Scenes from the Class Struggle in Old Cathay
Some of my friends refuse to believe me when I say I've never seen the Disney animation of Aladdin. It's true: didn't see Aladdin, didn't see Beauty and the Beast, didn't see Little Mermaid. Of all of those 90s cartoons the only one I caught was Lion King, and that was because someone gave me free tickets to it. My whole attitude to the Disney Aladdin may in fact be coloured by the fact that, in November 2005, I found myself obliged to watch 'A Whole New World', one of the big production numbers of the film, performed on live TV by Peter Andre and Jordan. No living soul could remain unaffected by such an experience.
Given this baleful connection between Jordan and Disney's Aladdin, I suppose there is something of an irony that the corporation's latest attempt to farm money from their back catalogue by updating the charming animations with live action and CGI, which is of course a new version of Aladdin, was actually filmed there. It's a funny old world sometimes, as well as a whole new one. Although possibly not in this movie, where much of the humour is either laboured or rather sentimental.
The fact that Guy Ritchie's film is likely to define perceptions of this story for another generation causes me a mild pang, for it persists in relocating the story of Aladdin from ancient China to somewhere generically middle-eastern, and furthermore ruthlessly scythes Widow Twankey and Wishee-Washee from the plot (they don't even have the bit where they divide up the audience for the singalong near the end). Instead we just meet Aladdin (Mena Massoud), an improbably well-groomed small-time crook and homeless person, who makes the acquaintance of sultan's daughter Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), who has some rather anachronistic ideas about emancipation and self-empowerment. Things get more complicated when...
Oh, come on, Constant Reader! Do I really need to describe the plot of Aladdin? It's from A Thousand and One Nights (albeit somewhat unrecognisably), one of the most famous collections of folk-tales in history! There's an evil vizier/magician (Marwan Kenzari). There's a cave. There's a lamp. There's a genie (Will Smith). There are a finite number of wishes to be granted. There are show-tunes, power-ballads and dance routines. You know how this one goes, I would imagine.
Well, if nothing else it is less horrid than Tim Burton's baffling version of Dumbo, but once again the whole thing is somewhat hobbled by the fact that it is essentially a recreation of the 1992 animation rather than an attempt to do something genuinely new and creative with the story: in addition to all the required beats from the folk-tale, the film is also obliged to include all the bits people will remember from the cartoon, as well. It even attempts to look like a cartoon, with a garish colour-palette and cinematography, although the list of things which seem to have influenced this new film is a long one: it is a peculiar chimerical beast made up of panto plotting, blockbuster CGI, Broadway show tunes, MOR power-ballads, and Bollywood dance routines. No doubt the film is expecting to receive plaudits for ethnically-appropriate casting (not that anyone is actually Chinese), although I do note that the closer a character is to the centre of the story, the greater the chance that they speak exclusively in an American English idiom.
Frankly, I found it rather hard going to begin with, not really being in the target audience – I only went because we routinely go to the cinema on a Tuesday night and my friends preferred this to yet another trip to watch Godzilla: King of the Monsters (yes, I know; but I try to be kind to them anyway). It does acquire a certain energy and sense of fun once Will Smith turns up, but on the whole you could easily dismiss this as very bland, rather vacuous stuff.
I did notice, however, that beneath all the froth and nonsense there is a film putting across an unexpectedly rigorous, if somewhat flawed thesis about the nature of power, particularly as it relates to the citizens of traditional hierarchical societies. All the major characters are to some extent defined by their social mobility, or lack of it: none of them, initially at least, have any prospect of changing their station in the manner they would prefer. Aladdin is going to stay on the street forever, Jafar is not going to ascend the throne due to his lack of the blood royal, Jasmine (being a woman) is not going to be allowed to rule as she would like, and the Genie's whole peculiar existence is defined by some rather arbitrary rules (you could argue that the Genie is in fact emblematic of the whole subtext of Aladdin).
Obviously this is a cause of frustration for all of them, and when Aladdin and Jafar decide to do something about it, it is in the same way: the use of magical (and thus unnatural, i.e., outside the bounds of conventional society) power to change their station in life. (The hero-and-villain-are-two-sides-of-the-same-coin trope is a common one, but it's presented here in an unusually systematic fashion.) What's notable is that neither of them is ultimately successful in this, and the changes that do result are more due to their essential characters than whatever magic they have managed to lay their hands on. The deeper subtext of the film is that power itself is an illusion at best, a trap at worst: we see Aladdin symbolically represented as a puppet of the Genie, an inversion of the supposed power relationship here. By the end of the film it has been made clear that the degree of power a person nominally wields is in inverse proportion to their ability to actually make free use of it – the Genie, whose powers seem to border on omnipotence (with a couple of exceptions), actually has the least control over his own existence, while it is the homeless Aladdin who is closest to being actually free.
And yet the film is ultimately rather conservative (perhaps this shouldn't be a great surprise), choosing to ignore its own thesis in the closing stages and present a happy ending in which the characters do manage to achieve some fairly improbable changes in the previously-monolithic status quo of the film. The root cause of all the suffering and conflict in this story is the existence of the strictly hierarchical society, and therefore for the film to have a truly happy ending one would expect to see the old power structures torn down and a new model of society in some kind of nascent form – but no. There are some specific and not especially significant reforms, primarily that Jasmine gets to be the Sultana (one might describe this as her raisin d'etre). So in the end, as I said, the film is ultimately flawed in how it implements its sociological and political analysis. But some of the songs are quite catchy anyway.