddy-comedy.

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Now, I don’t mean that the movie is just a dumb parody. But, the studio’s decision to make a comedic, self-referential movie, complete with Robin Williams as the Genie (a casting decision so successful that the studio will shoot itself in the foot time and again to recreate  that success), was a major departure from the rather self-serious princess movies. In fact, Disney had been known for trying to make its audience of little girls get teary-eyed, what with Snow White’s apparent death, Cinderella’s torn dress scene, the three good fairies’s reaction to the loss of Aurora, Ariel almost not marrying Eric, and straight-up stabbing The Beast in the back. This isn’t even counting Bambi’s mom or the entire Fox and the Hound movie, and what they’ll do to children’s psyches everywhere in The Lion King. And, of course, the films are also known for having very self-serious love stories, fights of good vs. evil, and so on. This is all still in Aladdin, but instead of comic relief being in a serious movie, it has serious parts in a comedic movie.

The writing and animation is very fast, especially with Robin Williams as Genie, who basically just does Robin Williams routines throughout the entire movie. The animation has to speed to keep up with his jokes, with all kinds of sight gags, physical comedy, and random references to other Disney films and pop-culture jokes.

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It’s a hipper Disney, like the Shrek before Shrek, but without deconstructing the fairytale elements. And, this new formula worked. In fact, adult audiences today, women and men, often list this as one of their favorite childhood films. I think that, looking back, the style and tone made me feel grown up, like I got the jokes and I was with-it enough to laugh at the jokes. I liked how cool and together the characters were, with Genie always getting the last joke, Jasmine’s independence, and Aladdin’s just… Aladdin-ness. He’s the fast-talking, street-smart sort of person that seems really cool to young kids, like he was Disney’s first non-villain badass.

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The animation is interesting in that it is just so fast. The movement problems of the past were over. The sight gags go by quickly, even by adult standards, and the movement is fluid, moving from realistic to over-the-top cartoony without ever being jarring. There is a stronger illusion of camera work, as well, and while some of the old CG work feels a little dated it was thrilling at the time, and best used in all the flying scenes with the magic carpet. The color scheme is interesting, as well, full of jewel tones and white palaces, making for some great contrasts. Unfortunately, like Little Mermaid, the trade-off for movement is detail, and if you’re looking for more of the lush designs of Beauty and the Beast you will be disappointed. But, this isn’t meant to be Beauty and the Beast. It’s less arty, but it isn’t meant to be. Its focus is on being comedic, fast-paced, and upping the ante for action scenes. There are chase scenes, escapes, treasure hunting, and, again, flying. It’s interest is expanding the Disney boundaries, and it accomplishes this.

The music is also pretty good, although I would argue less impressive than Beauty and the Beast. I can’t say I’m fond of lyrics like “But when I’m way up here, it’s crystal clear
That now I’m in a whole new world with you…” and I think Tim Rice may be an overrated lyricist –though far be it from me to criticize the man who penned “Go, go, go Joseph!” as an actual lyric. However, like the movie itself, the music is more lighthearted than arty and I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who really disliked the songs or didn’t think they were fun and catchy.

But, like everything else, this film also has controversy, so let’s get to it!

On the left: The film is racist.

On the right: Jasmine is immodest, the movie is too sexy. Also, the Sultan is an offensive depiction of fathers.

Everyone else: Why can’t I have a pet tiger? No, I’m kidding. There is no controversy.

First of all, the big elephant in the room: Disney does not have a great history with depicting non-white characters. Few very existed in early Disney, and among these are fleeting images of “the blackfish”, a crow name Jim (why? Just… why?), shadowy circus workers who admit that they cannot read, a super happy depiction of slavery… It’s not stellar. And, even when Disney depicts other cultures favorably, they usually end up in very stereotypical roles. So, the big elephant in the room with this movie is that it straight up calls Arabia “barbaric”. Also, people say that Aladdin and Jasmine look white while Jafar looks more “ethnic”.

