The story of Aladdin is a tale that originated from a collection of ancient Middle Eastern and Asian folk stories known as One Thousand and One Nights, also known as Arabian Nights. It was a tale added to the collection in the eighteenth-century by French translator Antoine Galland (Al-Taee, 2010, p.254). In contrast to its origin, Walt Disney’s animated film Aladdin was a more recent work. Disney’s Aladdin debuted in 1992 and proved to be a very popular film, making more than 200 million for its theatrical release in the United States and included five Oscar nominations (“Aladdin”. Box Office Mojo. IMDb Company). However for all its success, Disney’s Aladdin had its own criticisms, including omitting key characters and plot devises from the original story, the negative ways it portrays Arabs and Muslims, the Orientalism present in its imagery and music, and the way it reflected U.S foreign policy in the Middle East.
Like in Walt Disney’s Aladdin, the main character in the original One Thousand and One Nights version was Aladdin, a troublesome youth who spent much of his time on the streets (“Alaeddin and the enchanted lamp”,1901; Clements and Musker, 1992, Aladdin). However many of the characters of the story had been omitted, combined, changed, or newly added for the movie. Aladdin’s mother and father, the former a main character from the story, were cut from the Aladdin film, suggesting that the movie version of Aladdin was orphaned (“Alaeddin and the enchanted lamp”,1901; Clements and Musker, 1992, Aladdin).
The nameless magician that tricked Aladdin into receiving the magic lamp from the cave and the scheming vizier who attempted to have the princess marry his son were combined into one character in Disney’s Aladdin in the character Jafar (“Alaeddin and the enchanted lamp”,1901; Clements and Musker, 1992, Aladdin). The magician’s older brother is also absent from the film version (“Alaeddin and the enchanted lamp”,1901; Clements and Musker, 1992, Aladdin). In both versions of Aladdin there is a princess; however in the story her name was Badroulbadour and in the film her name was changed to the more easily pronounced and less foreign Jasmine (“Alaeddin and the enchanted lamp”,1901; Clements and Musker, 1992, Aladdin).The genie of the lamp was also present in both stories and both played an important role; both genies helped Aladdin win the princess and helped him gain social status and wealth (“Alaeddin and the enchanted lamp”,1901; Clements and Musker, 1992, Aladdin). In addition to the lamp genie, there was a second genie character present in the story that was not present in the film (“Alaeddin and the enchanted lamp”,1901). The lesser genie that came from a magic ring was also an important character that saved Aladdin’s life (“Alaeddin and the enchanted lamp”,1901). However the ring genie’s role of transporting Aladdin became the task of a new character in the film, the magic carpet (Clements and Musker, 1992, Aladdin). In addition, there were new characters in Disney’s Aladdin including Abu the sidekick monkey, Jasmine’s pet tiger Raja, and Jafar’s sidekick Iago (Clements and Musker, 1992, Aladdin).
The characters that were present in both the story and the film were also given more personality in the latter. Aladdin in the story version was largely unsympathetic; he was lazy and refused to work until the disguised magician offered him a job (“Alaeddin and the enchanted lamp”,1901). In contrast, Disney’s Aladdin, while a thief, wanted a life out of poverty (Clements and Musker, 1992, Aladdin). He was also kind hearted as demonstrated when he gave a loaf of stolen bread to a pair of street children and when he saved Jasmine’s hand from being amputated at the bazaar (Clements and Musker, 1992, Aladdin). The princess character too was more fleshed out in the film than in the story. In the story Princess Badroulbadour was described as beautiful but her personality was not developed any further (“Alaeddin and the enchanted lamp”,1901). However in Disney’s Aladdin not only was Princess Jasmine beautiful but she also was feisty and rebellious, yearning to escape the confines of her palace life (Clements and Musker, 1992, Aladdin). However it is the genie character that had the most drastic change in personality. In the Aladdin story, the lamp genie was given no personality whatsoever and only served as a tool and plot devise to move the story forward (“Alaeddin and the enchanted lamp”,1901). In Disney’s Aladdin, the genie was given a lively and funny personality, thanks in large part to his voice actor and inspiration for his character, Robin Williams (Clements and Musker, 1992, Aladdin). Not only did he help Aladdin achieve his wishes, but he also served as comic relief and even had his own musical number, “Friend Like Me” (Clements and Musker, 1992, Aladdin). The genie also had his own motivations underlying his duty to grant Aladdin his wishes; his own wish is to be free (Clements and Musker, 1992, Aladdin). The genie therefore was not only a comedic character but also a sympathetic one.
