This is Disney Reflections, a series of monthly posts in which I compare Disney animated fairy tales to the original stories.
Made in 1992, this movie has several notable distinctions: being the first Disney fairy tale to both draw on a non-European story and take place in a non-European setting, for one thing. It also features the first Disney prince and princess of colour – admittedly with the wrong accents and slightly Anglicised features, but it’s a start – and is the first Disney fairy tale to centre around a male character.
The fairy tale: Well, this is awkward. I deliberately did not review ‘Aladdin’ for the Fairy Tale Tuesday project because I knew it would be part of the Sharazad Project, only I have not yet reached that part. This post is going to be ENORMOUS.
The telling I’m using today comes from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ A Book of Wizards and begins in ‘an eastern country’, which is about as non-specific as it can be. Aladdin is the son of an impoverished tailor but totally disinterested in the trade or, in fact, anything resembling work. The stress of his footloose behaviour takes its toll on the family; Aladdin’s father falls ill and dies and his mother is left to scrape by as best she can alone.
One day a wizard passes in the street, sees Aladdin skylarking and decides he’ll do for a very special job. The wizard inquires with a nearby butcher to find out the boy’s name and life story, learning enough to come up with a plan. Aladdin is astonished when a stranger comes over and embraces him; when the wizard announces he’s Aladdin’s long-lost uncle, come home to share his financial good fortune with his ‘brother’, it seems like a miracle. The wizard offers help to his widowed ‘sister-in-law’, agrees to set Aladdin up as a shopkeeper and generally acts the part of a godsend.
After a while he takes Aladdin into the country, allegedly for a little uncle-nephew bonding trip, but eventually they get to the point of it all. In a valley close to the city, the wizard performs a piece of simple fire magic to reveal a trapdoor. Freaked out, Aladdin tries to run. He’s hauled back. “Obey me, and your fortune is made,” the wizard declares, “but I will have nothing to do with cowards!” Okay, you go down the scary hole in the ground then.
Aladdin doesn’t say that. Promised that fabulous riches lie below, he descends into an underground palace, armed only with a ring that he’s told will protect him from harm. He passes through a subterranean orchard where gems grow instead of fruit, into a terrace, where an ordinary lamp sits in a niche. That’s all the wizard wants. Aladdin fills his pockets with the jewels, not knowing they’re valuable but thinking his mother will like the pretty colours, and climbs back up to the trapdoor. As he reaches for the wizard’s hand to be pulled out, his ‘uncle’ demands to be given the lamp first. Aladdin can’t get at it given his position, but the wizard goes quite wild at his refusal and scrabbles at Aladdin’s hand in an attempt to retrieve the ring. The frightened boy’s grip is too tight for him to succeed. Instead, the wizard seals him down in the vault and flies off to brood in Africa.
Abandoned, Aladdin beats his fists on immoveable rock and searches desperately for another way out, to no avail. He sobs hopelessly in the dark. What he doesn’t know is that the lamp is a magical artefact of extraordinary power, but that this power could only be the wizard’s if it was passed willingly into his hands. He also doesn’t know that the ring is magic too – he pulls it off, intending to throw it away in a gesture of disgust, but the touch causes a sudden flash of light and a genie arises from the ground, asking his will. Aladdin begs to be freed from the cavern. The genie duly deposits him in the valley and Aladdin runs all the way home.
Once he’s told his mother of his dreadful adventure, he gives her the lamp to sell, since they don’t have an evil benefactor to buy them things any more. Aladdin’s mother starts cleaning the lamp to make it more presentable and a second genie appears from nowhere, ready for her commands. Utterly freaked out, she wants him to go away, but Aladdin has a little more experience and asks for the genie to fetch them a meal. They get a veritable feast on silver tableware that Aladdin later sells for more food. With his two magic slaves, Aladdin is sure all their problems are over. His mother just wants him to get a decent job, but that’s sure as hell not happening.
For a few years all goes well. Aladdin grows up a bit, starts taking an interest in trade and realises how much those stones he collected are worth. While he’s walking around the city considering his options a herald strides through the street demanding everyone close their windows so that the sultan’s daughter can pass unseen to the bath house. Aladdin, who’s still not a great person, hides behind the bath house door so that as she takes off her veils, he can see her beautiful face. So beautiful, in fact, that Aladdin falls for her on the spot and goes home to plot their marriage.
