Aladdin is based on one of the best known stories from the One Thousand and One Nights or Arabian Nights collection. It’s the tale of a peasant boy who finds a magical oil lamp with a genie inside, who grants him pretty much anything he wishes. There are many variations of the story (thanks in part to its many pantomime incarnations), but what isn’t as well known is that Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp may have been penned by an 18th Century French translator named Antoine Gallard, rather than having come from Indian, Arab or Persian folklore. What’s also hard to believe is that when Disney’s Aladdin was released in cinemas, having a celebrity voice actor was considered headline news(ish), and completely irrelevant pop culture references were also considered amusing and ground-breaking. Oh 1992, you are too pure for this world.
So is the film also pure in its interpretation of the source text? You may end up lying down on the carpet, magic or not, for some of the differences in this one.
After a swooping view of flaming sunset dunes, the elegant sultan’s palace, and an Arabian village on a deep blue night, we are introduced to our narrator. He informs us we are in Agrabah, somewhere in the Middle East, and that he has the best damn merchandise money can buy. He presents the audience with various pieces of junk, but when the camera starts to wander away he tries to grab our attention by showcasing a special oil lamp.
He warns us not to be fooled by appearances, and that this particular lamp changed the course of a young man’s life. In probably the most entertaining sales pitch ever, he proceeds to tell us the tale of the lamp, but since he is never seen again, we can assume that he never actually closed the deal. Never mind eh.
Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp is one of 1001 tales told by a woman named Shahrazad (or Scheherazade) to King Shahriyar to delay her execution.
Basically, King Shahriyar found out that his own wife and his brother’s wife were asking a few too many favours from their slaves, and so begins to distrust women altogether. This leads him to the rather unromantic habit of marrying virgins and then executing them the next day. Unsurprisingly, he starts running out of virgins, and there is also a mass exodus of families with daughters. The royal vizier is terrified of his king’s wrath and doesn’t know how to remedy the situation, but one of his daughters, Shahrazad, volunteers to be the king’s next “virgin”, believing she can cure his wasteful ways.
She arranges for her younger sister to come to the bedroom chamber after the king has “finished with her” on her wedding night, under the guise that she wants to say a tearful goodbye to her. The younger sister then asks Shahrazad to tell her one last story, and using such delay tactics as not telling them the ending the same evening, Shahrazad keeps the king from murdering her the next morning, and the morning after that, and so on.
Shockingly, Disney decided to drop this narrative framework, so the closest reference to it in the film is the opening song of Arabian Nights, and a fleeting mention of Scheherazade in the genie’s song Friend Like Me.
Aladdin is a street-wise orphan who has to steal to survive in the streets of Agrabah, together with Abu, his trusty monkey. As well as being one of the few Disney princes who doesn’t look like a department store mannequin, he has a strong sense of morality (despite thieving) and somehow manages to keep his fez perched snugly on his head at all times.
Princess Jasmine is the headstrong daughter of the sultan, “headstrong” meaning she won’t just marry any old suitor who struts through the gates of the palace. By law she has to choose and marry a prince in three days’ time, but she only wants to marry for love, and so ends up rejecting every showboating prince she meets with the help of her loyal tiger, Raja. She also dreams of escaping to a life outside the palace walls.
The star of the show by far, the genie (voiced by Robin Williams) appears when Aladdin rubs the magic lamp, and says he will grant him three wishes, unless he wants to kill someone, make someone fall in love, or bring people back from the dead – arguably the kinds of wishes high up on many people’s lists. He makes sure he grants wishes in the wackiest way possible, and also becomes friends with Aladdin.
Jafar is the royal vizier, and like all tall, dark and thin characters with a British accent, he is the villain of the story. With his trusty animal sidekick, Iago, he is plotting to take over the sultan’s kingdom by acquiring the magic lamp. He also enjoys dabbling in the black arts and dressing up as toothless old men and giant snakes.
Finally, we have the sultan, Jasmine’s father, and the owner of possibly the cutest hands in animation history.
