Editor’s Note: This article was written by guest author Matthew Distefano.
Disney’s Aladdin is my daughter’s favorite “princess” movie…well currently…she always changes her mind. I also hear it is Adam Ericksen’s as well. And who can blame them, really? The film features Princess Jasmine, arguably the most gorgeous fictional animated character of all time (although I fancy her attire would not have been permitted given her cultural context). Plus, she is one courageous girl. She boldly stands up to the power structures; challenging the laws and mandates set forth by her father, the Sultan. She does not care about money or fortune, status or fame; but seeks true love, eventually even from a down and out “street-rat” named Aladdin. And speaking of Aladdin: how can one not root for an underdog like him? He has nobody and nothing—scraping together what he can just to survive. He is easy-pickings to be scapegoated by the people—unknown, poor, parent-less and downtrodden.
Agrabah, the Middle-Eastern setting for the film, is ruled with an iron fist. Commit petty theft and it’s “off with your hand”—literally! Sinister Jafar oversees police operations and has his cronies intimidatingly patrolling the streets looking to shake people down. Moreover, poor children roam the alleys, thankful even if they only get a few scrapes of bread. Certainly the Sultan—the “one-percent”—could kick down some of the lavish riches he has. Yet, he chooses to live in what appears to be a temple erected for self-worship. Because of this kind of society, struggling Aladdin finds himself in trouble with the law on more than one occasion. His trouble, however, will also include an unlikely encounter with royalty.
After prophetically releasing a group of white doves from her Father’s courtyard, Jasmine sneaks out of her palace home—clearing the walls for the very first time. Because of her ignorance to common society, she soon finds herself in a bit of trouble while at a bazaar, forcing street-wandering Aladdin to come to her rescue. In doing so, the two develop trust in each other; recognizing the shared desire to be free to be themselves—free from their current situation.
Aladdin—to be free from the oppressive socio-economic situation he is in.
Jasmine—to be free from the system of law she is under.
However, any budding relationship gets cut short by Jafar’s minions and Aladdin is arrested under the false charges of “kidnapping”. As we would find out, because of a prophecy that Aladdin was a “diamond in the rough”, and thus, worthy to acquire the lamp, this is all part of Jafar’s evil plan.
As a sorcerer, Jafar manifests himself as an elderly prisoner and slips Aladdin out a secret tunnel of the jail and toward a “cave of wonders” where this lamp is to be found. In exchange, Aladdin is promised riches beyond his wildest imagination. After turmoil in the cave, Aladdin is able to get the lamp to Jafar but Jafar does not live up to his end of the deal and shoves Aladdin into the cave and thus, trapping him inside. However, Aladdin’s side-kick Abu sneakily swipes the lamp from Jafar which leads to the introduction of “the Genie”.
While the Genie is able to use his magical powers to free Aladdin and his friends from the cave, they are also used to turn Aladdin into a “prince”, something Jasmine does not desire. Aladdin may have had good intentions in doing this—as he knew the law stated “the princess must marry a prince”—but his plan backfires when his false status goes to his head and Jasmine witnesses herself being treated as some “prize to be won”(Philippians 2:6). The Aladdin from the marketplace—the “nobody” in the eyes of society—is what Jasmine desired. He was humble and sincere: a romantic at heart. This “Prince Ali”, as he went by, was arrogant, flashy, and everything Jasmine despised in a man. This status Aladdin thought Jasmine desired was the very thing that initially kept them apart. It is not until some of Aladdin’s humility shines through later that night when Jasmine begins to show some trust in him (although he still is not fully honest with her as of yet).
After the two sail on a romantic magic carpet ride, all is looking up…for around 10 seconds. Shortly after Aladdin kisses Jasmine goodnight, Jafar captures Aladdin; nearly drowning him before the Genie can save his life. Shortly after, Aladdin exposes Jafar’s corruption to the Sultan and it seems like the case is closed. Jafar is guilty and headed for prison, maybe worse. However, being the sorcerer that he is, Jafar is able to break free from the guard’s restraints. Later that evening, Jafar’s right-hand parrot, Iago, is able to steal the Genie’s lamp—making the Genie subject to his new master, Jafar.
Jafar spends wish 1 & 2 on becoming sultan and “the most powerful sorcerer on earth”, using this new power to crush our hero’s hope. However, because of mimetic desire and Aladdin’s quick wit, Jafar is tricked into engaging into mimetic rivalry with the Genie…the very one he is manipulating for his evil plans. Aladdin’s plan to taunt Jafar—claiming he is second to the Genie in power—works brilliantly. Upon Jafar’s third wish; the wish to be the most powerful genie in the world, Jafar enslaves himself in his own “magic lamp” until someone should come along and free him. Jafar’s own desire to be the most powerful genie the world is the very cause of his enslavement.
When we enter into mimetic rivalry—when we desire power and to be over and above others—our fate is enslavement. In contrast, we discover freedom when we give of ourselves and lift others up. After Jafar is defeated, Aladdin uses his final wish to give the Genie his freedom. In doing so, Aladdin risked his chance at marrying Jasmine as they were still under the same archaic marriage law as before. However, because the Sultan witnesses the power of true love, he gives his daughter the gift of freedom—the freedom to love whom she pleases.
I applaud Disney for contrasting these two fates. Mimetic rivalry will always lead to conflict, violence, enslavement, and ultimately, death of some kind. However, the self-giving love of others is what sets us free—free to desire the same type of love our Papa has for us. This theme is prevalent throughout scripture. Jesus, in only doing what He saw His Father doing (John 5:19), was given up for us all (Romans 8:32). There is no greater gift than to be given freedom through Jesus Christ. Without it, our own desires, borrowed from the desires of others, will lead to our own enslavement. Thank God for the perfect Model out of this.
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