His mother thinks it is a pipe dream. Aladdin thinks he has magic slaves for precisely this sort of thing and sets them to work right away. He fills a dish with the jewels from the cavern and sends his mother to the palace with them the next morning. The sultan is thrilled with the present but his vizier was hoping to get the princess married off to his own son and tells his boss he can give a better offer. Aladdin’s proposal is put off for three months while the sultan waits to see if that’s true. He honestly doesn’t care who gets his daughter as long as they make him really rich in the process.
The vizier’s a bit desperate. He sells off all the land he’s got in order to match Aladdin’s offer and the sultan accepts his gold, though in secret so he needn’t give the jewels back. Neither understand yet quite what they’re up against. The force of gossip, for one thing; word spreads and on the day of the wedding Aladdin’s mother brings home the news. Straight after the wedding feast, Aladdin has the Slave of the Lamp bring the couple to his house. The groom is thrown outside, leaving the terrified princess alone. Aladdin promises to ‘guard’ her, which means standing in the doorway all night with a sword. A+ wooing, Aladdin, would you like to set fire to the bed too?
In the morning he has the slave take the couple back, and the princess tells her mother everything, but of course is not believed. When the same events take place the next night, however, the vizier’s son asks for a divorce and the sultan grants it.
Aladdin sends his mother back to the palace to repeat his proposal.
The sultan sees an opportunity and demands his daughter’s new suitor prove his worth – financial worth, that is, the bridal gift being a procession of slaves loaded down with forty trays of fine jewels. The Slave of the Lamp provides a suitably glittering assembly and the sultan is so pleased he accepts Aladdin’s proposal on the spot. Aladdin gets the genie to work right away on preparing fabulous outfits for himself and his mother, plus another procession of slaves to accompany him and carry his conjured wealth. Crowds turn out to watch him go past, cheering under a rain of gold coins. Not satisfied with this display, Aladdin asks for a piece of land and has the genie construct a glorious castle within twenty four hours. Only then does Aladdin ask the princess herself for her hand, and marry her.
The first few years of their marriage are as happy as limitless luxury can make them. The wizard, however, has not forgotten the lamp. Upon hearing that Aladdin escaped his tomb, accessed the lamp’s power and married into royalty, he decides it’s time to make a move. He returns to the city, setting himself up with a tray of shiny copper lamps and walks about offering “New lamps for old!”. Aladdin himself is absent on a hunting trip. The princess hears the mockery of the crowd outside her palace and is amused, sending out a slave with an old lamp to exchange for new. It is, of course, the magic lamp she gives. How could she know?
That night, the wizard summons the Slave of the Lamp. He orders that the palace and everyone inside be taken to Africa, and his will is duly done.
The sultan may not be a great dad, but he reacts with suitable outrage when his daughter and her entire house disappear overnight. Capitalising on that rage, the resentful vizier suggests Aladdin’s execution. He’s seized on his way back from the hunt and is about to be killed, without even knowing what’s happened – but all that largesse pays off and a mob descends on the palace to rescue him. The sultan is forced to pardon him and finally explain what’s wrong. “You have done away with my daughter!” he shouts. “Is it not just that I should have your head?” Aladdin asks for forty days grace to find his wife and sets off. It takes him four days of misery to remember he has another genie.
His first demand is obviously for the Slave of the Ring to bring back both palace and wife, but that’s against the Genie Code so he settles for second-best and has himself transported to where the palace currently stands, right under his wife’s window. A slave recognises him and tells the princess. She sneaks him in through a side door for a joyful reunion. By now the princess knows of the lamp’s power, the wizard carries it about constantly, but Aladdin is riding high and determined to get it back. He heads into a nearby city, swaps clothes with a random passerby and buys poison. He brings this back to the princess, then hides in a cupboard.
She dresses up in her loveliest clothes and invites the wizard to eat with her, to all appearance a woman making the best of her new situation. When she asks to taste the wine of his country, the wizard is only too delighted to oblige her. While he’s absent fetching it, the princess pours the poison into her cup and her own wine over the top of that. She suggests they exchange cups as a gesture of goodwill. The wizard downs the poisoned wine and falls dead.