He is warm-hearted and just, but exasperated by his daughter’s refusal to marry a prince, as well as being ridiculously suggestible. Fortunately, his entourage only seems to consist of Jafar, so at least there aren’t many people who can manipul-oh wait.
Believe it or not, Aladdin is actually Chinese. Or at least, he lives in China, and he also has a mother and father. Since he prefers playing out in the streets with urchins rather than earning a living, his father literally dies of shame, and his mother is forced to take up weaving to subsidise his laziness. He does have a good heart though, as he is willing to share his wealth with the other urchins, and once he has the woman of his dreams, he lavishes her with attention and riches.
Said woman of his dreams is the sultan’s daughter, Princess Badr-al-Budur (which means “full moon of full moons”). She is betrothed to the royal vizier’s son, but seems pretty cool with marrying whoever. Apart from walking around looking beautiful, she manages to mess up some of Aladdin’s plans, as well as act like a harlot to foil an evil scheme.
Did someone say “evil scheme”? Well, this trustworthy-looking individual is an evil magician from Morocco who seeks the power of the lamp. He follows its trail to China, and poses as Aladdin’s long lost uncle in order to gain access to it.
The reason he is after the lamp is because of the jinnee inside it, which can grant its master wishes.
There are two jinn in this story – one inside the lamp, which is presumably more powerful, and another found inside a ring that Aladdin is given by the magician. Both jinn have about as much personality as their respective containers, simply appearing, granting a wish and then disappearing. The one in the lamp throws a strop later in the book when asked a certain question, but other than this they don’t stick around to tell satirical jokes or forge any sort of friendships with their masters.
Their lack of personality doesn’t stop Aladdin’s mother from being mortally afraid of them. As well as kindly asking her son to rub out a jinnee in the next room rather than right in front of her, she spends her days weaving to make money or taking heaps of jewels and cash to the sultan to try to impress him. She is the main advocate of Aladdin’s wishes to marry the princess, and is fully supportive of her son once he ceases his idle ways.
Finally, the sultan also plays a part in this, and like the one in the film he is very suggestible, completely believing that Aladdin came up with vast riches or built a palace within only a couple of days. He does break his word a couple of times, and when it comes to his daughter, he can be completely merciless, even towards her. He also has a queen and a harem to keep him busy.
In the Disney version we are clearly in the Middle East, and the princess and the genie are more developed and independent to an extent. Aladdin’s story is also a more severe rags to riches tale, as he is an orphaned street thief, and the sultan has been drastically emasculated. The original version has a completely different setting with much more traditional portrayals of the characters, or at least, how someone in the 18th Century believed people in medieval Asia would have behaved. Sadly there is also a lower percentage of animal sidekicks.
The Quest for the Lamp
The story begins with Jafar trying to gain access to the Cave of Wonders so he can procure the lamp. He sends a thief in to collect it, who is promptly chomped by the cave entrance – only one person can enter the cave, and this person happens to be Aladdin. Using his dark magic, Jafar finds out who he is and has him thrown in the dungeon, and then in the guise of an old prisoner convinces him to help obtain the lamp. Aladdin enters the cave and finds it, but Abu gets over-excited and touches some of the forbidden treasure, causing the cave to collapse and melt into lava. Fortunately, on their way inside they befriended a magic carpet who whisks them to safety, well most of the way anyway.
A falling rock suddenly smacks the carpet away and Aladdin and Abu are left hanging off a ledge. Jafar will not pull them to safety until they give him the lamp, but once Aladdin has done so, Jafar tries to kill him. The street urchin and his monkey tumble into the abyss as the cave finally collapses, but fortunately, Abu swiped the lamp back off of Jafar, so he and Aladdin are not as trapped as it appears.