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To the first criticism, I think it might be fair to consider that the story isn’t supposed to be “today’s” Middle East, but rather the setting of the Arabian Nights, with stories about 40 thieves and the like. But, that would still be a lot more acceptable if the depiction didn’t come from white America. Yeah, it is a pretty awkward depiction of a culture, and if you think that kids might not be able to process this I do understand waiting to show it. However, speaking for myself, I never considered that the Middle East was barbaric from this film. I thought that the rule of a specific fantasy kingdom, like the kingdoms in previous Disney films, had a very harsh code of law. But, this seems to come from inequality and the police, not from being of Arabian decent. So, I don’t think that kids are likely to come away as mini-Glenn Becks after a viewing, but I do understand the concern.

However, I don’t think that Jafar looks “ethnic”. I think he looks like a cartoon villain, even complete with a scary mustache. And while Aladdin’s voice is definitely American-teen, I think that the character is actually positive, showing cross-cultural sympathies with being put-upon and underprivileged, something all societies have. I think that making Aladdin more “street”, if in a cute and Disney way, does bring to life the fictional character in a way that resonates with kids, and that this was the goal rather that whitewashing his character too much.

Jasmine is sort of a social conundrum. On the one hand, yeah, the belly-baring, sexy depiction of a Middle Eastern woman does fit with some pretty classic race-fetish issues. In a world where white pop-singers dress up in sexed-up versions of traditional foreign garb, and people stereotype women of certain races as being especially s-s-s-sexy, I do see why people have a problem with this design.

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However, I would argue that the character kind of subverts this cliches. She looks at first like the stereotype, but her character is different, an independent princess, one who wants to even give up her royalty to have some freedom, who doesn’t want the men who see her as this sexy object. And, that kind of challenges viewers. Is the problem her design or our expectations concerning her design? (Basically, is she “just drawn that way”?) And, I think a Disney princess who doesn’t dream of a prince, who wants freedom, who stands up for herself, and who challenges those who try to objectify her or win her as some kind of prize (actual line addressed) is a good role model for kids.

And… also, I don’t actually think she looks European. I think the question is whether or not she’s a stereotype of the “sexed-up Arabian woman”, not whether or not she is whitewashed. I don’t think she’s particularly differently complected from actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, other than the fact that she’s, you know, a cartoon drawing.

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But, does the depiction actually make the viewers question their preconceived notions, that any attractive woman of Middle Eastern descent is a fetish character? No one thinks Ariel is a fetish character, and she wears less than Jasmine. And, Jasmine doesn’t act like a fetishized character. In fact, she’d probably be classified as the independent princess, or the freedom princess.

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As for the right’s concerns, I’ll just say, again, that if you’re really getting turned on my Disney princesses, you’re weird. You probably have problems. No normal person has this issue. And, I think it’s great that Disney shows that a woman can wear what she wants and still be within her rights to demand respect. So, I don’t buy the immodesty argument. She’s a 2D drawing.

Then, there’s that all-pervasive concern about the depiction of fathers. And, for once in the entire princess series, or perhaps the only time other than the King in Cinderella, the father character isn’t portrayed in a stellar light. He is a buffoon. That’s accurate. He basically is the King in Cinderella, but in some vaguely Arabian setting. He wants to marry his daughter off, and is otherwise kind of a nut. However, like I said before, I don’t think that the predominantly male creators of these shows are attacking men. In fact, this show has two very positive male figures, Aladdin and Genie. I don’t think you can point to a rather minor figure and say, “Ah, see, they hate men!” while the two main characters and heroes are in fact men. That makes no sense. But, they are not fathers and fatherhood has become a real brand on the right. I hate to be cynical, but I neither think these groups are helpful nor attacking real social issues. I understand the concerns of the people who buy their merchandise, but I don’t always buy the sincerity of the producers or the value of their product (Courageous, anyone? I mean, give me a break…).

Again, I don’t think dads become deadbeat dads from watching Disney princess shows. And, a lot of people have countered this by pointing out that at least Sultan is alive. Where is Jasmine’s mother? In the end, though, I think that, once again, this is about telling a story where young people make decisions and have to face frightening situations, and the anxiety it plays off of is having to do this without parents. That I think is the real purpose. However, I do see why a parent might be concerned with this portrayal –not because it portrays men badly, but because it might encourage a particularly sassy child to be particularly sassy. That’s a personal decision, however.

