Origins: Aladdin


Ah, yes, another live action Disney remake. Yay. The 1992 original, of course, featured the often-missed Robin Williams as the Genie, as well as Scott Weinger as the titular character and charming songs like the Oscar-winning “A Whole New World,” sung by Lea Salonga and Brad Kane. It still holds up today, but Remake Fever demands that lightning strike twice, so here we are. The 2019 film premiered worldwide on May eighth in Paris, and tomorrow in the United States.

Here’s the trailer, if anyone hasn’t seen it:

Yeah. Who else is creeped out by the Genie? Forbes’ Dani Di Placido was–he thought the character looked “too human.”

Williams voicing the Genie in 1992. (IMDb)

I agree. The Genie should look otherworldly, so this apparent cut-and-paste job seems a wee bit jarring. Plus, the throwback to the 1992 film is just too bang-on. Will Smith is a funny guy and very cool and all that, but the way he’s done up here only makes me long for Robin Williams. I’m sorry, but I feel like the bar has really lowered in Hollywood since Williams died. We’ll never see his like again, rest his soul.

What would have been better, I think, would be to forget the traditional genie look and just have Will be Will, because it gets him at least a little bit out of Williams’ formidable shadow. Not that he would have had to go full Fresh Prince, but just let him be himself, maybe even poke a little fun at the genie archetype. Disney isn’t exactly known for thinking outside the box, though, so this probably didn’t enter anyone’s mind.

Illustration by Virginia Frances Sterrett for the 1928 edition of A Thousand And One Arabian Nights. (Britannica)

Aladdin is a rather mysterious character. For those who aren’t familiar with the traditional telling, Aladdin’s story can be found in A Thousand And One Arabian Nights, but no one knows where it really came from. Some think Aladdin has his origins in the Far East, and others think he’s Chinese, or maybe both. Where it gets confusing is that there are some parts of China that have Muslim majorities, which might be why Aladdin’s culture seems a bit mixed. Still others think he’s a European creation from 1704, as “Aladdin” can’t be found in earlier editions of Arabian Nights.

No matter where he started, pretty much everyone agrees Aladdin is a ne’er do well who seems doomed to a bad end until he finds the magic lamp with the genie, who gives him everything he wants. In the version I grew up on, and it seems to be a pretty common one, Aladdin got the lamp when a supposed long-lost uncle from Africa enlists him to help him get it out of a cave. He tells Aladdin not to touch the walls of the cave or anything else on pain of death, and Aladdin obeys, although he does fill his belt with fruits that look like jewels. Then the uncle (who’s really a sorcerer and a grade-A conman) bails on him when Aladdin wants to be helped out of the cave.

Oldest known manuscript of 1001 Arabian Nights. (Ajam Media Collective)

Aladdin sits down in despair, absently twisting a ring the sorcerer gave him, when a genie appears. Yeah, out of the ring. And he can grant wishes, too. Aladdin is free of the cave before he can blink and is on his way home, where he reforms his selfish ways.

Where does the lamp come into all of this? Aladdin’s mother figures they can just sell it since it’s a ratty old lamp anyway, and when she goes to clean it, you-know-who pops out. It goes without saying that Aladdin and his mom are set for life after that. Aladdin grows up to marry the sultan’s daughter and builds her a magnificent palace.

As for the African sorcerer, he turns up like a bad penny and the inevitable happens. Aladdin is no dummy, though, giving the dude more than he bargains for.

Giant Glacier

Aladdin may be mysterious, but the Genie isn’t. Genies, known as jinn in Arabic, are common in the Qu’ran. They seem like angels and demons, as some are evil and some aren’t. The Qu’ran says Allah created them and they have magical powers. While they live in a parallel dimension, they can change shape and interact with the world of men. According to legend, though, the jinns made God mad one too many times and He doomed them to be rootless. They like to mess with people, so they probably deserved the trouncing.

A more sinister jinn, Zawba’a, the demon king of Friday. (Wikipedia)

According to the site, Giant Glacier, it wasn’t until 1704 and the new translation of Arabian Nights that the term, “genie” became commonplace, as well as the jollification of the genie. Their image had already begun softening in the Syrian region of Palmyra, where genies were seen as kind and helpful. Throw in the Roman co-opting of jinn into what became our term, “genius,” add a dash of European preference for the kinder, gentler genie, and voila, the change is complete.

And how did the genie get stuck in the lamp? Well, they’ve always been there, and other stories in Arabian Nights feature genies bursting out of everyday objects. Sometimes it’s a brass chest, or the typical dirty lamp, but either way, trapping them is very common.

5741_Aschorjo Prodip (422x225)
India Blooms

When it came to putting Aladdin and the genie onscreen, the supernatural aspects of the story present no small problems to early filmmakers, so it hasn’t been adapted very often. One of the earliest live-action versions was 1917 Fox Kiddies short, Aladdin And the Wonderful Lamp (watch the film here) which featured Aladdin as a little kid. It’s like the Little Rascals meets the Arabian Nights, only cruder, and the special effects reflect the time, although Aladdin does fly over a wall in one scene. It’s only remarkable for the novelty.

Other film versions have used the Aladdin story as a metaphor, such as the 2013 Bollywood movie, Astonishing Lamp, which is set in the modern day and makes the saga a cautionary tale against consumerism.

It’s Behind You

Aladdin most often makes his way to the stage in patomime, with the story being presented onstage since 1788. According to the site, It’s Behind You, it’s the second most popular pantomime in Britain after Cinderella. Naturally, current versions draw on the 1992 Disney film, but audience enthusiasm has remained steady. It’ll be interesting to see if these mime shows get any ideas from the new Will Smith movie.

Aladdin may not have the biggest filmography in spite of being a popular story, but no doubt the public will continue to be fascinated by the characters and the drama.

Okay, I hope everyone will check back here tomorrow, because I have a major announcement. Thanks for reading, all…

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