Introduction: Since Disney’s creation of a string of WWII propaganda films in the 40s and his later testimony in the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, Disney has been highly political. The media that it churns out imposes an America-Centric, Christian, and middle-class value system, and Aladdin is no different.
In August of 1990, Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait. By January 1991, US troops, along with Saudis and those of other nations deployed their own troops to the tiny Persian Gulf nation. Oft cited as a cause of the interference was maintaining low oil prices (justifying the estimated $60 billion cost of the war, in total?). Also sometimes stated as a cause is the imperial American policy of controlling the price of oil, whether it is high or low. Aladdin, Disney’s first film with an Arab setting was released in 1992, which “coincidentally” derides the Islamic religion, Middle Eastern culture, and generally comes off as thinly veiled propaganda encouraging further intervention in the Middle East, because they want it. And it’s what you should want, spongy young mind.
The Barbaric Middle East – From the very first scene, the theme of the Middle East as a barbaric land is established, with the lyrics in the original opening song: “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but, hey, it’s home.” The following scenes of the outdoor market ridicule the merchants hawking their wares, making some out to be dishonest and certainly unjust in their treatment of Aladdin (But how does the Disney corporation treat individuals when you irritate them? Like garbage.) These scenes establish, over and over, that the Middle Eastern world is a senseless one where you are executed or mutilated for the slightest infraction. And most importantly, nobody wants it to be that way.
Please Change Us – All of the characters that we are supposed to like hate the world that they live in, with the possible exception of the Sultan who is depicted as too stupid to understand their qualms.
Jasmine – Our young heroine wants a more democratic legal system that would allow her to marry whoever she wants. She tells her father, “I hate being forced into this. If I do marry, I want it to be for love” and then later, “I’ve never done anything on my own. I’ve never had any real friends.” Consequently, she runs away but is so naive about life in the outside world that she doesn’t realize she needs money to buy things. Then Aladdin comes and helps her escape punishment for giving a hungry little boy an apple, as well as his monkey who has been stealing non-necessary things such as jewelry. It’s presented that lying and stealing are simply necessary in the corrupt Arab world, but people want it to be different (yet Disney donated millions to Dubya’s campaign, who lowered taxes on the rich). Shortly after, Jasmine and Aladdin immediately bond over both feeling trapped. The film is saying that no matter what your status in the Arab world is, you’re trapped in the authoritarian prison. And to salt the wound, their society is keeping true lovers apart.
As for her father, the Sultan ends up changing the laws of the land to better reflect Western values (and personal whim).
Aladdin – Aladdin is downtrodden and trapped, unable to escape life as a “street rat,” and pursued by men who will cut off his hands for stealing a loaf of bread (society is obviously broken). However, he has dreams of being rich. The people, then, are victims of evil rulers that must be overthrown and replaced by good people who embrace western values. An example of this is seeing the Arab prince who only has contempt for the common people starving outside the palace walls (when they aren’t busy getting their hands chopped off), but we cheer when Jasmine rejects him.
In case this message wasn’t clear enough, Jasmine and Aladdin then escape from the palace on his magic carpet and they sing “Whole New World,” on their world tour. In other words, the happy young couple just want to see the world that their totalitarian government won’t let them see. They’re dying for western material pleasures, maybe a trip to Disney World.
The Genie – Not only are the genie’s performances a homage to Broadway, but they also have an element of slapstick comedy, and he’s appropriately voiced by the very American Robin Williams. Furthermore, he wants freedom more than anything in the world, and no master for thousands of years (presumably all Arab) until Aladdin would ever grant him his own wish. It takes an American character to do that, it would seem.
I think that it’s fairly clear that the film is an indictment of Middle Eastern culture, and calls for westerners to come in and change them. Only we can save them!
Muslim Religion – Christianity gets serious treatment in Disney films such as The Chronicles of Narnia (a Christian allegory), but Aladdin mocks and trivializes the Islamic religion repeatedly. Continually, we hear the Muslim characters crying out religions phrases like “As-Salamu Alaykum” and “Praise Allah” as if they were old women playing Bingo. Turbans are set on fire, their feathers fall down into their eyes. The treasure cave that Aladdin goes into calls him an “infidel” for the monkey merely touching a giant ruby. It’s all made to be a comic spectacle worthy of American derision, with obvious patriotic motives toward the recent (and future) operations in the Middle East.
Women and Minorities Need to be Saved – Despite the fact that Jasmine is a strong woman that can reject the substandard suitors that seek her hand in marriage and feel objectified by a group of men talking about who she will marry without her input, in the end she still must be saved by Aladdin. He saves her not only from a life of unhappy marriage, but he literally must save her life in the end. Furthermore, the whole story is implying that an Arab state will naturally lead to totalitarianism if not interfered with. The Sultan even says that the kingdom needs somebody of Aladdin’s character.
This is made clear through the characters’ appearances and voices. Aladdin does not look Arab at all, and in fact was intentionally modeled on Tom Cruise. Yes, Disney’s Arab hero is modeled on America’s most famous Scientologist. He and Jasmine both have lighter skin than the rest of the cast and have all-American accents. Meanwhile, the evil Jafar has darker skin than the rest (many of which basically just look Italian). His pet bird is even named Iago, named for the duplicitous character in Shakespeare’s Othello, deepening the western framework for judging these characters.