The addition of personality into the Aladdin characters in the Disney version was a positive change from the original story. It made the characters more engaging to the audience and created a cast of villains and heroes for movie-goers to be enthusiastic over. However the omission of certain characters in the film also had its drawbacks to character development and setting. One major character that was cut from the movie was Aladdin’s mother. Like the other characters in the original story, Aladdin’s mother lacked personality and served only as a supporting character to Aladdin’s antics (“Alaeddin and the enchanted lamp”,1901). However her personality could have easily been elaborated more in the movie and presumably she was not included because she could not fit into the movie’s plot. The reason why her absence was detrimental to the movie was that her addition would have added richness to the movie in a world filled with men. Jasmine was the only main female character present in the movie, and the only other female characters that appeared were dancers in the musical numbers of the film (Clements and Musker, 1992, Aladdin). The lack of female characters made the fictional setting of the Middle Eastern Agrabah appear as a hostile area to women. The implied death of Aladdin’s mother and the near amputation of Jasmine’s hand as punishment for taking an apple to feed orphaned children illustrated the dangers of Agrabah for its women inhabitants (Clements and Musker, 1992, Aladdin). Also the women that were actually present in the film were sexualized; the dancers in “One Jump Ahead” and “Prince Ali” were scantily clad in belly dancer outfits and even Princess Jasmine was dressed in a belly dancer outfit despite the historical inaccuracy in her costume (Al-Taee, 2010, p.267; Clements and Musker, 1992, Aladdin). While the sexualization of female characters in Disney’s Aladdin would still be problematic even with the inclusion of Aladdin’s mother, at the very least there would be one female character that would give a more balanced portrayal of women of color in the film and perhaps her inclusion would have given the character designers some doubts on their female character designs.
One other problem in regards to the omission and changes from the original story of Aladdin to Disney’s Aladdin is the replacement of human characters with animal ones. The addition of animal sidekicks was obviously used to appeal to its audience and Disney had used the formula of animal sidekicks for many of its movies. However coupled with the exclusion of human characters, it posed an uncomfortable question: Were the lack of supporting Arab characters a conscious decision due to perceived stereotypes of Arabs? Were they not sympathetic enough to an American audience?
While Disney’s Aladdin was popularly received and well liked by most film critics, there were critics who panned the movie based on the more problematic aspects of the film. In Jack G. Shaheen’s book Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, Shaheen reviewed and analyzed hundreds of films that either had a Middle Eastern setting or had Arab and Muslim characters. In his book, he criticized Disney’s Aladdin for portraying Arabs and Muslims as barbaric (Shaheen, 2009, p. 57). The violence that both Aladdin and Jasmine faced portrayed the inhabitants of Agrabah as violent and cruel (Shaheen, 2009, p. 57-58). Shaheen highlighted particularly troubling lines from the opening song “Arabian Nights”, where a caravan driver sings that he comes “From a faraway place/Where they cut off your ear/If they don’t like your face/It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home” (Shaheen, 2009, p. 57-58; Clements and Musker, 1992, Aladdin). The lyrics were so offensive that after the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee requested for Disney to remove the last two lyrics from the video release, the company complied, realizing that the lyrics were indeed harmful to Arabs (Wingfield and Karaman, 1995). Shaheen also points out the exaggerated racial features that the villain, his cohorts, and other characters were designed with; “The animators attribute large, bulbous noses and sinister eyes to palace guards and merchants” (Shaheen, 2009, p. 57). In comparison, both Jasmine and Aladdin were lighter in complexion to Jafar and had American accents, setting them apart from other “foreign” and “backwards” characters and making them more relatable to American audiences (Shaheen, 2009, p. 57- 60).