Aladdin springs forth from the cupboard to take back his lamp and return everyone home. The sultan is overjoyed to have his daughter safe, asks Aladdin’s forgiveness and declares ten days holiday for the whole city. And they all live happily ever after, except the hundred or so slaves Aladdin conjured up, and the captive genies who have to obey his every whim, and the vizier, who is presumably broke.
Happy endings are entirely a matter of perspective.
The film: The story is set somewhere in the Middle East, and we know that because the intro is a musical number too full of clichés to be as catchy as it is. Having been reviewing Sharazad’s stories for six months now, I’m amused to note that the first character we meet is a merchant. It’s always a merchant. He’s speaking directly to the camera, it’s very fourth wall, and as it pans away in apparent disinterest he brings out his ace: a mysterious lamp. He begins to tell the story…
It begins one night when two men meet up in the desert: a vizier and a thief. The thief has acquired one half of a golden scarab and is reluctant to hand it over without concrete payment, but the vizier’s parrot swiftly filches it and when the two halves are joined together the beetle turns abruptly animate, flying away. Where it lands, a sand dune transforms into a vast feline maw. Is it weird that I kind of want to pet the big sand monster? Yes, probably weird.
This is the entrance to the Cave of Wonders, which the vizier has spent many years seeking, and with one purpose in mind. He desires only ‘the lamp’. Once it is in Ja’far’s hands, the thief may claim everything else. That sort of offer really should be ringing warning bells, as should the giant pissed-off pussycat who rumbles out that one person alone may enter safely: the diamond in the rough. But the thief goes in anyway. Apparently he’s no diamond, because no sooner does he set foot in the cavernous mouth than it clamps shut and he’s buried alive. Ew.
The parrot, dropping his innocent avian accomplice act, throws a violent tantrum. “I’m so ticked off I’m moulting!” he shrieks, collecting the pieces of scarab. Jafar is more circumspect. He’s a politician, after all. “I must find this diamond in the rough,” he muses.
The unfortunate dead thief is not the only one making a dishonest living on the streets of Agrabah. We next meet a young man called Aladdin, who is on the run with a loaf of stolen bread and a pet monkey named Abu while a gang of thuggish guards pound hot on his heels. His escape through the marketplace involves acrobatics, cross-dressing and ruining the day of several innocent street performers. He uses a rug as a parachute, landing safely in an alley, but his heart is several times bigger than he can afford and the sight of a pair of hungry children inspires him to give up his hard-won breakfast. A few minutes later, he has to rescue them again when they run in front of a visiting prince’s horse. They have no survival instinct.
Neither, it would seem, does Aladdin, who mouths off to the rich mean guy on a horse and is kicked in the mud for his pains, dismissed as a ‘worthless street rat’. He trudges sadly home, brooding over the names that have been hurled at him through the day. From his rooftop, he looks at the palace, dreaming about what it must be like to live there.
Not brilliant, actually, not if you are the princess Jasmine. Her latest suitor, Mr ‘I Can Run Down Small Children If I Want To’, storms out of the place with a large hole ripped out of his trousers, courtesy of Jasmine’s pet tiger Raja. They snicker together like conspirators while the sultan frets. There is a inconveniently specific law insisting she be married to a prince before her next birthday and she only has three days left. The sultan could presumably change this law any time he wanted, but he’s getting on and would like to see her settled. Jasmine has other ideas. She wants to leave the palace walls, meet people, make friends. Furiously she pulls open the dovecote, freeing its prisoners.
Giving up on the conversation, the sultan goes to play with his model city. Jafar looms up at his elbow, requesting the use of a ‘mystic blue diamond’. When the sultan hesitates, Jafar just hypnotises him with his serpent-headed cane. He and his parrot Iago can barely hide their hatred.
That night, Jasmine escapes the palace walls with loyal Raja’s assistance. This is a bad decision because it makes the tiger look sad. Stop upsetting your tiger, Jasmine!
Another day, another theft in Agrabah. Abu acts as a decoy while Aladdin steals breakfast and this time they actually get to eat. Jasmine is wandering around the marketplace, wide-eyed, but she’s clueless about how the economy works and when she sees a hungry child she just grabs a piece of fruit off the nearest stall without realising she has to pay for it. The stall’s owner doesn’t take that well. Aladdin leaps in like the overenthusiastic puppy he is and convinces the angry man that Jasmine is his mentally unstable sister. Jasmine plays along beautifully.