The magician in the book already knows Aladdin is the only person with access to the cave, so after winning his family’s trust with fine food, clothes, and the promise of buying them a shop, he takes Aladdin to the mountains to find the entrance. Instead of a tiger’s head, it’s a decidedly less exciting trapdoor with a ring. He instructs Aladdin to pull the ring while saying his and his family’s names, and advises he must go down to collect the lamp, but mustn’t touch any of the other treasure. He is however allowed to pick some of the “fruit” from the trees on the way back – said fruit being rubies and emeralds and other jewels. Finally, he gives Aladdin a magic ring, saying it will protect him as long as he follows his instructions.
Aladdin goes down into the cave and retrieves the lamp and “fruit”, but this weighs him down so much that he’s unable to climb back out again. The magician asks him to give him the lamp, but Aladdin says he can’t, he needs help climbing out first. The magician gets frustrated and basically goes “feck it”, and casts a spell to trap Aladdin and the lamp in the cave forever before going back to Morocco in a strop.
The magician in the book is somewhat more prepared than Jafar and more dedicated to winning Aladdin’s trust, but has considerably less patience when things don’t go to plan. The cave in the film is more epic and threatening, as there is an obvious supernatural presence watching over it, which prohibits its visitor taking anything else apart from the lamp. Aladdin in the book is still permitted to grab some swag on the way out, but this also leads to his downfall. Both Aladdins have the lamp in their possession though, so what do they do with it?
Since he has nothing better to do while being trapped in the cave, Aladdin rubs the lamp and the genie explodes on to the scene. He says he will grant him three wishes, and to labour the point, he entertains him with a zany musical number. Aladdin then tricks the genie into getting him out of the cave to avoid wasting a wish, and although the genie is initially angry, he calms down when Aladdin asks what he would wish for – thereby discovering that the genie is a prisoner, and that only his master can wish for his freedom.
Aladdin agrees to wish for the genie’s freedom once he has used up his other two wishes, the first of which is to make him into a prince so he has a chance at winning the hand of the princess (more on her in a moment). He and the genie therefore become buddies, and in usual buddy fashion, the genie says to Aladdin that he should really be himself when meeting the princess, and not some flashy old prince. Such protests fall on deaf ears, and Aladdin spends most of the rest of the film, with the genie’s help, trying to impress Jasmine and the sultan with a lavish parade and by acting like a macho member of the royal family.
Stuck in the cave for three days, Aladdin starts to cry and fear for his life, and while wringing his hands in despair he manages to rub the ring the magician gave him. This releases a large black jinnee, who says he will grant him any wish he chooses. Aladdin asks for him to free him from the cave and take him safely home.
Once there, his mother is relieved to see him and Aladdin explains what happened with the magician. His mother says perhaps they can sell the lamp for money, but it may need a bit of polishing. It’s therefore Aladdin’s mother who releases the lamp jinnee, who doesn’t seem to have any limit to the number of wishes he can grant. Living very much from day to day, Aladdin and his mother first ask for delicious food, and then sell off the silver platters they are served on. This goes on until Aladdin sees the princess, and he then uses more wishes to conjure up vast riches for his mother, so she can go to the palace and champion his hand for that of the princess.
Despite having two jinn, and apparently an infinite number of wishes, Aladdin in the book doesn’t immediately grasp the full possibilities of this, but in all fairness it wasn’t expressed in song. He also sends his mother along to the sultan instead of an elaborate parade in the Disney version, but in both stories Aladdin’s main focus is winning the heart and hand of the princess. So how did they come by such beautiful desert blooms?
Aladdin and the Princess
Aladdin and Jasmine first meet when Jasmine has run away from the palace in disguise to avoid getting married. Having been sheltered her whole life, the concept of “commerce” escapes her, and she almost has her hand chopped off by an angry merchant when she doesn’t pay for an apple. Aladdin intervenes with some clever acting and they escape together, after which he takes her to his private condo: a dilapidated building with an amazing view of the palace.
Since both Aladdin and Jasmine are smart and have a healthy dose of attitude (as well as being bootilicious), they hit it off extremely quickly, but are interrupted by the guards and separated before they can get their freak on. Aladdin is so besotted by her that she’s all he thinks about, even when he’s been tossed in the dungeon and is probably going to get his head cut off (which is the story the princess is fed by Jafar when he kidnaps him to procure the lamp).