In Nasser Al-Taee’s chapter “Reel Bad Arabs, Really Bad Lyrics: Villainous Arabs in Disney’s Aladdin”, the author raised the same criticisms as Shaheen. Al-Taee gave examples of Aladdin’s continuous use of cultural elements that were not native to the Middle East: Indian style turbans, Indian street performances, and Jasmine’s pet tiger Raja (Al-Taee, 2010, p.256). It illustrated that Disney either was ignorant of Middle Eastern cultures or more likely, did not think the effort to research was necessary for a fictional world. The music also portrayed a contrast between the Orientalism trope of a barbaric and traditional East and an enlightened and freedom loving West (Al-Taee, 2010, p.257). The opening song “Arabian Nights” was set in a more traditional style of Arabian music while every other musical number in the film was based on Western-style musicals (Al-Taee, 2010, p.257). Al-Taee cited the example of the song “A Whole New World” as a song supporting a West vs. East mentality; both Aladdin and Jasmine as rebelling against their culture and customs, yearning for a more “western” way of life (Al-Taee, 2010, p.257, p. 267).
In Alan Nadel’s essay “A Whole New (Disney) World Order: Aladdin, Atomic Power, and the Muslim Middle East”, Nadel made a connection between the Gulf War, Disney’s Aladdin, and American policy in the Middle East (Nadel, 1997, p. 184). Aladdin was created only a year after the end of the Gulf War in March 1991 and memories of Saddam Hussein as well as the fear of rising military threats in the Middle East were still fresh in the minds of American audiences (Nadel, 1997, p. 187). Nadel argued that the character of Genie symbolized the United States as a “liberator” to Arabs in the Middle East from their “backwards” culture (Nadel, 1997, p. 192). Nadel also compared the Genie to a nuclear bomb, both being a terrible force of destruction should it fall into the wrong hands; in this case comparing the villain Jafar to Saddam Hussein (Nadel, 1997, p. 192-200). Disney’s Aladdin had the heroes as “Americanized” Arabs, Jasmine and Aladdin, in comparison to more “traditional”, “dark”, “evil” Arabs such as Jafar as a way to justify wars in the Middle East as a way to liberate the “good” Arabs who share American values from the “bad” Arabs that do not (Al-Taee, 2010, p.267, p.269).
Walt Disney’s Aladdin and the original story of Aladdin essentially have many elements in common, the most important being the title character. However Disney’s Aladdin had a distinctly American flavor to it with American musical numbers, American-style comedy, and characters with American accents (Clements and Musker, 1992, Aladdin). Because Disney’s Aladdin was so Americanized compared to the original story, it also absorbed, intentional or not, the political climate of its time. While the film is a fun and colorful, the racist and Orientalist tropes that are weaved into the fabric of the movie should be discussed more openly in hopes that future Disney films will be more cultural sensitive to the people and places that it portrays in its films.
- Al-Taee, Nasser. (2010). Representation of the orient in western music: Violence and sensuality. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company.
- Nadel, Alan. (1997). A whole new (disney) world order: aladdin, atomic power, and the muslim middle east. In Matthew Bernstein and Gaylyn Studlar (Eds.), Visions of the east: Orientalism in film (pp. 184-203). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
- Shaheen, Jack H. (2009). Reel bad arabs: How hollywood vilifies a people. Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press.
- Wingfield, Marvin and Karaman, Bushra. (1995, March). Arab stereotypes and american educators. Web. May 5th, 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.adc.org/index.php?id=283.
- (1901). Alaeddin and the enchanted lamp. Translated by John Payne. Web. May 5th, 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.wollamshram.ca/1001/Payne/aladdin/p13_index.htm.
- Clements, Ron and Musker, John (Producers and Directors). (1992). Aladdin [motion picture]. United States: Walt Disney Pictures.
- “Aladdin”. Box Office Mojo. IMDb Company. n.p Web. May 5th, 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=aladdin.htm.