Meanwhile, Jafar is conjuring up a fake storm in a huge glass orb, the blue diamond being involved as some sort of power source, and discovers his ‘diamond in the rough’ is Aladdin. Who is trying to have a romantic moment with Jasmine, showing off his roof-leaping skills en route to his hideout in an abandoned building. They both talk about how trapped they feel without realising the other one is having a different conversation but just as they’re beginning to connect, Jafar sends in the guards. “Do you trust me?” Aladdin demands urgently just before he jumps off the rooftop. Jasmine follows. It is all no use, however, and they are caught.
“Unhand him, by order of the princess,” Jasmine snaps. She goes straight to Jafar, demanding her new friend be freed. Jafar says that Aladdin has already been executed. Jasmine runs into the garden to cry her heart out and Raja puts a comforting paw on her back and if that doesn’t give you overwhelming feels, I don’t understand you.
Aladdin is not dead. He’s chained in a dungeon, actually, moaning over his romantic mistakes. Abu comes to rescue him, though he’s pretty snippy about it, doing Jasmine impersonations while he picks locks. This a seriously talented monkey. They are not, however, alone: an elderly prisoner totters from the shadows, full of stories about a magical cave full of extraordinary treasures. “You’ve heard of the golden rule, haven’t you?” he wheezes. “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.” If Aladdin comes along as the brawn in this enterprise, he’ll be richly rewarded.
The ‘prisoner’ reveals a secret tunnel and before long they reach the Cave of Wonders. The giant sand tiger accepts Aladdin but warns him to touch nothing except the lamp. That’s no easy ask. Within lie vast chambers heaped with gold and jewels. Aladdin is curious but cautious; Abu finds it harder. And once again, they aren’t alone. A sentient flying carpet flutters along behind them, pranking Abu repeatedly until finally Aladdin notices it too. He is charmed and asks for directions to the lamp. The carpet eagerly obliges.
Within a pool lies a rock stair, and at the top of the stair, in a dramatic ray of light, lies the lamp – but while Aladdin’s back is turned, Abu gives way to temptation and lays paws on a huge jewel. The cavern disintegrates around them, the ground swallowed by molten gold. It is only with the carpet’s help that they reach the cavern’s entrance. Aladdin gropes for the old man’s hand. Forced to hand over the lamp first, he is betrayed; Jafar (because of course it is Jafar) raises a dagger but Abu bites his wrist and instead they fall.
Abu did more than save Aladdin. He stole the lamp back. He has skills.
Aladdin comes to trapped in a dark cavern. With nothing better to do, he studies the lamp, rubbing at the grimy metal for a better look. It bursts with sudden light. Blue smoke wells out, resolving into an enormous genie. He’s gone a little stir-crazy from too long in the lamp. He puts on an extravagant song and dance show to display his awesome for Aladdin but it comes down to this: he can grant three wishes. Only three wishes, and he has a few caveats. He won’t kill people outright, make them fall in love or bring them back from the dead. Everything else is fair game.
He may be fantastically powerful, but he’s dealing with a team of con artists. Aladdin loudly doubts the genie’s abilities, suggesting that he could not even get them free of this cavern, and the genie, pride stung, whisks them all off to the nearest oasis.
Back at the palace, Jasmine has taken her story to the sultan, who chews out Jafar. Not because he’s particularly opposed to young thieves being executed without trial, but because it’s upset his little girl. Once Jafar has issued a deeply insincere apology, the sultan happily insists the two of them kiss and make up. He cannot read a situation accurately to save his life.
“When I am queen,” Jasmine tells Jafar on her way out, “I will have the power to get rid of you.” Iago mimics her rudely, but is unsettled by the truth of that statement. He suggests Jafar marry Jasmine instead, thereby taking a sideways route to the throne. They plot together with much maniacal laughter.
In the oasis, the genie is triumphant – until he realises he’s been had. He has a great sense of humour about it though, and acknowledges that Aladdin is entitled to the full three wishes. Aladdin can’t decide where to start and asks what the genie would choose. The answer is obvious: his freedom. He’s trapped in service to the lamp until someone wishes him free. Eagerly, Aladdin promises to do just that with his third wish and while the genie is very doubtful, he wants to believe it too.
