THE SOCIAL COMMENTARY IN THE FILM
Hi. Yeah, it’s a cartoon. Did you think that meant there was so much social commentary? Strap in. It’s going to be a while. In case of emergency, the exits are here-here-here-here-here-here-here-here-here-here-here - anywhere! Keep your hands and arms inside the carpet!
Let’s start with how class and poverty are shown through this film. The movie contrasts the lives of the wealthy/powerful in the forms of Jasmine, the Sultan, and Jafar with the poor/oppressed like Aladdin, a street urchin (who may or may not have fleas) who steals only what he can’t afford… that’s everything. The law treats any theft to survive as a crime and immediately imprisons people for it. Aladdin faces consistent discrimination for being riff-raff, a street rat just because he can’t buy that.
The movie criticizes the social system that creates and maintains this inequality and injustice, particularly through characters like Jafar, who already has almost everything, so he’s obsessed with getting the only things he doesn’t have, marrying Jasmine so he can be the Sultan. He uses magic, exploitation, and manipulation to try to accomplish this.
We have Jasmine who has everything, so she is bored and wants to explore and see the world, but she literally lives in her own world, so she’s unaware of the realities outside of her kingdom and the hardships and dangers the poor face every day.
As the movie plays out, we are shown a whole new world of possibilities for overcoming class barriers through love, courage, and honesty… but only for one person, Aladdin. Everyone else’s life is basically the same. So basically we see what it’s like to win the lottery and how that is the only way to move up in a social system that is set up to maintain the status quo.
Jasmine taps into some feminism and female empowerment as she is depicted as a strong and independent female character in many ways, but in others, she’s incredibly reliant on all of the men in the film, even Genie. At least she saves Aladdin from drowning, allowing her to miss the trope of being the damsel in distress.
There are actually many good pieces with this, including how Aladdin never really tries to change her. He thinks he knows better in the beginning, and maybe he does in some ways, but overall, he accepts Jasmine for who she is. They show mutual trust and admiration for one another, working as a team, and bringing their strengths to each battle.
When it comes to race and ethnicity, this film is another balancing act. In many ways, it’s wonderful, as it attempts to celebrate Arabian culture through music and architecture, even clothes. And many of the details are spot on. However, the consistent use of stereotypes that depict the Middle East as a savage place based on absolute brutality is misguided at best.
While I could commend them for trying to find different ways to bring in types of characters, they still took the easy way out and went incredibly stereotypical. This was the biggest thing that stood out to me as “icky” upon this viewing.
One of the biggest themes in this film is the theme of power and corruption. He enslaves Genie. He hypnotizes the Sultan. He tries to force Jasmine to marry him.
But he’s not the only one! Aladdin himself is corrupted by his power and his desire. He promises to use his third wish to free Genie from the lamp, but later he pulls back on this, knowing he needs another wish to get what he wants. He’s no better than Jafar in some ways, as he cares more about winning Jasmine over than how he goes about it. He’s willing to manipulate and even control her if he can and, while he eventually learns his lesson and uses his final wish to set Genie free, it’s very obvious that it was not an easy decision for him to make. The power of corruption is a very strong antagonist.
Genie represents the paradox of power as he has the ability to do just about anything at all… but no control over choosing to do it. His power has the potential to do good or bad depending on his master’s intentions. It becomes a nuanced example of the effects of power and how it can be used differently by different people. A person’s worth is not in their amount of power, but in the way s/he chooses to use it.