Thursday, October 17, 2013

Aladdin (1992)

Of all movies to contain Arabs, I’ve had the most requests for Disney’s Aladdin. So if it means getting people to read my variegated and usually-angry opinions on reel Arabs, well, then, let’s do this!

Jack Shaheen wrote extensively on Aladdin in Reel Bad Arabs. He drew attention in particular to the contrast between the softer, more anglicized features of Aladdin and Jasmine as compared to the more angular, more “Arab” features of Jafar. In fairness, this trend extends beyond Aladdin. Disney has drawn protagonists with scarce, rounded lines since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and antagonists with harsh, angular features since Cinderella (1950). Nevertheless, I feel inclined to take Shaheen’s side on this one. Aladdin and Jasmine look more-or-less like Aryans with heavy eyebrows, convex noses, and olive-tinted skin, the Sultan looks like a generic old man, and Genie clearly started as an Arabian caricature of Robin Williams, but the “bad” characters and only the “bad” characters actually do look Semitic.

The perennial disregard-for-life Arab stereotype rears its ugly head from the outset. Literally less than a minute in, the frame tale narrator sings, “Where they cut off your ear / If they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” (In an obvious overdub, Disney later changed the former two lines to, “Where it’s flat and immense / And the heat is intense.”) Speaking of whom, the narrator—Robin Williams showing off his discursive, kinetic comedy style in a non-Genie role—appears in the unnecessary frame scene to set the mood. This narrator-cum-merchant seems lifted almost straight from the stereotypically sleazy, cunning merchant in Casablanca.

Seriously, this character looks as though Disney put him on this earth to lie for money.

No sooner does the merchant begin the actual narrative than we meet the main antagonist Jafar and Azeem, a small-time cutpurse who thinks nothing of slitting throats.

At least he has fluid, dynamic animation for a stereotype.

Throughout the film, Aladdin finds himself under siege by stereotypical, burly, hook-nosed guards who brandish scimitars and sneer imprecations through missing teeth before repeatedly trying to murder him.

Even for a stereotype, the scimitars seem like a bit much.

At another point, a decidedly Semitic-looking grocer nearly cuts off our Aryan-looking Princess Jasmine’s hand.

These two characters scarcely look like they even belong in the same film.

The film largely establishes Agrabah—the film’s answer to the Middle East—as a lawless no-man’s-land where deceit and death lurk at every corner, which does a fine job setting the mood but a terrible job encouraging young viewers to feel safe around Arabs.

Moreover, many of the instances of Islam appear in a negative context. Azeem praises Allah as he prepares to rob a horde of treasure. The intransigent, stereotypical guards invoke the Islamic tenet about amputating the hands of thieves. Only the doddering old sultan comes close to contradicting this… by invoking Allah’s name as an exclamation of surprise.

For Aladdin in particular, the writers owe a massive debt to the creators of the first two Thief of Bagdad films. This film uses the basic plot of the first and character names and roles of the second. I don’t say any of this to the detriment of Aladdin, mind you. But more than most filmmakers, Disney embody that writers’ aphorism: “when you steal, steal from the best.” And steal they do. Most of the plot of the 1924 film and the characters of the 1940 film inspire the same in this film. Even a number of little moments carry over from these films, like Aladdin’s dip in deep water, the sultan’s flight in the sky, and a brief scene in the Far East!

Aladdin romances Jasmine so hard they take a trip across a continent through song!

Plot-wise, the movie doesn’t differ appreciably from the average Disney animated feature released since their Renaissance. It stars a kind, attractive protagonist with a perceived imperfection in his life over which he has a monomaniacal obsession. He falls in love with an apparently-unattainable woman. He fights the antagonist, who in the second act brings his weakness to light and robs him of the MacGuffin he used to get this far. He discovers his “true strength” without said MacGuffin, humiliates and defeats the antagonist, and wins the love interest in roughly the same way one wins a stuffed animal after successfully throwing baseballs at bowling pins.

Frustratingly, as the film progresses, Aladdin repeatedly asks for Jasmine’s trust whilst lying about his identity at every turn. While this plays into his character development, one never quite gets the feeling that Aladdin actually understands the violations of trust that he causes.

The interplay between Aladdin and his simian sidekick Abu in particular feels reminiscent of the two main characters in both those Thief of Bagdad films. Once Jasmine enters the mix, the three main characters end up paralleling Peter, Wendy, and Tink in Disney’s Peter Pan, with Abu querulously refusing to get along with Aladdin’s new love interest.

Abu answers the encroachment of romance on his bromance with the scowling of a lifetime.

For a Disney Princess, Jasmine seems refreshingly opinionated, smart, and able. Far from the mute Arab women of so many other films, Jasmine fights her role in life and the desire of men to make all her decisions with everything she has. She refuses to marry a man who can’t respect her enough to believe in her free will. Unfortunately, she ultimately ends up in the same old damsel-in-distress routine.

Jasmine even stands up to Jafar with unfailing aplomb.

Setting aside its handling of Arabs, Aladdin works well as an animated film. The characters all have lively, fluid animation. In that sense, this film serves as an excellent cross-section of how Disney rose to become kings of theatrical animation, even after their long lull following Walt’s passing.

The writers keep the characterization lively by pairing each major character with a sidekick: Aladdin & Abu; Jasmine & Rajah; Genie & Carpet; Jafar & Iago…

Iago’s ever-moving limbs perfectly complement Gilbert Gottfried’s inimitable, plangent screeching.
I know I’d watch myself around a girl who had the protection of a cat that big.

Of all the characters, in some ways, the magic carpet stands out most of all. For a mute, volant quadrilateral with a digitally-applied texture, animator Randy Cartwright imbues the character with astounding fluidity.

Disney animators ably express trepidation with naught but four corners.

Of course, Robin Williams’ Genie serves as the film’s wacky breakout character. His all-over-the-place comedy delivers most of the film’s overt laughs. I don’t find his humor quite as funny as I did in childhood, but he absolutely meets the demands of the role.

Robin Williams’ scene-dominating presence matches his character’s stature.

The background art more than lives up to Disney’s high standards as well. The filmmakers make astounding use of color to make distinctively Arabian settings that feel lively and fresh.

Here, the animators expertly use “hot” colors to create a “cold,” desolate milieu.
This gorgeous palace exterior also closely resembles one in The Thief of Bagdad (1940).

Of course, every Disney animated film needs music. As these things go, this film excels in the music department. With big band style, the songs have an uncanny ability to worm themselves into the head and stay there for years.

You probably have Prince Ali” stuck in your head just looking at this still right now, don’t you?
… Or “A Whole New World.”

My mild irritation with the depiction of Arabs notwithstanding, I still really like Aladdin. The entire film has excellent music and dynamic animation. The characters succeed by their wits and intelligence, and the title character’s good heart makes him very easy to identify with. I, for one, don’t regret the many fond memories I have of watching this film as a youngster.

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