I recently found a computer emulator for playing vintage Super Nintendo games. And who knew you could buy USB Nintendo controllers on Amazon for eight bucks. Two days of waiting for our Prime package to arrive, and I sat down to introduce my son to the video games of my childhood. The first game I downloaded was Aladdin.
Like so many of the other 30-somethings packed into this past Saturday evening’s showing, I was nervous and excited for the remake. Disney’s recent streak of live-action remakes has been pretty hit and miss. Overall, the new Aladdin was entertaining but predictably less than the one of my youth. At first, I found the casting of Will Smith as a blue genie hard to buy into. But eventually, with his Fresh Prince hip-hop take on Robin Williams classic character, I started to enjoy it. The songs are all there, along with a few new ones. But some changes felt odd and, by the end, had me shaking my head.
Jafar is much younger and less mysteriously evil than the original. He is also given a backstory, having grown up as a street thief like Aladdin. The new Jafar seems to function as a kind of foil character to Aladdin and Jasmine. The three, all now similarly aged, are after the same upward mobility to power, but for very different reasons. This reworking of Jafar has reasons we’ll look at below.
Jasmine also undergoes an update. Thankfully her character is far less sexualized than the ’92 version. As producer Jonathan Elrich admitted, “I think my wife told me, ‘If you put Jasmine in a midriff, I’m divorcing you.’”
A Tale of Power’s Temptation
The original plot and themes are mostly retained throughout the film. The Aladdin story has always served as a warning of the destructive seduction of power. The genie makes this point abundantly clear in warning Aladdin, “that’s not a cup you want to drink from.” Even as a child, I remember how it was Jafar’s desire for ultimate power—for the lamp and the throne—which ironically became the thing that enslaved him and shrunk him into the confines of his own lamp—“Phenomenal cosmic power! Itty-bitty living space.”
There is something profoundly true about that point, and it serves as the ethical backbone of both old and new storylines. Unlike Jafar, who is defeated by his desperation for power, Aladdin is heroic for his willingness to sacrifice the possession of his final wish to free the genie. The point? Heroes are not made through power but through their overcoming of power’s temptation.
As it’s been expressed, “Nothing discloses real character like the use of power. It is easy for the weak to be gentle. Most people can bear adversity. But if you wish to know what a man really is, give him power.” Aladdin proves to be the diamond in the rough because of his final ability to hold power without being overcome by it.
That’s a message we need right now, maybe even more than we did in 1992. But that point gets obscured by the new themes Disney attempts to fold into the remake.
A New Tale for A New Time
At the World Premiere of Aladdin, producer Dan Lin explained, “We love the original movie, but when you watch it now, there are some things that are dated. Some of the political issues and the way they treat women just needed to be updated for today.”
I often think about the stories my son and daughter consume for entertainment. Disney is one of the loudest of those voices. I know the way Disney movies formed the soundtrack to my childhood and I see the way they are already capturing my daughter’s imagination. Stories are the foundation of culture, and Disney has a deep influence in shaping the identity formation of our kids. You could read my concerns as a kind of stuffy fundamentalism, but those who know me, know that’s far from my perspective. My issue is not with Disney’s attempts to empower Jasmine, my concern is that what Disney offers my daughter is not nearly empowering enough.
I’m thankful that my daughter will inherit female characters with more significant heroic traits than beauty and poise, but as forcefully as Disney tried to recreate Jasmine as a character of empowerment, I think the effort failed and exposed the clichéd and disjointed hero narrative which Disney seems to be sadly stuck on.
Jasmine’s character always had an independent mind and voice, even in the original, but her new depiction allows her independence to aim at more than prince charming. The new Jasmine has her passion set on being Sultan, motivated by an interest to serve her people better. But Jasmine is in a world in which women cannot rule. She is in a world in which they can’t choose whom to marry, nor share their opinions in public.
As Naomi Scott, who plays Jasmine, explained, “I kind of want people to come out of the cinema and go, ‘Oh, it makes sense that she leads. It’s not just something she wanted.’ She does showcase the skills necessary to lead and she cares about her people, so for me that’s what I want little girls to take away from it — the idea that you can lead, and you can have love. You can have both.”
But Jasmine’s new story is not strictly a political struggle for power to rule, after all, that’s the very thing Jafar was after. Instead, Jasmine’s story is one about identity. While she sees herself as capable of ruling, others, including her own father, see only the traditional expectations of marriage and passivity.
This new plotline, Jasmine’s search for empowerment through identity, also has a featured new song: Speechless. You can probably expect it to get nominated for best song and Scott’s musical performance is by far the strongest of the film. It’s her “Frozen moment,” and the song delivers themes overtly similar.
