by Benjamin Elterman
The Disney film tackles the conflicts of self-doubt, actualizing potential and escaping reality.
Disney has been releasing live action versions of their animated classics recently and this year’s slate will have some of its heaviest hitters; including The Lion King, and Lady and the Tramp. Butperhaps the most ambitious will be the remake of 1992’s Aladdin. Aside from the music, the hilarious ADHD genie, and still impressive animation, the real gem of the film is the poignant and universal struggle of the title character that drives the story. When a lowly thief falls for a princess, will the magic of a genie make him worthy?
The film tackles the conflicts of self-doubt, actualizing potential and escaping reality, all inner conflicts each and every one of us wrestles regularly. There are three specific moments in the film that distinctly illustrate this theme.
A Diamond In the Rough
When we meet Aladdin, we’re introduced to a poor thief employing advanced acrobatics and a lyrical rhyme scheme to evade Agrabah guards and obtain a loaf of bread for breakfast. But as the musical number One Jump Ahead informs us, Aladdin is regarded as; “riff raff, a street rat, a scoundrel,” and “has clearly hit the bottom.” Despite these labels, Aladdin seems to let insults roll right off of his back. Then we get a glimpse of another side of Aladdin when after all his efforts, he gives his stolen bread to two starving orphans. No wonder Jafar, the sorcerer and film’s main antagonist, divines that Aladdin is in fact a diamond in the rough.
It’s this duality between the way people see us and our capacity for greatness that we know exists inside of us that resonates with our own profound struggles.
Prince Ali, Fabulous He
When Aladdin survives the cave of wonders fiasco, he comes away with the exuberant genie and can request anything his heart desires (save a few restrictions.) With the wish to become a prince, Aladdin is now eligible to court Princess Jasmine. But the wish grants him more than a title, as we’re shown in the song Prince Ali. The song details just how much stuff Aladdin now has: “Seventy five golden camels. Purple peacocks, he’s got 53.” Yet, even with all this wealth and luxury at his disposal, Princess Jasmine rejects him.
It takes Aladdin sweeping Jasmine away on a magic carpet ride to win her over while they share a serene moment. It’s there Jasmine tricks Aladdin into slipping up, revealing he was indeed the impoverished boy from the market after all. Even though he has proven himself in the personal intimate setting, he is unable to be vulnerable and expose his true identity. He has everything he needs but is blind to recognizing it. Aladdin could come clean completely but instead makes up another lie.
Be Careful what you Wish for
Having “won” Jasmine’s heart Aladdin is on top of the world… for about 2 minutes of screen time. A new crisis arises when he learns that once he marries Jasmine, it won’t be long before he will become sultan! “No they want Prince Ali to be sultan.” Aladdin feels trapped, a victim of his own success and way in over his head. Because of his lack of confidence, he breaks his promise to the genie that he would use his last wish to set him free. In doing so he allows the lamp to be stolen by Jafar, giving the villain nearly unlimited power and making his own problems exponentially worse.
Living in Reality
To recap, we have three problems. 1) Feeling we are greater than how people treat us or the way we see our station in life. 2) Pumping ourselves up, pretending to be greater than we are on a superficial level. 3) When we do get some recognition, feeling we’re not worthy of the responsibility and not capable of solving the challenges that come with them.
In Rabbi Noah Weinberg’s 48 Ways to Wisdom (Way #41) he gives us a clear strategy of how to deal with these issues. We need to live in reality. It may frustrate us that others look at us “less than we are”, but are other people’s perceptions reality? A marketing expert might say yes, but the truth is you can always decide how you act and react. Even though Aladdin may be living in slums disregarded by society, he still gives his food to the children that are less fortunate than he is. It’s because of this moral character he is, in actuality, the diamond in the rough. When we engage with people authentically, that speaks far more profoundly than putting on the show of what you think they want to hear.
The next step to understanding reality is to know what you really want. When most people are asked what is more important, money or happiness, they will answer “happiness!” But what do most people spend their time pursuing? Money. When we understand ourselves, we understand what our desires are really all about. Why do I need expensive clothes and cars? I want to be respected by my peers. Why is that respect so important to me? So I can do the type of work I want to do. Why do I want that work? So I can feel secure. Is there a more productive way to feel secure?
If Aladdin understood himself better, he’d recognize that Jasmine was most attracted to him when he opened up and shared himself with her. His white robes and elephants made very little impact.
The last and probably most difficult step for understanding reality is keeping a sane mind when things get difficult. Aladdin is overwhelmed when he realizes a mountain of responsibility is about to be heaped upon him. “I can’t be sultan.” Whether you’re getting promoted or becoming a parent, everybody doubts themselves at one point or another. Even Saul, first King of Israel, had a freak out and hid in a closet before his coronation. But when we understand reality, that God is running the show, it means that we are exactly where we need to be at all moments.
Our problems are far scarier in the abstract. When we look at and break them down step by step, it’s much easier to tackle them. If we freak out and run from them, that’s when the problem gets worse. We have to stop, know that the Almighty has put us in that situation for a reason, and do our best.
Anything else is living in a fantasy world and no amount of wishing is going to bring us to that happy ending.