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.