“Written in stone, every rule, every word
Centuries old and unbending
Stay in your place, better seen and not heard
Well, now that story’s ending”
“I won’t be silenced
You can’t keep me quiet
Won’t tremble when you try it
All I know is I won’t go speechless
This expression of self against tradition has been a Disney obsession for the past decade or more. The traditional hero narrative calls for the hero to sacrifice their personal interest for the good of others. In Disney’s recent stories, heroics are recast as the individual’s courage to embrace their true selves in the face of traditional expectations of others. The hero is the one willing to find and embrace their true selves no matter the cost.
There is a technical term for this philosophical idea, and it’s found far beyond Disney cinema. Robert Bellah has given it the name, expressive individualism. The Philosopher Charles Taylor describes it as “The Age of Authenticity.”
Bellah explains, “Finding oneself means… finding the story or narrative in terms of which one’s life make sense… In most societies in world history, the meaning of one’s life has derived to a large degree from one’s relationship to the lives of one’s parents and one’s children… Clearly, the meaning of one’s life for most Americans is to become one’s own person, almost to give birth to oneself. Much of this process, as we have seen, is negative. It involves breaking free from family, community, and inherited ideas.”
Honestly, that storyline is so frequent in nearly every modern movie that it is becoming its own cliché. The damsel in distress mold has needed breaking, but the damsel power-ballad of self-expression is becoming just as overused. That Disney can see no other form of heroic empowerment for girls than “speak your truth,” is honestly sad and deeply problematic.
These identity adventures always run into two fundamental problems.
1. Villains and The Lack of Temptation
If a happy ending is to be found in the power to express one’s individuality, then the role of the evil antagonist shifts to any person or force bent on keeping us in our pedestrian place.
I’ve written before about the lack of a true villain in Disney’s Moana story. Taka, the fire-hurling monster, turns out to be Te Fiti, the mother goddess who’s heart was stollen and identity was misinterpreted. Moana cloaks it in a catchy island song, but the real power of this suppression is revealed in Moana’s own father and family who refuse to recognize who she uniquely is.
Casting family and community as the enemy is a tough sell for a family movie, but that’s exactly what the Aladdin producers needed to do to incorporate this new hero archetype into the story. In the previous version, Jasmine’s father was a bumbling naive traditionalist more a jester than an oppressive ruler. He had been fooled into trusting Jafar. The Sultan was wrong but in a mostly likable way. But for Jasmine’s new story to work, we have to see both her father and the encompassing system of cultural authority as the protagonist. Jasmine’s father now shuts down her requests in ways more authoritarian than in the original.
In the original version, the Sultan felt as helplessly trapped in the tradition as his daughter, in the remake, he seems stuck on defending it. In an awkward attempt to make it work, Disney gives Jafar the most blatant articulation of it when he informs Jasmine that the sooner she learns her place—to be quiet—the better things will go for her.
In actuality, it isn’t Jafar that has Jasmine confined to quiet submission; it’s primarily her own father. Though he later claims to be motivated by his fear of losing her, it doesn’t make sense. If he really believed she was incapable of ruling simply because she was a woman, how is he different than Jafar? But Disney can’t bring its story to the bluntness by which this narrative is expressed in our actual culture, where any suggestion of patriarchy is clearly villainy. If self-expression is our highest aim, then any authority which denies us the affirmation of it is logically the villain. For many, all forms of authority are villainy.
Traditionally, villains represented and exposed the conflicting nature of the hero. The external evil exposed bits of internal evil that threaten to undo the hero. Aladdin is tempted to use the same forms of manipulation and deception that characterize Jafar. Both Jafar and Aladdin lie to and manipulate the royal family for their own gain. The more Aladdin leans into the disguise of Prince Ali, the more he enters the domain of Jafar. The villain is always the embodiment of a path tempting the hero.
But if the challenge facing this new self-expressive hero is the suffocating expectations of others than what’s needed is not the power to overcome oneself, but the courage to embrace oneself. Evil is not lurking within but embedded in the systems and structures which oppress us into subjection. Evil is external, and so Jasmine’s challenges are only external. Somehow, we are to believe that offering internal signs of weakness and temptation are disempowering. I couldn’t disagree more. It’s the realization of a hero’s flaws and strengths that make them not only relatable but give them the potential of heroic.
Without a clear antagonist and without inner temptation, Jasmine’s situation collapses into shallow nonsense. Aladdin must handle ultimate power without allowing it to corrupt him. Jasmine, by comparison, is left with the internal struggle to speak her truth? What must she overcome to grow as a character? What does this courage cost her? Nothing. Her defiance comes after Jafar has already seized the throne and is executing judgment. It ends up feeling more desperate than empowered.