They meet again later in the film, when Aladdin is disguised as Prince Ali. Unfortunately, Jasmine finds his aforementioned display of riches and servants rather vulgar, and is dismissive of him like all the other suitors.
Funnily enough, when she eventually speaks to him, she recognises his mannerisms and realises he’s the same boy from the market, so rather than setting her tiger on him as usual, she agrees to go for a completely un-metaphorical ride with him on his magic carpet. Having finally chosen a suitor, she is able to get married, but Aladdin then realises this will make him sultan, and develops an inferiority complex. He is unable to keep up the charade of being a prince without the genie’s help, and so he confesses to him that he can’t set him free after all. After their lovers’ tiff, he comes to his senses and realises he has to tell Jasmine the truth about who he is. It’s a bit of a mystery as to why he feels so awkward about this – Jasmine clearly would have jumped him in his street-rat clothes if given the chance – but before he can tell her he’s really just a peasant they are interrupted by a vengeful Jafar.
Much like the film, Aladdin catches sight of the princess in the street, but as a simple spectator – the entire quarter has been closed off as the princess wants to use the public baths, and he catches a glimpse of her going into the building. He is struck by her beauty, and charmingly confesses to his mother that he thought all women looked like her until he saw the princess, and now he is in love. He makes it his mission to have her hand in marriage, and since by this point he already has the lamp, this should be fairly easy.
The sultan agrees to let Aladdin marry her after his mother presents him with fine jewels and gold, but says this will happen in three months’ time as the royal vizier, whose son she is betrothed to, may want time to try to best this dowry. After two months, the sultan breaks his word and Badr-al-Budur is wed to the vizier’s son. Upon hearing this, Aladdin more than earns the title of Cock-Blocker of the Year.
On the wedding night, and every night until the sultan dissolves the marriage, he uses the jinnee to bring the married couple to his room as they lay down for the night, and forces the groom to lie frozen in the privy all night so they can’t consummate the relationship. While this is happening, Aladdin lies on the bed with the princess with a sword between them. Both the bride and groom are too embarrassed to tell anyone about this, despite the Sultan threatening to behead his own daughter if she won’t tell him what’s wrong.
Once the marriage to the vizier’s son has been dissolved due to a lack of hanky panky, Aladdin puts on a lavish show with the jinnee’s help, with beautiful servant girls and riches. Although Princess Jasmine would be far from impressed, it totally works for Badr-al-Budur, and this, coupled with Aladdin’s good looks, wins her heart and they are happily married about half-way through the story. Aladdin uses his wishes to build a palace for himself and the princess right outside the sultan’s window, and it seems that they will live happily ever after with everything they could desire. Ahh.
In the Disney version, the couple meet as equals and fall in love, but the issue of status seems to bother Aladdin more than Jasmine. In the book, status doesn’t matter a jot as long as the princess’ suitor has enough bling, and this is what wins over Badr-al-Budur initially. Aladdin in the book also takes more direct action to stop other people from marrying the girl of his dreams, and his marriage to the princess occurs half-way through the story. It’s not all plain sailing however, as a rather un-sexy love triangle is about to develop. Don’t worry, it doesn’t involve the monkey.
The Sorcerer’s Revenge
Having given up hope of ever finding the lamp, Jafar tries to find other ways of usurping the sultan – namely by marrying the princess, or rather hypnotising the sultan so he forces Jasmine to do so. When the bombastic Prince Ali comes along, Jafar tries to murder him to get him out of the picture, and gets the guards to tie a ball and chain to his feet and throw him into the sea in one of Disney’s grisliest attempted murder scenes. Aladdin therefore uses up his second wish by proxy, as the genie saves his life. When he makes it back to the palace, he exposes Jafar’s plan and the sultan and Jasmine throw him out. While being manhandled by the guards, Jafar happens to spot the lamp in Aladdin’s hat and realises who he is before escaping in a puff of smoke.