The Original Aladdin – In the original tale of Aladdin, published in A Thousand and One Nights, Aladdin was a Chinese boy living in China, manipulated by a North African sorcerer to do his bidding. The latter character would actually have represented the west to those in China. Through the help of the genie in the story, he wishes himself a great fortune and marries the Emperor’s daughter, later defeating the sorcerer. It’s clear then that the tale was bastardized to conform to the corporation’s romantic formula and to serve as mainstream commentary on Middle Eastern culture, doing its part to make sure the children of the 90s would support more Middle Eastern intervention.
The Oompa-Loompas on Television:
IT ROTS THE SENSES IN THE HEAD!
IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!
IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND!
Introduction – I hope that the reader will realize that I am not trying to crush anybody’s childhood memories, but rather trying to see past the glitz and glamor of one of everybody’s favorite movies. Most people equate Willy Wonka with a life of eternal happiness and diabetes, and until quite recently I did as well. But, in fact, the story has a darker side, both in the literal events, and in the way that it can almost come off as a parody on the rose-colored glasses we wear when thinking about our modern, industrial society.
Post-War, Pre-Hippie – As Todd Gitlin writes in his book The Sixties, “affluence” was the key word to the 1950s and early 1960s. “It was assumed to be a national condition, not just a personal standing…in a society that had long since made material production and acquisition its central activities. The boom of 1945 to 1973…was the longest in American history. Starting late in war-blasted Western Europe and Japan, the boom rolled, however unevenly, through the rest of the industrialized world.” The novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published in 1964.
In these years, finally breathing after years of war, genocide, and other such horrors, most parents were just glad that the only thing their children had to worry about is which candy to eat and whether or not they will be able to tour the world’s finest chocolate factory. Consequently, we see them indulging their children and letting them go wild in these pursuits, but not Charlie. He’s quite literally on the outside looking in. Nevertheless, his intense desire for chocolate and especially to visit the chocolate factory reflect the pre-hippie ideal of how children should react to the “splendors of affluence.”
But an environment of relative international security is not the only thing that this affluence rests upon.
The Industrial Economy – The novel as well as the film released in 2005 explore the darker side of the manufacturing economy. Interestingly, the manuscript was originally regarded “as similar to a Victorian novel, a parallel which is suggested by Wonka’s “huge iron gates” and “smoke belching from its chimneys” as from an English factory during the Industrial Revolution” (Source). However, the earlier 1971 film chose the non-controversial route and left out these elements.
The three versions’ treatment of Charlie’s father is revealing. The 1971 film omits the fact that his father was a wage-slave in a toothpaste factory and later lost his job when the factory closed down. Instead, it implies that his father is dead and shows his mother working as a laundress to support their large family. This evades the controversy surrounding the Industrial Revolution and its creation of a factory class of citizens, not to mention its other consequences such as urbanization. In the more recent film, his father is shown as losing his job when he was replaced by a machine, only to be redeemed by taking up the occupation of repairing those machines in an uplifting twist not present in the novel.
Whatever the background, Charlie is not able to participate in the materialistic rat race because he is poor. In fact, his family could be described as the system’s victims who happened to have had enough luck to escape the misery of that life. However, this does not stop Charlie from his obsession with emulating the upper class and having a piece of that pie. It’s interesting to note that even after he gains control over the factor, he never uses his position to create jobs; he keeps the Oompa-Loompa system in place.
Inside the Factory –
The multitude would not have bowed their necks to the hard discipline of their new work, if in compensation they had not been liberated from other, more ancient disciplinary restrictions.
-Ancient Rome and Modern America, Guglielmo Ferrero
Let’s face it. Willy Wonka is a reclusive weirdo living with slave-midgets. It’s a well-kept secret that the current novel on the shelves calling itself Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is rewrite of the first version. Originally, the workers in his factory, were based on African Pygmies. That’s right, they were small black people from Africa, and were the only ones willing to live inside of his factory all of the time. Furthermore, they “work for a wage of cacao beans, sing songs that are almost war chants, and allow themselves to be experimented on like laboratory animals” (Source). However, it would seem that it is not chattel slavery, given Wonka’s concessions to them such as maintaining the factory at a high temperature, and the fact that they seem happy to be there. Naturally, however, the
question arises if they would be happier roaming the free world. Of course we’ll never know because they cannot leave.
The novel was revised after great backlash, and Dahl refashioned them into Oompa-Loompas from Loompaland, who have white skin and wear leaves for clothing, which is still a far cry from the circus act that both films make them out to be. Everything is just so grand in the world of abundance that even factory workers are singing midgets!
This makes Wonka appear like an eccentric narcissist, but the plot thickens. Wonka care little for those in the outside world. He has little sympathy for children and merely stands by as if he were a neutral observer as they destroy themselves while trying to fulfill their dreams through his factory—Violet is turned permanently blue, Mike ends up ten feet tall, etc.
