In a scene telling of the bond that Aladdin and the Genie will eventually come to share in the course of the film, the Genie, played by Will Smith, is asked by Aladdin, who is confused about to wish for, what he would wish for if he got the same opportunity. The Genie didn’t need to think too long: he said he would wish to be set free from living the life of a Genie, trapped inside a tiny, suffocating lamp. This roughly summarizes what Aladdin, the remake of the 1992 classic animated film of the same name, directed by Guy Ritchie (of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Sherlock Holmes fame), seems to embody.
Written by John August, and re-written by Ritchie as a musical, Aladdin doesn’t break the stereotypical moulds of the Saviour Prince (in this case, thief-turned-fake prince of fake kingdom, Ababwa), Aladdin and the damsel in distress, Jasmine, despite it being a remake. Some of the recent remakes to have come out of Disney, including The Jungle Book, took the general premise of the original stories, and gave it a contemporary touch by addressing currently relevant issues (for instance, the characters in the remake The Jungle Book show a more contemporarily relevant version of the ecosystem as written about by Rudyard Kipling). But Ritchie isn’t able to break those barriers through this film.
The story goes that Aladdin (played by Mena Massoud), an orphan living in the desert kingdom of Agrabah befriends Princess Jasmine (played by Naomi Scott), the daughter of the ruling Sultan. However, since he is a petty thief, he is not fit to marry the Princess. The anti-hero of this premise is the Sultan’s vizier, Jafar (played by Marwan Kenzari), who wants to wrest the throne of Agrabah from Jasmine’s father. The Sultan does not have a son, and traditionally, princesses cannot ascend the throne. Hence in this situation, Jafar, who has been a loyal aide to the Sultan for a long time, thinks he is most suited to take over the kingdom. However, Jafar knows that it will be difficult to get the throne from the Sultan through respectable avenues. He enlists the help of Aladdin to get him a magic lamp from the Cave of Wonders. However, through a series of twists, the lamp (and a magic carpet) end up in the hands of Aladdin (and his best friend, an impish but agile monkey), and the remaining one hour of the film shows the journey of Aladdin and the Genie back to Agrabah to marry the Princess and help her retain the throne of Agrabah.
The new Aladdin makes interesting changes to the original plot, some additions, which lend the film a contemporary touch, but which stop short of being subversions.
The new Aladdin makes three very interesting changes to the original plot, some additions, which lend the film a contemporary touch, but which stop short of being subversions. One very interesting aspect of the film is the developing friendship between the Genie and Aladdin. The Genie in this film isn’t just a larger-than-life and flamboyant apparition, but also a counsel and friend to Aladdin. He helps Aladdin transform into the make-believe prince of an imaginary kingdom on his first wish, but also pokes fun at Aladdin (“In ten thousand years, I have never felt that embarrassed”) when he makes a fool of himself when meeting the Sultan for the first time. He helps Aladdin woo Jasmine, and himself falls in love with Dalia (played by Nasim Pedrad), Jasmine’s handmaiden. He also rescues Aladdin from the bottom of the ocean where Jafar has left him to die. At the end of the film when Aladdin uses his third and final wish to set the Genie free, the Genie and Dalia plan to live together and sail the world. The friendship had the potential to be endearing, but there wasn’t too much screen time invested in it, other than for the pivotal plot requirements.
Another aspect which had the potential to re-imagine the story of Aladdin was the character sketch of Princess Jasmine. Jasmine is shown as a fierce, intelligent and politically aware woman who wants to rule the kingdom of Agrabah. Despite knowing that only princes are allowed to ascend the throne, she is relentless in her antics to not marry the various suitors her father introduces her to. Instead, we get the sense that she spends a lot of time trying to convince her father to let her rule. In a conversation with Dalia, she tells her that she knows she wasn’t meant to get married and be someone’s Queen for the rest of her life. She is observant of the issues faced by the people of Agrabah and she wants to contribute to making their life easier (“We are only as happy as our least happy subject,” she says). She has her own song in the movie, called “Speechless” (composed by Pasek and Paul of La La Land fame), which conveys her disgust of the patriarchal system which governs the social order and affects the status of women.
However, since the movie is based on its titular character, there is less time devoted to building on Jasmine’s feminist aspirations, and more time to her being rescued by Aladdin. The movie would have been more interesting if it was a retelling from Jasmine’s point of view. The last twenty minutes of the film, which is fast-paced (typically made for those watching the film in 3D) show the Sultan discovering Jafar’s real intentions, a fight between Aladdin and Jafar, and the Sultan agreeing to change the law of the land to allow his daughter to succeed him. But Jasmine’s contribution to making this happen involved the singing of a song, and giving in to Jafar’s wishes to marry her, until Aladdin rescues her.
the political motive today behind retelling these stories is that there are more narratives to refer to, more nuanced understanding of the characters to know as opposed to the simplistic boys saving girls storyline.
Finally, the character of Jafar, the anti-hero could have been very interesting. He is a considerable way away from the traditional bad boy in the original movie, because of the several new traits accorded to all the characters. He used to be a street urchin like Aladdin, but as he says with an evil smirk in the film, he decided to aim for bigger things to steal. He wants to conquer the kingdom of Agrabah, and also subsequently conquer Jasmine. It might seem like he fancies Jasmine, but only to the extent that she remains submissive to him, while he rules the kingdom. He doesn’t appreciate her candor, or her straightforwardness about her dislike for him.
In one scene of the film, he is seen telling Jasmine “better for you to be seen, and not heard.” He believes that he will rule the kingdom well, but faces resistance from Jasmine. He is your typical oppressive, patriarchal anti-hero, but his character (whose story for the motive behind his actions is revealed only in the last twenty minutes, when Ritchie suddenly remembered that he had forgotten to tell the audience why Jafar did what he did), isn’t cultivated well enough for the struggle against him to shine through.
With classics like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty being revisited (Maleficent, was the story of Sleeping Beauty told from the point of view of the witch), and a re-imagining of all fairy tales from a feminist perspective, or at least from a different vantage point, it is regretful that Aladdin, despite being well-meaning, remains entrapped within the shackles of its dated storyline. Despite the heavy CGI used to render the action scenes more realistic, and the various songs added to make the movie interesting for children, the movie will struggle to hold that viewer’s attention who already knows the story. It isn’t so much a bad film (the songs aren’t too bad, and the visuals are alright), but a terribly disappointing one. It is always a challenge to adapt classics and fairy tales for the screen, to make the characters come alive and tell the story in a way that is gripping despite the storyline being widely known.
However, the political motive today behind retelling these stories is that there are more narratives to refer to, more nuanced understanding of the characters to know as opposed to the simplistic boys saving girls storyline. Classics such as Aladdin are known to be andro-centric, and the audience that it is primarily meant for i.e. children absorb only one majorly male aspect of the story. The retelling of such stories, hence, should be politically aware and willing to take risks for it to be novel today.
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