09/01/2017

Aladdin - Fantasy & Truth

Thoughts On: Aladdin


A young thief and a jaded princess fall for one another, but their only hope of remaining together seems to lie in the hands of an all-powerful genie.


Adventurous, exciting and highly immersive, Aladdin is an undeniably strong Disney classic. A huge factor of this is of course its projection of imagination and fantasy, primarily through the Genie, meeting the simple, yet timeless narrative of romance put under the stress of class, power and stature. An intriguing element of Aladdin, however, is the manner in which Disney have interpreted this archetypal story. As many will know, Aladdin is a tale found in the book, One Thousand and One Nights (also known as the Arabian Nights). This is a compilation of folk tales from the Islamic Golden Age (8th to 13th century), told by Sultana Scheherazade to her insane and homicidal husband as a means of entertainment and to keep herself alive. Her husband, ruler of the Persian empire, once had an unfaithful wife. Not taking too kindly to this, he decided he'd take a new wife, who had to be a virgin, every single day and behead the one he took the day previous - all so that no woman could ever cheat on him again. Such explains his insanity and Sultana Scheherazade's dire need to distract her husband. It's the vast swath of stories she tells him have been interpreted countless times. Notable examples are its first translation to English during the early 1700s...


Its symphonic interpretation by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in the late 1800s...


Film adaptations in the 1920s and 40s...

  

And of course animated adaptations, which brings us to Disney...

  

With this set of stories being known worldwide, interpreted, recounted and told a plethora times, Disney faced something of a creative challenge in the early 90s. How where they to justify the telling of a story told a million times already? The answer...


... MC Hammer. Believe it or not, I'm not joking. The animators where, in part, inspired by the hip hop artist (who hit the pinnacle of his fame with You Can't Touch This in 1990). They applied this...


... to this...


... which isn't as insane as it sounds. We see MC Hammer in the design of Aladdin (check out the trousers) but also in the way he moves - a great example of this would be the opening depicted above. There's great fluidity and style in this sequence down to most intricate detail, movement that isn't exactly 'Hammer Time', but certainly energetic, smooth and boisterous in a similar respect. This reference to popular culture, however, is what distinguishes the 90s Disney adaptation of these stories centuries old from all that has come before. Whilst this may sound disastrous on paper, a classical tale turned hip, Disney have managed this in an intriguing and almost mind-blowing manner. This comes down to something best picked up on by David Foster Wallace...


Wallace was, of course, a key figure around the late 80s and 90s with the release of his highly acclaimed books, one who famously critiqued postmodernism, saying, 'The problem is, I think, postmodernism has, to a large extent, run its course'. In such, he critiqued the art and entertainment world's tendency to be self-referential, calloused and pessimistic without a point, without being genuine, sincere or trying to add anything to the world. A great video on this topic I highly recommend can be found here. This is such a relevant subject in connection with Aladdin as this is a film that balances postmodernity with with modernist, traditionally romantic and idealist, ideas. In such, Aladdin manages to not only be contemporary, manages to push bounds, do something absurd and exciting (something like draw inspiration from MC Hammer) but also makes a clear stride to genuinely put something of worth into the world through a sincere narrative message. And this is what I want to talk about today.

Aladdin is a film that essentially juggles the two concepts of fantasy and truth, both in its form and content. It then asks of its characters what they want in the world, but then, how will they attain and preserve that; it gives Aladdin his lamp, in turn a chance to meet Jasmine, but then tasks him to fall for her in a truthful and sustainable manner. Simultaneously, however, Aladdin is an absurd cartoon, one imbued with magic, sorcerers, genies and wishes - one that still conveys a touching and romantic tale though. The latter point on form is what I want to tackle first before delving into narrative as this has been a point of criticism for some.

The Genie referencing a plethora of American icons and modern tropes, to some, makes no sense. This is because it doesn't adhere to the context of the film, that which is linked way back to the folk tales in One Thousand And One Nights. However, I completely disagree with this criticism for two key reasons. The first is one you may already infer; this is not an original story, instead, one that has been told many, many, many, times in a myriad of ways. For Disney to approach this story in a strictly context-based way would mature the film in an unneeded capacity, one that wouldn't separate it much from all that has preceded it. Moreover, the design of this movie was heavily influenced by 15-18th century Iranian/Persian architecture - as can be seen in the backgrounds.





In such, we see a baseline appeal to context in the design of this movie that is painted over with style and character. The second reason why I support Disney's outlandish interpretation of this narrative is linked to said style and character and is all about fantasy in animation. As I've touched on many times in The Disney Series alone, animation has the capacity to transcend cinema, to push it into new areas, with its ability to literally construct its own realities. Animation can, given the chance, do anything and we see this throughout Aladdin...