They get down to business. Aladdin’s instinctive wish is to be with Jasmine, so he asks the genie to make him a prince. A la fairy godmother, the genie obliges with a fabulous outfit, and even turns Abu into an elephant. Abu doesn’t appreciate this.
Jafar wastes no time in his wicked plotting, running to the sultan with a law he’s just invented and written down to make it look official, insisting that if the princess does not marry within the allotted time she must wed the royal vizier. It’s no stupider than the original, I suppose. The sultan is not convinced so Jafar starts hypnotising him, but a blare of trumpets interrupts the moment and the sultan hurries to see what’s happening. A colourful procession is sweeping through the streets of Agrabah, swordsmen and dancers and a veritable menagerie, all preceded by a bright blue spin doctor who takes on different shapes to spread outrageously flattering stories of his master, ‘Prince Ali’. Jasmine, looking on from her balcony, thinks it’s overkill, but Aladdin is hot and wealthy and the city is happy to welcome him.
His entourage bursts into the palace. Jafar is of course very unhappy to see him and tries to point out the gaping flaws in his backstory, but the sultan just wants to play with the magic carpet. Aladdin is incautiously optimistic about his chances within the princess’s hearing. “I am not a prize to be won!” Jasmine shouts, storming back to her chambers. That night, Aladdin paces back and forth in the garden, trying to think of a way to charm her while the genie and magic carpet play chess and Abu sadly contemplates all the bananas he can’t eat. The genie advises Aladdin to be himself, but that’s exactly who Aladdin doesn’t want to be. The ‘street rat’ jibes are still a sore point.
He floats up to Jasmine’s balcony on the magic carpet. She considers that an invasion and so does her tiger, who stalks him to the edge. During Aladdin’s nervous blathering, however, Jasmine sees something familiar. She exchanges a suspicious look with Raja. Realising he’s stuffed everything up, Aladdin apologises for bothering her and jumps off the balcony. Jasmine is temporarily shaken, until he floats back into sight on his carpet and tentatively offers her a ride. “Do you trust me?” he asks, and she’s suddenly sure. She climbs aboard the carpet and they swoop off into the night sky, across the city, into the clouds – past the pyramids and on to China, where they land on a rooftop to watch romantic fireworks. Jasmine makes a casual reference to Abu and when Aladdin unthinkingly replies, demands an explanation. She wants the truth.
Aladdin lies again, saying he’s as restless with palace life as she is and pretended to be a commoner – making him a commoner pretending to be a prince pretending to be a commoner. He flies her home and gets to kiss her goodnight. Things are looking good! So of course the next thing he knows, he’s getting kidnapped by Jafar’s thugs, tied up and thrown in the sea.
As he hits the seabed, the lamp tumbles out of his turban and falls against his hands, summoning the genie. He can’t help Aladdin unless it’s an official wish (what happened that first time, then?) but bends the rules a little and takes the unconscious lolling of Aladdin’s head for an order. They return to the palace, where Jafar has hypnotised the sultan into letting him marry Jasmine. She is outraged and incredulous. Aladdin breaks Jafar’s staff and in so doing, his spell, but Jafar gets a glimpse of the lamp and changes plans abruptly. He vanishes in a puff of smoke. The sultan flails with fury at the near-miss, only to be rapidly derailed at the sight of Jasmine and Aladdin falling into each other’s arms. He sets about planning the wedding straight away, promising to hand over power to the couple once they are married.
Aladdin panics. Everything he has is the direct result of a wish; he dares not free the genie as he promised. Betrayed, the genie retreats to the lamp. Aladdin wrestles with his conscience and decides he has to tell Jasmine the truth before it’s too late, but unluckily for him, it’s already too late. The sultan announces Jasmine’s engagement to the people. While Aladdin waves awkwardly from a balcony, Iago sneaks into his rooms and takes the lamp.
Jafar’s first wish is to become sultan. The genie is deeply unhappy about the switch in command but is incapable of resistance. Jafar’s next wish is to be the greatest sorcerer in the world, so that he can make his erstwhile employers kneel before him. He also reveals Aladdin’s true identity and exiles him to the ends of the earth.
