Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Aquaman vs Jasmine: Humility, Arrogant Confidence, and Tacked-on Themes (Lizzie)

Some friends and I went to see the live-action Aladdin on Memorial Day. I enjoyed it. Beautiful scenery, great visual spectacles, great music, and I liked Aladdin and thought Will Smith did well, though no one can replace Robin Williams in that role. For the most part, this version was very much like the animated classic. It did have two new songs, however, both sung by Jasmine. Unfortunately, the more I thought about these two songs and the "new" Jasmine, the more irked I became. If you haven't seen the new version, basically, the songs are just Jasmine saying that she has a voice and no one can make her be quiet (she actually is heard, then told to be quiet by more experienced people who disagree with her, but apparently it doesn't count unless she's agreed with). Then you learn she wants to be sultan and thinks she'd be a darn good one. So now Aladdin has been turned from a fun tale of a street boy turning honest to a feminist tale. I believe in equal rights, but I wished Disney hadn't messed with the story. They're guilty of tacking on a theme that doesn't fit, and this tacked-on theme is guilty of at least three crimes: interfering with the true theme, creating an inconsistent character, and encouraging bad behaviors (stealing and over-confidence). Bear with me while I explain.

1) A tacked-on theme First off, Aladdin is about Aladdin. The diamond in the ruff. The kindhearted, lying, stealing street rat that must get polished up and become honest and a through-and-through hero. When you shove in two songs and several scenes about Jasmine's desire to be heard and become sultan instead of simply a wife and mother, you take away from Aladdin's theme. He loses out at the end to Jasmine's triumphant receiving of her father's ring and promise to make her the next sultan. We (most) all remember the animated classic and its story, so Jasmine's new scenes feel like the intrusion they are--just an idea Disney wants heard. Jasmine's arc isn't thoroughly developed either, which I'll go into later. The story had an organic theme revolving around Aladdin. It didn't need another. Yet Disney tacked on a unnecessary, cookie-cutter girl-power theme without regard to the real story simply to push its own agenda.

2) An inconsistent character We meet Jasmine wondering innocently through the marketplace as in the animated version. She sees some hungry kids and hands them bread from a food stall. She doesn't have money to pay for the food and is surprised by the owner's anger at this stealing. We think, "Aw, the poor, sheltered princess grew up where everything belonged to her father and she could do what she wanted with it. We can excuse her stealing as pure ignorance. She meant well." Now, we have live-action Jasmine, who does this "innocent" stealing, but then later tells us how she's been training to be sultan all her life and has read books. (She's only been out of the palace once, but she has read books.) She feels she'll be a great sultan. Explain how someone in training to be sultan doesn't understand personal property and stealing? She's either inconsistent as a character ("old" Jasmine and "new" Jasmine intermixed) or simply doesn't consider it stealing when she takes something she isn't willing or able to pay for. She's mad when she thinks Aladdin has stolen a bracelet that belonged to her mother. Taking a sentimental trinket is apparently a crime but taking a man's goods--the stuff that earns him money to feed himself and his family--isn't? Or are we supposed to say it's okay because the kids were hungry (were they starving or wanting a snack, because I get hungry between meals) and the stall owner was mean? Since when did the owner's likably determine whether an act was stealing or not?

3) Morals Unworthy of Fairytales Fairytales are supposed to teach good morals. Be kind, be honest, be honorable, don't be deceived by appearances, and so on. What I'm getting from new Jasmine is that it's okay to steal from mean people--they're just selfish, after all, and have no right to their own property; that if you don't agree with me, you're not listening to me; and that passion and confidence are all that's required to be whatever you want to be. It's great that Jasmine wants to help people, but she doesn't even know what she doesn't know. She's on the level of those people on American Idol who're convinced they can sing but can't. Passion and confidence aren't enough. Respect and positions of influence and power should be earned, worked for over time (usually well into adulthood), and not taken lightly. They require maturity and humility. Granted, not everyone is going to get the same take aways as I do, but they're probably not thinking too much about what's really being said either, simply enjoying the overall story, for better or worse.

A month or so ago, I watched DC's Aquaman. The tattooed, long-haired Aquaman (Arthur) is a bit different from my typical heroes, but I really liked and respected him. One reason is because he's humble. Not an insecure, untalented weakling. Just humble. He knows what he's good at ("I'm a blunt instrument, and I'm good at it") from experience and others's comments. He's been out in the world and knows a thing or two. He knows his limits. He has the sense and maturity to know that ruling a kingdom isn't easy. Despite his training and the encouragement of knowledgeable people (like an advisor to kings and Princess Mera), he feels inadequate. That humility helped him win the day. I'll take Aquaman's sense and humility over Jasmine's ignorance and arrogance confidence any day.

As a writer, it's our responsibility to not only write great stories, with proper theme and character development, but to be careful what messages we are sharing. Tacking on a theme instead of sticking with the story's real theme can have unintended consequences. (And can really annoy certain types of readers/viewers.)

Have you seen Aladdin and Aquaman? What did you think of them? Does it bother you if extraneous themes are added on to push whatever is popular at the time or do you not care so long as the overall story is good?


  1. Bravo, Lizzie! This is a well-articulated, intelligent response to what I've noticed occurring in society lately -- let's take good stories (or a news angle, sound bite, or whatever) and infuse our own biases into it (and it's usually done awkwardly). There are several popular YA novels that I really disliked because I was being preached at. Inserting a new theme into a story that already has one never goes over well.

    Something similar was done to A Wrinkle in Time -- the old story was about love, that love could overcome all evil, regardless of your size or ability. The new tagline? Be a Warrior. That's NOT what the story was about, but Disney wanted to push their girl-power agenda. :-(

    1. Thanks so much, Jill! Yes, I agree about trend and don't like it either.


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