After Aladdin and the genie have bickered and the former goes off to tell Jasmine who he really is, Iago steals the lamp and delivers it to Jafar. The vizier uses one wish to become sultan, and another to become the world’s most powerful sorcerer, whereby he turns Aladdin back into a peasant and then sends him flying off to a far away land (and not in a good way). In the meantime, he moves his palace on top of a cliff and turns the sultan into a jester and Jasmine into a slave girl. He asks Jasmine for her hand in marriage again, and when she refuses through the medium of wine in the face, he asks the genie to make her fall in love with him, unaware that this is one of the only wishes he can’t actually grant.
While Aladdin is living the life of riley, winning a war for the sultan and dishing out jewels to the poor and needy, the magician finally recovers from his tantrum and decides to have another go at procuring the lamp. When his spells fail to reveal the lamp’s location in the cave, he goes back to China and discovers Aladdin is alive and well and using the lamp’s magical powers. The magician is rather put out by this, given the effort he went to to find the lamp in the first place, and uses his magic to find out where it is in Aladdin’s palace. When he discovers it’s unguarded, he commissions a brassmaker to make some replicas, and then goes around the town offering to exchange the brand new lamps for old ones.
Badr-al-Budur, who is either insanely stupid or feels sorry for the magician, allows him to swap her husband’s “old” lamp for a brand new one. The result? The magician uses the lamp to wish the princess’ and Aladdin’s palace away to Africa, with the princess inside, leaving the sultan to have an epic WTF moment when he looks out of his window the next morning.
In both versions the sorcerer identifies Aladdin as the holder of the lamp and whisks away the sultan’s palace (or part of it), complete with the princess, but in the film this is due to Aladdin’s cock-up, whereas in the book it’s mainly down to the princess being an idiot. In either case, Aladdin is far away from the sorcerer’s palace and seemingly helpless without the power of the lamp.
Aladdin to the Rescue
Thanks to the magic carpet, Aladdin manages to make it back to the palace. The genie can’t help him because Jafar is his new master, but he can still slap Iago about and cheer him on at climactic moments. Aladdin manages to sneak up on Jafar, mainly because Jasmine is pretending to be in love with him, and so begins a struggle for the lamp. Jafar seemingly has the upper hand, being the world’s most powerful sorcerer for instance, and transforms himself into his most attractive form yet – a giant snake.
Before being crushed to death, Aladdin tricks Jafar into wishing he was a genie, as he would apparently be more powerful. This of course restricts him to living in a lamp, and unable to wield powers without the say so of his master. The villain vanquished, everyone and everything returns to normal, and Jafar’s lamp is hurled hundreds of miles away to be swallowed up by the Cave of Wonders.
Rather than change back into a prince, Aladdin uses his last wish to set the genie free, gently explaining to Jasmine that he’s got to stop pretending to be something he’s not. Luckily, the sultan suddenly remembers that he can change the law so that Jasmine can marry whomever she wishes, prince or not, so she and Aladdin can finally tie the knot (after an eternity of two days). The hastily-wedded pair then fly away on the magic carpet to a new life, and the genie ends the film with a fourth-wall reference that was pretty much unheard of at that time.
In retaliation for the princess being kidnapped, the sultan decides to behead Aladdin – it’s only the protest from the townspeople outside that stops him. Aladdin asks for forty days to find her, which the sultan agrees to, but if he fails, then it’s off with his head again. The prince wanders around the town and in the desert, not really knowing what to do, but when bending down and praying, he kneads his hands and ends up rubbing the ring again. The ring jinnee is unable to bring back the princess because it can’t undo the magic of the lamp jinnee, but he can take Aladdin to the palace in Morocco.