To me this represents the advertising industry and the culture of consumerism. It draws you in with promises that your dreams will come true, and once you are sucked in, you’re spit out as damaged goods. Even Charlie can never leave the factory again, at least not until Willy Wonka dies. The worst part is that it’s a candy factory with no real benefit to society, and indeed probably has a negative effect (diabetes, etc). This is the sinister nature that I think the 2005 movie was trying to portray. Welcome to Hotel California, Charlie.
And what are Wonka’s goals? First and foremost, the whole scheme of the factory tour was a way to create demand for his product. Secondly, he tells Charlie that he needs a child to take over his factory, rather than a adult who would impose his own views and opinions on its operation. In other words, he wants to perpetuate himself. Charlie, then, can have a piece of “the promised land” in turn for servitude. Everybody in Wonka’s world must be controlled by him and they are kept happy by their own isolation and addictions. How very healthy.
Again, this is what happens to us in reality. A good example of this is the first scene in the 1971 film version where we see all the children running out of school and into a candy store while the candy man begins to sing to them as he sells them candy, giving them the old razzle dazzle. Children can be very profitable.
The Children: Augustus is a gluttonous boy who constantly engorges himself on sweets. Veruca is spoiled and as soon as she gets what she wants, she has new demands that must be fulfilled. Mike is lazy and potentially violent. And Violet perhaps more than anybody represents the modern capitalistic spirit—the need to win at irrelevant and meaningless pursuits, such as chewing gum. Meanwhile, Charlie is a humble and unspoiled little boy. On the surface, then, we have the timeless story of a good person in a bad world.
However, while it’s clear that the other parents are creating entitled monsters, Charlie’s own family is filling his head with the heroism of industrial giants (Wonka), and his teacher decides to dismiss class and run to the factory himself when he first heard that Wonka would be permitting some to enter. Once they are in the factory, the parents often behave as children themselves and fail to stop their offspring from signing a contract that none of them can read. There are no positive examples for these children.
It’s interesting, though, that the story can condemn the people that the system produces, but never the underlying system that defines the goals and ends up leading Charlie to emulate the very people that he condemns.
The Contradictory Ending – I cannot be the only one who finds the ending to be contradictory, especially in the 1971 version. First, we hear throughout the film that greed is bad, and that people should be humble, especially in the character Veruca with her “I want it now” song. But then in the final elevator scene, Wonka asks Charlie what happens to the boy who gets everything he ever wanted. He lives happily ever after. Either commercial pleasures make you happy or they don’t! End.
Overview – To briefly summarize, the lessons in the novel are:
1) This book is wise, and if you can’t see that you’re a stupid barbarian
2) Nature gives you legitimate and accurate signals based on your personal affairs
3) The universe will conspire to give you what you want
4) You should act on your dreams (literally)
5) You become a part of the Soul of the Universe (?) by chasing these dreams
Hopefully this list alone has illustrated while I believe the novel to be a pile of sanctimonious crap. I want to clarify that I am not against people working toward achieving their goals; I myself have a passion and dreams I’d like to accomplish. However, that is not what I believe the book actually promotes.
Overview – Pulp Fiction is a tragedy without the sadness and a comedy without the comic plot line. And at the same time as it portrays itself as a champion of those who want to escape the world of political correctness and limitations, it also mocks the dissociative culture that tends to come along with it, lamenting the American Wasteland. In other words, by pretending to have no moral message it only makes it hit harder. I also believe that the film was written with modern media criticism in mind and purposefully exaggerates the ever-criticized aspects of movies, such as jumping from scene to scene with no apparent reason, and throwing together a mishmosh of genres.
“[Criticism] is the only civilized form of autobiography”
Introduction – I’ve avoided discussing many of the plot details because that’s been done, and redone ad nauseum. Instead, I’ve chosen to focus on an aspect that’s been little talked about—the mythological influence in the film. I’ve read short comparisons between the original and the cinematic Ariadne, but most of what follows is new.
Ariadne – In Greek mythology, the Athenian hero Theseus set out to kill the bull-headed Minotaur in the Cretan Labyrinth to prevent him from eating more Athenian girls and boys. Luckily for him, the Minotaur’s half-sister Ariadne (“the resplendent one”) fell in love with him and decided to help him in his task. She gave him a ball of string that he could unravel as he navigated the maze so that he wouldn’t lose his way. Similarly, in Inception, Ariadne helps Cobb through the dream world, playing the role of Architect and shrink.
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New, Video Version:
How delighted would be all the kings, czars, and fuhrers of the past…to know that censorship is not a necessity when all political discourses takes the form of a jest?
-Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
Overview –Clueless is an interesting social experiment. The producers deliberately set out to make new trends for teenagers, even releasing a Clueless-inspired line of Barbie dolls, and these efforts were wildly successfully. But, at the same time, the film is a satire on the very people it was marketed to. It depicts a Huxleyian (as opposed to Orwellian) dystopia. We do not have to fear Big Brother as much as we have to fear the golden fetters of Clueless, the myth of human progress through material goods which drives us to laugh and dance all the way to slavery.