All of us remember Disney’s classic 1992 animated movie Aladdin, about the genie-summoning pauper who pretends to be a prince and the yearning princess who is an emblem for the outdated notion that a woman’s life and purpose can be made complete by a man. And all of us, of course, remember that famous scene in which the princess, Jasmine, born into a life of unimaginable wealth and affluence, is shown an even better view of the world as she sails through a moonlit sky on a magic carpet ride, literally as well as figuratively looking down on the commoners below.
We are told that this “whole new world” is one of unbelievable sights and indescribable feelings, soaring and tumbling from wonder to wonder. It’s a higher state of reality capable of producing sensations for the wide-eyed babe even more euphoric than the sweetest slumber on her satin sheets, in her silk robes, on her gold-encrusted canopy bed. You could interpret this scene as being about opening your mind and widening your perspective. About looking at life with fresh eyes – provided, of course, those eyes belong to a beautiful princess blessed with all the spoils of undeserved success.
But in the new live action remake from director Guy Ritchie, which has barely a modicum of the crackle and fizz of its cartoon predecessor (from which the filmmaker’s entire knowledge of the Middle East appears to have been drawn) I saw this previously iconic scene in a different way: as an opulent kind of horseshit. It arrives at a point in time when the title, if not the entire meaning of the song works startlingly well as an ironic statement.
Disney’s line-up of films for 2019 and beyond describes a very old world, not a new one, stuffed full of remakes, sequels, spin-offs and other sorts of recycled spectacle. The Big Mouse’s slate of tentpole releases this year is dominated by familiar titles including Avengers: Endgame, Captain Marvel, Dumbo, Toy Story 4, The Lion King, Frozen 2 and Star Wars: Episode IX.
Disney’s line-up of films for 2019 and beyond describes a very old world, not a new one, stuffed full of remakes, sequels, spin-offs and other sorts of recycled spectacle.
Orbiting around each of these entities is a veritable galaxy of tie-ins, affiliations, sub-franchises and toys. The company’s stranglehold vision for the future, which includes a massive streaming platform, is more like a Brave New World rather a whole new world. A thrilling chase and wondrous place, so long as you’re partial to empty pap – shining, shimmering, splendid.
Stating that the rationale underpinning Disney’s obsessive nostalgia-mongering and tentacle-spreading is a desire to amass huge fortune is hardly an original or insightful observation. Nor is it necessarily reflective of a bad product (I quite liked Dumbo, for the record, with its colour-weeping picture book look and its timid but reasonably thought-provoking rehash of the themes of King Kong). It nevertheless provides an interesting vantage point from which to reflect on the new Aladdin – which, for the record, is indeed a very bad product – not just for the previously mentioned irony, but for the cold, money and power-loving black hole of a soul at the heart of it.
This is a film that masquerades as a romantic story about finding true love – but really, it is a tale about powerful political leaders who change the law only when it suits themselves (you’ll find out why and how if you stick it through to the end). That message arrives at an interesting point of time in Australia, less than a week out from the re-election of a federal government famous for savaging boat people and public servants, and hideously effective at ratcheting up fear about modest wealth redistribution strategies. In the words of the economist Ross Gittins: “convincing the punters that an attack on my five dollars is an attack on your five cents.”
Presumably the population of Agrabah, where Aladdin is set, will one day rise up against the kingdom – just as one day in Australia the youth of today will realise the extent that they’ve been screwed by older generations, who are currently counting their franking credits inside million dollar homes.
But on the face of it, in Agrabah and Australia alike, cash is thrown around everywhere in service of gratuitous celebrations of the ultra rich, and the public are more than OK with this. When the flibbertigibbet blue-skinned Genie (Will Smith) pops out of his lamp to sing “you ain’t never had a friend like me,” the scene of torrential ostentation is set, with glitter and explosions firing off left right and centre. It’s Busby Berkeley mutilated by Baz Luhrmann, or vice versa.
Just before that, the huge Smaug-esque loot of gold and precious things stored in the Cave of Wonders gets washed away in a sea of flowing lava, because why not. And just after that, Aladdin (Mena Massoud), pretending to be “Prince Ali Ababwa,” strides into town with a lavish street parade announcing his arrival, crowing about his “75 golden camels” and throwing gold coins onto the heads of poor children below him (a parody of crude wealth distribution schemes) not because he knows what it is like to be one of them, but because he’s drunk with imagined wealth – and has immediately forsaken his roots.
It’s Busby Berkeley mutilated by Baz Luhrmann, or vice versa.
Like a major political party (the Liberal party during this year’s election comes to mind) Disney is averse to taking risks. Generally speaking, it occupies a place in the centre. But why bother remaking old films without any original ideas? Or perhaps, given we know the answer is cold hard cash, a better question is: why would we bother watching them?
Films aren’t like theatre productions, which, even when they are based on old materials, are nevertheless new: immediate and in the moment, with energy drifting from live performers into the audience. Instead film is, as Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky famously put it, “sculpting in time.” These sculptures are frozen and can be revisited. Meaning, in consideration of the film at hand and Ritchie’s lily-livered direction, there is no compelling reason to see the new Aladdin when one can revisit the narratively and ideologically similar, albeit significantly superior original.
So, if the Big Mouse had the mettle to retell this story in a way that might enhance, and/or reflect and/or progress the current zeitgeist – or simply in a way that might be interestingly different – what could the narrative look like?
How about this. For starters, the protagonist has changed. This Aladdin remake is called Jasmine. Aladdin is still a poor ragamuffin and Jasmine remains a hot princess. However she has great intelligence and adventurousness (which is hinted at in both movies) as well a strong sense of social justice and a fascination with lives different to her own. She is engrossed by Aladdin and romantically pursues him, pretending to be poor. As she mingles with the commoners she absorbs the stories of the downtrodden and disenfranchised. This is the “whole new world” – the real one, beneath her feet. She learns much about street culture: the vibrant and exciting aspects of it, but the sad parts also; the bits that illuminate the great barriers and discrepancies that exist between classes in her kingdom.
Jasmine and Aladdin get married. When Jasmine returns to the palace, she changes the law to implement modest measures to help the proletariat, taking a small amount of money from the wealthy and assigning it to the less fortunate, providing them a few more loaves of bread. She has obstacles to overcome and opposition from within the kingdom, but her and Aladdin remain resolute and rebuff their critics. They inform the naysayers that they are not to tell them no, or where to go, or to say they’re only dreaming.