No idea where that is, but there’s a hella lot of snow. Aladdin wraps the meager protection of his jacket around Abu, trudging stubbornly uphill. He’s not quite without allies – finding the magic carpet in the snow, he frees it and they rush back to Agrabah.
The new regime is making itself felt. Iago has strung up the sultan like a puppet and is stuffing him with crackers in vengeance for a lifetime of ‘pretty Polly’ jokes, while Jasmine has been shoved into a skimpy harem outfit accessorised with manacles. Jafar makes his third wish, ordering her to fall desperately in love with him. As the genie tries to explain he really doesn’t do that kind of thing, Jasmine catches sight of Aladdin and quickly pretends to be under the spell. It’s disgusting. Everyone thinks so except Jafar.
Aladdin comes within a finger’s length of stealing back the lamp. Unfortunately, Jafar spots his reflection and flashes around his sorcery in retaliation, trapping Jasmine in a giant hourglass. The ironic Sharazad aesthetic really doesn’t suit her. As for Aladdin, Jafar toys with him, transforming himself into a giant cobra and squeezing his rival slowly in his coils. That gives Aladdin time to think. He taunts Jafar, reminding him that whatever powers he may have all stem from the genie. No sorcerer can ever match that.
Jafar makes his final wish: to become a genie himself.
While he’s revelling in his newfound cosmic powers, Aladdin dashes to free Jasmine from her prison. It looks like he’s made a terrible blunder, but Jafar never bothered chatting with the genie and so never learned of one big drawback – there are limitations. Namely, shackles and a lamp. Iago gets sucked in there with him until someone’s stupid enough to set them free. The genie hurls Jafar’s lamp into the Cave of Wonders to make sure that’s a long time in coming.
Now that everyone’s safe, Aladdin apologises to Jasmine for his deception. Being a big adorable softie, the genie is willing to give up his chance at freedom and make Aladdin a prince again, but instead Aladdin wishes him free. The bonds on his wrists break. The lamp falls, hollow. Beside himself with excitement, the genie tells Aladdin to wish for the Nile just so he can say NO. Amidst all the celebration, the sultan gets a grip and figures out he can change his own damn laws, allowing Jasmine to marry whoever she wants – that, unequivocally, being Aladdin. Everybody has feels. The genie pulls them all into a group hug then plunges off towards…Disneyland, if his Goofy cap is any indication. Aladdin and Jasmine, meanwhile, go forth on their magic carpet to find more fireworks. It’s a whole new world, after all.
Spot the Difference: There is an actual Ja’far in the Thousand and One Nights but I adore him and would whole-heartedly support any bid he made for power. Also, he doesn’t have a parrot minion. As for Aladdin, well, he may have a more felonious lifestyle in the Disney film but he’s far and away a better person. You really see how much the accusations of ‘street rat’ hurt him, and how desperately he tries to prove his worth to everyone he meets. Though that compulsion leads him into a spiral of lies, his heart is in the right place. Even when he betrays the genie, it takes him about five minutes to try and make amends. Jasmine is a somewhat stereotypical ‘feisty princess’ surrounded by laws that make no sense, but I like her poise and choice in pets. She gets a raw deal compared to the other Disney princesses, that’s for sure. She’s the love interest in this movie, not the lead, playing the prince’s role in many ways but without the same illusion of control. Even while imprisoned, Prince Philip never had to fake attraction to his captor; even while enchanted, Prince Eric got to keep all his clothes on.
Loss of free will is, of course, a big theme in Aladdin. The genie is literally the slave of the lamp and that’s acknowledged in the film in a way it couldn’t be with the original story, coming as the latter does from a time when slavery was a social norm. There’s no magic ring, the flying carpet seems to have taken that narrative space – there’s actually a delightful friendship between the carpet and the genie, who seem to have known each other for millennia, and both make the deliberate choice to side with Aladdin. Yes, the genie’s free will is limited, but his role in Aladdin’s life is much more akin to a spin doctor/ life coach than a servant. He’s an all-singing, all-dancing anachronistic force of nature with a solid moral code to prevent the worst excesses of his masters, and the story is not over until he’s free. In this version, Aladdin earns his happy ending. And the genie does too.
Even the tigers approve.