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

There are hundreds of moments you may pull out of Aladdin and call ridiculous. However, each and every one of these moments also falls into sequences and scenes which are undeniably ingenious and spectacularly animated. The reason why comes down to the animators' ability to construct their own cinematic rules - something we zoomed in on with Sword In The Stone. What all of these moments then represent is the animators' capacity to project their own world, to immerse you in the fantasy of storytelling. This is so crucial because it adheres to a philosophy of cinema that is comprehensibly surreal and impressionistic. This means that the form of this film finds creative ways to convey simple, sometimes complex, points in ways we immediately understand. With images like these...




... we are seeing non-sequiturs and abstract imagery projecting character and story. The magic carpet is a great example of this. Though the carpet is little more than an object, we grow to understand it as a friend to Aladdin and The Genie, a hero and a person unto itself. This is a common phenomena in animation. However, when we turn to The Genie we see this same principal at play, but in a manner that's very clearly larger than life and running at a thousand miles per hour.


The Genie, through Robin Williams and his animators, captures the essence of what animation can do in respect to fantasy meeting character. The Genie pushes cartoonisms to absurd degrees whilst remaining a personality, a character, in a coherent story. This is why projections of out-of-context references fit perfectly into his this film. It's not just about a rule of 'anything goes', but a rule of 'anything going as long as the audience follows along and it supports story'. In such, all the absurdity in this film almost becomes its purpose and main draw. Further than this, it produces a form that is inextricably linked to content and subtext, our next subject.

By diving into the narrative of Aladdin, we'll be able to see how concepts of fantasy and truth work against each other to produce a poignant tale. The crucial element this film sets up is an idea of 'The Diamond In The Rough'. What this essentially describes is a person that is both worthy to fetch the lamp from The Cave Of Wonders...


... and do so without taking any forbidden treasure.


The subtext of this is a very simply question of a person's patience and intellect. In short, do they have the foresight and self-control to see the worth in a lamp and understand that it is an awful lot more valuable that any surrounding treasures? After all, if you had the lamp, you could wish for 10 times the amount of treasure in the cave. If you do not have the patience and intellect to understand this, the implication made is that, with the lamp, you will do yourself and others more harm than good.

Aladdin being the diamond in the rough then means that he has the qualities to safely and deservedly be granted three wishes by The Genie. The reason why he is deserving is explained with his predicament...


Aladdin, with big dreams of owning a palace, only really wants to live a better life, to not have to steal food and scratch a living. He thus sees worth in himself, a mere street rat, where nobody else does. This surrounds him with a humility that ultimately grounds his character and rationalises his thoughts. What we are then seeing here is the lamp as a symbol of fantasy, of Aladdin's hopes and dreams coming true. The rest of the narrative is then a test to see if he can retain the humility he demonstrates before being given the lamp. His core conflict in this respect is of course Jasmine...


But, before we continue with Aladdin's character arc, we must explore Jasmine's. The Princess' core conflict is anti-parallel, but connected nonetheless, to Aladdin's. Whilst Aladdin has freedom, he has to fight for a living, and whilst Jasmine lives a life of luxury, she is confined to her palace. This leaves them both trapped...


And that's what brings them together. They both search for a life where they can be both free and comfortable, where they can live a good life externally and internally. This seems to be the dream of every person; to not just be successful or powerful, to not just be happy and free, but to be fulfilled, to have all of these elements (to a certain degree). This is the crux of what Aladdin and Jasmine's relationship and joint character arc represents.

Moving back to Aladdin, however, we know there is conflict between himself and this ultimate fulfillment. He and Jasmine have this fantasy of true happiness, but no way to attain it. However, this is where the genie comes in.


As touched on, he is Aladdin's chance to prove his worth as a person, to prove that he is deserving of having his fantasies realised. To prove this, all Aladdin has to do is be a truthful person. Whilst this seems like an over-simplification, it's completely true. Aladdin's struggle is to not change as a character. He was a near-perfect hero in the beginning of the narrative. Whilst he stole, he done so with purpose and would happily share his fought-for fortunes...


Moreover, he was genuine with all who he met, Jasmine included.


Aladdin only needs to sustain this humanity whilst his context changes and his material dreams come true...


In such, Aladdin only needs to keep his promise to The Genie of setting him free and be genuine with the princess. Whilst he struggles with this and their are hitches along the way, this is ultimately what Aladdin achieves.


The commentary of this narrative is then on an idea of true fulfillment. As the saying goes, life isn't about just living, it's about how you live. There are two levels to how we live, there's setting and then there's self, there's where we live and how we live in that space. Throughout Aladdin there is a simple call for people to sustain and elevate both, to find success and to remain sincere, to capture fantasy whilst retaining truth.

The true crux of Aladdin, however, is how this narrative message is weaved into the design of the film. We see a powerful projection of fantasy throughout the movie, one that excites, draws the eye, makes everything fun. But, there is also character and a genuine nature given to this narrative that provides it emotional weight and true substance. Through form and context, Aladdin is then a truly spectacular film.

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