Meanwhile, in the palace, the magician is trying his luck with the princess, telling her that Aladdin has been beheaded and so she should cut her losses and go with him. She continues to spurn his advances, and when Aladdin arrives in secret she reveals to him what has happened. Aladdin gives her some sleeping potion and says she must cosy up to the magician so he can pour it into his drink. She manages to do so with kisses and sweet nothings, and when he has fallen asleep, Aladdin chops off his head. They then use the lamp to transport the palace back to China, to its original location, and the sultan is ecstatic and throws wine and gold around like it’s going out of fashion.
However, no one banked on the magician having a brother, who also journeys to China with revenge on his to-do list. He disguises himself as a local holy woman named Fatima, killing her in the process, and gets himself invited to the palace to see Badr-al-Budur. While there, he advises her that she should hang a roc’s egg in the middle of the palace to make it even more holy and special (a roc being a sacred bird in Persian folklore). Badr-al-Budur asks Aladdin to get this for her, but when he asks the jinnee, he roars with anger at his ingratitude, and threatens to burn him and his wife on the spot. It turns out that the roc is their mistress, and to ask such a thing is sacrilege. Since the jinnee knows they didn’t offend him on purpose, before disappearing he reveals that the holy woman is the magician’s brother in disguise and is intent on killing Aladdin.
Aladdin goes to the holy woman complaining of a headache, and when “she” takes this opportunity to stab him, he grabs the knife and thrusts it in his heart. Badr-al-Budur feels awful for putting them in danger once again, but Aladdin is a softie at heart and says he would do anything for her. They tell the sultan what happened with the holy woman, and there is yet again much rejoicing. Aladdin eventually becomes the sultan, and they live happily ever after, at least until they are visited by the Destroyer, or the Annihilator of all men, apparently (symbolising the end of the world).
Albeit by magic carpet or convenient ring jinnee, both Aladdins are able to reach the sorcerer, and the princesses both spurn and encourage the sorcerer’s advances in order to conceal Aladdin’s return. Disney’s version is more forgiving with the magician’s fate (although being trapped in a lamp with a hyperactive parrot for all eternity sounds pretty horrible), and the sultan simply watches Aladdin’s actions rather than spurring him on with a sword edge. There are more twists and turns in the book, and it’s implied that the jinnee leaves Aladdin due to his terrible request rather than because he is free. Both turn out happily of course, but with more blood and beheadings in the original version.
It’s no surprise that Disney changed some aspects of the story and took out such unpleasant elements as executing deflowered virgins, chopping off people’s heads while they sleep and interrupting the royal wedding night. To make things simpler, the two antagonists – the magician and the royal vizier – are combined into one person, and Aladdin’s marriage to the princess is delayed until the end of the film, in a fairytale style. What’s more, the rather subservient jinnee and princess are given more sass and have more freedom, literally. Disney did commit a rather large geography fail with the setting, but to be fair this is probably more to do with what people would expect to see in a film about Aladdin rather than being a deliberate deviation.
The film still retains some darker elements, as both versions have rumours of Aladdin being beheaded and Jasmine almost has one of her hands amputated. However, the characters are softened considerably and are completely capable of acting in defiance of their culture, committing acts that would probably have them executed in the book.
Cultural updates aside (and I’m not just talking about the genie’s jokes), Disney’s Aladdin is a magical rags-to-riches story that teaches that inner worth is more important than status, and that being true to yourself is the way forward. The original story is also a magical rags-to-riches tale, but in this version, the only type of worth that overrides your status is the material kind. It does show, however, that any layabout can get up and make something of themselves provided a load of cash and jewels suddenly fall into their lap, so clearly the answer to the recession is to play the Lottery. That is, if you believe the advice of a story set in China, written 300 years ago, and by a Frenchman pretending to be a woman in medieval Arabia.
1) Aladdin, 1992. Film. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, U.S.A. Walt Disney Pictures.
2) Dawood, N.J. Tales from the Thousand and One Nights. Penguin Books, England, 1973. ISBN: 978-0-14-044289-2
3) Parker, E. The Independent, 2009. The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 nights, trs Malcolm C Lyons. [online]
4) Irwin, R. The Guardian, 2011. The Arabian Nights: a thousand and one illustrations. [online]