Updated: Sep 24
The story has always gone that Disney’s 1992 Aladdin was my first cinematic experience. Upon realizing the celebration of its 25th anniversary this very November, I had to reconsider my math. Yet I clearly remember the trip to the theater, the color of the seats, and how watching the story of Agrabah unfold before my three-year-old eyes made me feel. Thanks to the period we know as the Disney Renaissance (1989-1999), many of my peers share my enthusiasm for Disney. Experiencing Disney films during that specific time and age was a magical thing. We had the luxury of disconnection, where watching a movie about adventure made us want to physically, not virtually, explore. Just like Aladdin, my friends and I went on many a treasure hunt. Like Jasmine, the walls of my home became the walls of the palace, a barrier between what I had and what I could have. Disney has a heck of a way of making an impression on a three-year-old. Even still, over the course of the past 25 years Aladdin has been a surreal touchstone in my life, and it changed the landscape of animated entertainment, as we knew it.
Notably, one of the most influential outcomes of Aladdin’s production is the inclusion of top-billed actors among the voice-over acting community. While many characters in the Aladdin story are memorable and endearing, I find it would be difficult to argue that Genie isn’t the most loved and revered of them all. The role of Genie was specifically written for the talents of Robin Williams, and once Disney landed the famed comedian, the character grew even more so into the slapstick, improvised mentor he came to be. While Aladdin is not my favorite Disney film, (it’s in my top five), Williams’ Genie became a gateway into a history of comedy that even a three-year-old could begin to comprehend. Many of those praises can also be given unto the writers, undoubtedly, but having Williams perform multiple impersonations and bits throughout the film, gave the character a different intelligence and heart than what could have manifested in the hands (or vocal chords?) of any other. With each repeat viewing, there was another joke to be had, another punch line to which I was privy. And as with any VHS tape of the era, Aladdin was replayed constantly in my household, through moments of both sickness and health. When Genie said you, “never had a friend like [him],” he meant it.
Building off of Williams’ bravado, Aladdin is teeming with other delightful and intelligent characters. Aladdin’s specific character teaches the lesson: that if you aspire to something greater than what society has deemed you worthy of, you can achieve that goal through honesty and bravery. Although it does take him through trial and error to get him there, Aladdin does stress that respect and patience are key to maturing past childish wants. As a child also needing to learn lessons of maturity and patience, (my first sibling was born in 1991, and Aladdin almost marked the anniversary of my first year of older sisterhood), subconsciously learning through animation was an important tool in my development.
Aladdin’s pet monkey, Abu, can be seen as the id of Aladdin, influencing Aladdin to take what he wants, when he wants it. He’s an adorable companion, but it becomes quite clear as one’s understanding of the film deepens, that learning to think past one’s own inner Abu is the first step to maturing past childish wants. This knowledge grants a deeper foothold into proper societal etiquette. And it’s not to say that Abu doesn’t necessarily act out of Aladdin’s best interests as a whole, (the id does operate in a realm of love and preservation of the owner), but his base operation is one of childish desire. Aladdin’s introduction to Genie is, essentially, his first realization of the super-ego.
Meeting Jasmine, confronting Jafar, and looking past simple day-to-day survival, is what sets Aladdin on his path to maturity. Genie becomes his hilarious conscience, holding him to higher moral standards than simply feeding the desires of his id. Of course he has to operate as an actual genie as well to fit the grander plot of the story, so he is held accountable to initially granting Aladdin’s self-serving wishes. Aladdin is a cunning swindler – after living for years as what others see as a “street rat,” – he even cons himself a free first wish out of the deal to free himself from the pit of his own (Abu’s - id’s) morality. His technical “first” wish is to be made a prince, to better his chances at winning Jasmine’s hand in marriage. At this point, he is still in the dark on the importance of honesty. His “second” wish is to be saved from drowning after Jafar’s attempt to thwart him. He’s beginning to see that there may be a greater importance of saving Jasmine from Jafar’s intended plan; however, he’s still mostly looking out for number one. Luckily, his “second” wish grants him the ability to return to the palace, just in the nick of time to vanquish the true villain of the film: his own selfishness.
Upon returning to the palace, Aladdin is confronted by the promise he had made: to selflessly release Genie from his shackles of genie-dom. When he chooses instead to act in his own self-interest and save his last wish in case he needs it in the future, Genie reminds Aladdin that he has only gotten this far on lies and deceit. Disappointed, the super-ego brings guilt upon Aladdin and makes him ruminate on the choices he has made, to enter the adult portion of his life. While he is confronting his own morality, Jafar manages to bogart the genie for himself, to move in on Jasmine. He manages to wish himself into the position of reigning Sultan, and then again, into the most powerful sorcerer on the planet. When Aladdin tricks him into wishing himself into an even more powerful being, a genie himself, Jafar becomes shackled to his own magic lamp and is vanquished. As a child, this seems like the climax of the film. But it’s when Aladdin finally learns to stay true to himself – by not wishing himself into a prince to secure Jasmine’s hand and instead wishing for Genie’s freedom – that he masters the ego. At this point he can balance his wants and desires, along with his duty to morality and maturity. And for the first time, Aladdin completely truly values Jasmine’s honest opinion of him, no matter what may come.
Although less complex, Jasmine’s own struggles mirror Aladdin’s progress in striving to become more than what society deems fit. Even though it is law for Jasmine to marry a prince, the wealth and fame of royal society do nothing to warm her heart. She longs to be free of her own societal chains and would much rather find someone to love who is good and honest. Aladdin’s initial charms, executed at first as homeless Aladdin, and then secondly through the facade of Prince Ali, are incredibly convincing and alluring watching them through the eyes of a boy-crazy toddler/youth. They turn suddenly sour as age wises up a teen viewer to the concept of players and scrubs. (In this case, “Hangin’ from the passenger side of his best friend’s ride,” is akin to deceitful magic carpet rides.) Although Jafar’s intentions to unveil Aladdin as his true self are self-serving, they do change Aladdin for the better, making him confront his own truth, also removing the obstacle in Jasmine and Aladdin’s chance at love. Jasmine, while undermined at times by others’ lies, does remain true to herself and her standards for the duration of the film. And that, for a young girl to witness, is probably the most magical takeaway of all.
The lessons taught in Aladdin, can be found scattered throughout most great animated and children’s films, especially in the Disney archives, but I think it’s been said you never forget your first. Even 1994’s, The Return of Jafar and 1996’s, Aladdin and the King of Thieves, hold a special place in my heart. As I got older, Aladdin continued to resurface, most likely due to its relevance and influence on my generation. Even in college, a group of like-minded Disney fans would take time out of their typical drunken frat-party behavior on a Friday evening to devote an hour to belting out the likes of “Prince Ali,” “A Whole New World,” and other Disney classics such as, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” (1998’s Mulan) and “Kiss the Girl” (1989’s The Little Mermaid). And in 2014 when we lost Robin Williams, well, it really did feel like we were losing that friend, the one like no other.
I’m sure Aladdin can, and will continue to, dazzle children and adults alike for years to come. But I just consider myself one lucky diamond in the rough to have experienced it when and where I did. In 2019, Disney will release Guy Ritchie’s live-action Aladdin with Will Smith at the helm as Genie. He’s sure got one big lamp to fill. As Disney moves into this wave of live-action remakes, it’s easy to compare the present to the past. But as we’ve seen with The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast, these new interpretations are their own, paying homage to the past but becoming whole new films. After all, Aladdin’s old enough to rent a car now, soaring, tumbling, freewheeling. Happy 25th birthday Aladdin; I’ll make sure to come on down, stop on by, hop a carpet and fly to another Arabian night.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.