It didn’t have to go this way. If you’ll allow me the presumption of writing my own possible ending, why not have Jafar ready to execute the Sultan before the crowds of Agrabah. Jasmine could step in and offer her life in place of her father’s. At least Belle can be credited with that heroic act. Jasmine offering her life before the city would put her close enough to Jafar to convince him that he wouldn’t possess ultimate power until he was as powerful as the genie. Giving Jasmine this clever move, at the risk of her own life, would make her both hero and demonstrably the kind of character capable of ruling. Aladdin could still have his heroic scene freeing the Genie and Jasmine’s father could offer her the throne because of her willingness to sacrifice it for others. Far more empowering than a desperate speech.
Take the oddly similar Biblical story of Esther. Esther was not after power. Her heart was not set on the throne, yet like Jasmine, she knew what it was to be reduced to a pretty face in the king’s palace. Esther found herself a hero in Israelite history not because of her defiance of speech or claim to power, but because of her willingness to abandon herself and risk death in exposing corruption, cruelty, and the plot against her people. She saved her people, not by obtaining a position, but by sacrificing her position. In doing so, she appeared more capable and wise than the king himself. Jasmine, alternatively, imagines she will subvert power by gaining power herself.
2. Self-Expression Makes for Sad Endings
Fairy-tales are supposed to have happy endings, which means we need it to all work out. The genie freed, Aladdin able to marry his love, and Jasmine becoming Sultan. In the director’s move to reinforce Jasmine’s empowerment, it is not her father who finally changes the law allowing for her to marry Aladdin; Jasmine is instead named Sultan and given the power to rewrite her destiny for herself. Its an easy move, but it reveals something complicated about writing happy endings for the self-expressive hero who succeeds in rising above family and tradition.
It’s after Jasmine’s father witnesses her display of courageous speech that he finally recognizes that she is capable of replacing him on the throne. The final scene is of her father embracing her and affirming the identity she has longed for others to see. Why is that ending moving and why is it almost the only way for Disney to wrap things up with a happily ever after? If Jasmine has finally stood up to the established powers, if she has finally found her own internal strength, why does she need her father to affirm it?
The ending works because, though it can never be acknowledged, this new hero needs not just self-confidence but the affirming recognition of others they love. And this is where the whole modern identity narrative collapses on itself. The peak of self-expression turns out to be another’s affirmation.
We desperately want not to need the approval of anyone but ourselves, but we can’t help longing for our self to be affirmed by a meaningful other. The philosopher Charles Taylor offers a whole chapter to this irony in his book, The Ethics of Authenticity. Taylor points out that in an age of individuality, we continue to find personal relationships and romance salvific. He explains, “it reflects something else that is important here: the acknowledgment that our identity requires recognition by others.”
Our need to have our uniqueness affirmed by others means that our relationships are fundamentally changed. Love is no longer self-sacrificing but motivated by the continual affirmation of another in recognizing and supporting our individuality. The true friend and parent is not the one who challenges but the one who affirms and recognizes the uniqueness of our identity. The irony is that our unique self-expressions are only unique when they are recognized by another. Our self-sufficiency has a dependency.
Jasmine’s story fails the first literary convention of all great characters, they must go through a change. The only change this new hero is capable of creating is in another. Jasmine may be able to reform the stuffy traditional expectations of her father into new affirmations and acceptance, but she undergoes no fundamental change and offers little opportunity for the audience.
Aladdin is freed from the temptation of power by sacrificing his self-interest for the interests of the genie. But Jasmine? What does she sacrifice? How is she changed? It is her father who controls her, and it is her father who finally offers her the affirmation she has longed for. Far from empowering Jasmine, the story fizzles out not knowing how to lift her above her family’s expectations and finally her family’s approval. Disney can’t find a way for Jasmine to escape the very dependence she rejects.
Disney’s failure is thinking that this new hero narrative can simply be slipped into an ancient story; after all, the Aladdin story traces its roots back to ancient times. But what was meant for empowerment, simply doesn’t go far enough. My daughter needs female heroes who do more than speak. She needs heroes who reflect deeply within themselves, who know their own flaws, who challenge and push themselves, and who are capable of rising above temptation for the good of those they love. The affirmation my daughter will need to produce that kind of courage isn’t found in culture or even from her father. The affirmation she needs is in Christ. But that’s a story Disney will continually struggle to tell.
And if the state of our current world is any indication of how this self-expressive hero story really ends, its far from a happily ever after. Studies continue to find that anxiety rates are increasing. People are more isolated and lonely than ever before. We are divided, agitated, restless, frustrated, and yet more determined to find our own way. We look more like street thieves than heroes.
We want a father’s embrace and despise his authority at the same time. We want self-confidence but depend on others to affirm it. The story we keep being handed isn’t working. I think Aladdin puts on display a need which three wishes, accumulated power, nor self-expression can ultimately fulfill. So we go on looking for the diamond in the rough.
“Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.” Luke 17:33