We need to talk about Aladdin – and role models in film

It’s safe to say that I didn’t have high hopes for Guy Ritchie’s new live action remake of Aladdin. And I couldn’t imagine how I’d have felt going in to the cinema if it was my favourite animated Disney film; as was the situation for Mrs Izzard.

Judging by everything the marketing had given us, from the look of the genie and the lacklustre visuals, to the fact it seemed like the actors (*cough* Will Smith *cough*) would struggle their way through the iconic songs, it wasn’t looking good.

So imagine my surprise when we found ourselves thoroughly enjoying the film… As many reviews have pointed out, it’s absolutely a mixed bag. It has its flaws and there are obvious improvements that could be made throughout but it also has some really nice moments and sequences that aren’t to be sniffed at.

One of the biggest concerns from fans of the original film was Will Smith’s Genie and whether he’d be able to do the character justice. Robin Williams is the complete embodiment of the character – so much so that whoever was cast to step into his lamp was always going to have an uphill battle. And there are times – mostly during his songs – when Smith verges on a Robin Williams impression and it’s not the least bit enjoyable. But then all of a sudden he’s given more rope to do something original and the Will smith that we know and love shines through.

Of all the things to love about this film, the musical arrangement is definitely there. The score creates an elaborate musical journey which is much more impactful than the original soundtrack. It revisits and reprises the melodies, delivering an almost high-end musical feel that was missing from the panto-like West End musical.

But one thing that I couldn’t quite make my mind up about are the visuals. They’re lacking in some areas, but striking in others. The physical set and costume design are incredibly detailed but they’re let down by a lot of the VFX. The cave of wonders especially is dark and uninspiring and a far cry from the lavish piles of gold and jewels from the 1992 animated classic.

Without question the best thing about the film are the changes that have been made to Princess Jasmine and consequently what these mean for female characters in Disney films going forward.

Because when we talk about Aladdin, we need to talk about role models in film.

Lots of animated Disney films are rightly criticised for their female characters and the example that sets for young women. Often times they need to rely on male protagonists to save the day. In many cases, there are female characters who are strong-willed at the beginning of a film – I’m thinking Pocahontas and Mulan – but then still end up sitting by while a male character swings in to save the day.

In the 1992 animated Aladdin, Princess Jasmine was one of these characters. At the beginning of the film she makes it clear that she doesn’t want to marry someone her father has arranged for her. But it’s simply because she wants to choose someone to marry herself rather than become the rightful heir to Agrabah’s throne.

This is the biggest change that Guy Ritchie has made to Princess Jasmine, who’s played by the incredible Naomi Scott. She’s now given a strong will but that’s matched with an intelligence and a level-headedness and the drive to do something good for the people living in their kingdom. And unfortunately these are all things missing from a lot of the legacy characters in Disney’s back catalogue of animated films.

Listening to a podcast recently, Terri White the editor-in-chief of Empire and Pilot Magazines, was questioning the development of a female character by questioning how much we know about them at the end of their stories, compared to at the beginning. And I’ve found myself thinking about this as I’ve watched things since. I’ve found myself more than ever asking whether the filmmakers have given us enough development of their female characters.

And in Aladdin’s live-action outing, we do know more – and it’s great! Princess Jasmine talks about her mother and she talks about how she’d lead the kingdom of Agrabah. We learn that she knows at least a bit about cartology and has a connection with the chief guard’s family. These are all things we don’t get a glimpse of from the animated version because 2D Jasmine is… well very 2D.

Jasmine having passions and ambitions of her own are the things that make her a much better role model for young girls and women watching this remake. My niece is unashamedly a girly-girl and loves lots of the Disney Princesses. But do I want her thinking that the biggest choice she can make is which person to marry?

No, I want her to be like Princess Jasmine 2.0 – a woman with her own thoughts and ambitions and something important to say. And it’d be great if she did that wearing her glittery Rapunzel dress.

But it’s not just about positive role models for young women. Young men need to see these role models too so that the next generation don’t give women the chance to shine just because ‘equality’ is now a thing and that’s what they should do.

In the same way that I want my niece to see positive, intelligent and powerful women in film and TV, I want her brother to see them too. By telling stories that include great female characters, maybe the next generation won’t have views that are quite so cemented in what’s a man’s role in cinema and what’s a woman’s.

So more of the same please Disney. If the media behemoth’s plan is to continues remaking its animated classics, here’s hoping that it gives a few other female characters the same treatment as it’s allowed Princess Jasmine.

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