And, for what it’s worth, I never saw either the King in Cinderella or the Sultan as dads. I saw them as royals, which seems to be the real satire. I also heard, though cannot really confirm, that the Sultan was based on the Wizard from The Wizard of Oz, which, again, makes sense with the satire of royalty thing and the fact that these are American shows.

Again, like the depiction of race, it really comes down to how these issues are addressed within the household. If you introduce kids to very positive, multiracial role models, I don’t think that Aladdin will be the way kids understand the Middle East. I think they will see it as a fantasy kingdom. And, if you have good parent-child values in your home, I don’t think that kids will see the Sultan and decide to disrespect dad. I certainly never got that message.

In the end, I think this movie is innocuously awkward, trying a lot of things, succeeding at some and failing at others. It’s a fun movie, but also one that does require some further discussion with kids. Perhaps you could introduce your kids to Middle Eastern movies like Children of Heaven?

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I actually think that it’s good when movies bring up questions about how we talk about people, how we think of people, just so long as we discuss it. And, it really does a disservice to film as a medium when you forget to discuss the films and instead just mindlessly absorb the information. Parents have the duty to do this with their children, and children can handle it. They absolutely can have discussions about the movies they watch, and actually they really want to. Have you ever noticed how kids love talking about their favorite movies? Engage them. You might come up with something worth while!

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2 thoughts on “Defending Disney: Aladdin

  1. Love it! “Aladdin” is my favorite Disney movie, so it was interesting to see it dissected. I think I would use this blog post to jumpstart a discussion with my future kids someday 🙂

    Although one point of disagreement… I think the songs are awesome. I find the whole emotion of “A Whole New World” to be so romantic, the way they sing it together, just the whole scene (her getting on the carpet ride, the end riding it over the river and they’re all cuddly… anyway!). But I think the most emotional song is “One Step Ahead (Reprise)” : “Riff raff / Street rat / I don’t buy that / If only they’d look closer / Would they see a poor boy? / No siree / They’d find out / there’s so much more / to me…” I don’t know if the lyrics themselves are great, but it’s they *way* he sings, brings so much heart to this character. I agree that there is a lot of fun and comical elements to the movie, but it also has layers of deeper issues. (And I know basically already said that somewhere in your post… Just wanted to further point out in the song and make the connection that some of the songs are beautiful.)

    Lol Sorry got a little long and rambly, but it is Alladin and Disney and I’m a Disney girl, so can ya blame me? 😉

    • Hey, Cassie! Again, thanks for reading and for your insights! =) I’m going to be honest, even though I’m writing this I’m not actually a huge fan for Disney as much as I am a general film and animation geek. Which is funny, considering I’ve devoted all this time to promoting the movies. I’m more interested in its affect on pop-culture and what kids see in the films, and it’s development as art, than my emotional reaction to the movies. So, I don’t know, but I may have the wrong mindset to really get into the songs in that way. Because of this, I’d be interested in hearing alternative takes on the movies from a more emotionally invested perspective, one which is arguably closer to the directors’ intentions than what I am doing here. Although, as a kid, I did fall madly in love with these characters, and this was one of my favorite movies. =)
      I was just thinking about the music in relation to Beauty and the Beast, which I think is more complex. But, I don’t dislike the music. I think it’s fun and really serves the purpose of the film, and I do think that the songs are enjoyably catchy. Honestly, I just don’t like Tim Rice as a lyricist. I know that he’s very popular and he did write the lyrics to a lot of my favorite musicals. But, for me, I don’t care for his word choices, even in Phantom and Lion King. But, other than that, I don’t really have anything against the music. I think the movie has some of the most catchy and memorable tunes in Disney. =)
      Again, thanks for reading and sharing your insights into the movie! It’s always great to hear more about the films and to get more perspectives on how the films work, because they do reach everyone in a different way. And, that’s what I love about movies! They’re so personal to each viewer! =) Hope you like the next post, too!

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