Wednesday, February 24, 2010

In Defense of Disney

As the world's biggest producer of kid-oriented movies, Disney is an easy target for criticism. Many people feel that it provides poor role models for little girls, encouraging them to see being a pretty princess as the highest goal of any woman. Many are troubled by racist themes in older Disney movies, and some of the morals are troubling, too - should Ariel, for example, really have given up everything she knows for a man she just met? Perhaps the most widespread criticism is adaptation decay: Disney takes beloved legends, folktales, and even historical accounts and twists them around to be more interesting and to fit the action-comedy-romance mold. All of these are valid criticisms, and when I see a Disney movie that I didn't grow up on, I have a tendency to weigh it down with all this baggage and and ruin the movie for myself.

But when it comes to movies I loved as a child, my view is totally different. I recently picked up Aladdin at a thrift store for 99 cents, on a worn-down VHS in one of those huge ungainly old Disney boxes. I rarely watch movies over and over, but I've found myself replaying this one almost every day. Aladdin is special to me: it came out when I was seven and just starting to develop the attention span and understanding of relationships to really appreciate a full-length movie. It was the first movie I saw in a theater, too, and I remember having all kinds of Aladdin things as a child - an electric toothbrush, and a little fortune teller from a box of Captain Crunch, and a Jasmine doll and Raja plush, which I still have. I even had a cat named Jasmine for a little while (we soon realized she was a he, and changed his name to Jazzman). Aladdin influenced me later in life, too: I used to use screen names involving Jasmine or variants thereof, and I've always been fascinated with Arabesque things, like belly dance and Moroccan decor. And Robin Williams has been a favorite actor of mine ever since he played the Genie.

For all that I love this movie, if I really wanted to complain about it, I could easily find plenty of fuel. It's not faithful to the original story, or to the concept of a djinn. Certain scenes portray the people of the Middle East as barbarians who cut off body parts or behead people on the slightest whim. The heroes are somewhat "whitewashed" (Aladdin having been modeled on Tom Cruise), while the villain and the angry merchants look far more Arabic. The sultan seems to be Muslim, given his repeated references to Allah, but he lets his daughter dress like a harem girl. Jasmine's skimpy costume and impossible hourglass figure make her a poor role model for young girls, to say nothing of the fact that she falls for a guy she hated 30 seconds ago just because he has a flying carpet. If I wanted to reach Comic Book Guy levels of nitpick, I could claim that the movie misleads children into thinking monkeys and tigers are tame, cuddly pets, or I could complain that parrots are new world birds and wouldn't have been hanging around third-century Arabia. If I was really looking for a reason to hate Disney, I could believe the claims that Aladdin whispers "good teenagers, take off your clothes" and believe that kids are stupid enough to become sex-crazed maniacs just from hearing that.

If I wanted to hate Aladdin, I could sit and watch it with all those things kicking around my mind, and I could tut-tut about how this is exactly what's corrupting our kids and ruining their ability to appreciate real literature. I could resolve that my children would never watch Disney adaptations of stories until they had read the original version. I could resolve that my children would never watch TV or movies at all because it ruins their imagination and isn't natural or "Waldorfy" enough. But if I watched with all those thoughts in mind, I'd miss everything there is to love about the film.

I'd miss the incredible music, and Tim Rice's genius lyrics. I'd miss the breathtaking animation during the "Whole New World" sequence, and the complexity of the parade during "Prince Ali". I'd miss Williams' brilliant voice acting, and all of Genie's clever, multilayered jokes, and his rapid-fire references to pop culture and literature and history. I probably wouldn't notice that Aladdin is Cinderella turned inside-out, or appreciate the subtle differences in meaning that come from reversing the male and female roles. If I were concentrating on Jasmine's skimpy costume I might miss the fact that she completely deconstructs the princess fantasy: she shows how limiting such a life can be, and is willing to leave all her luxury behind to be free. I'd miss the sweetness of the relationship between Jasmine and Aladdin; how he loved her before he knew she was rich and important, how her love was the only reason he wanted to be rich and important, and how she liked the penniless but honest Aladdin much better than the pompous, false Prince Ali. I'd miss the many moral themes of the story: integrity, honesty and keeping promises, being true to yourself and your friends, judging people on their character and not by their outward appearance, and the importance of freedom.

If I were a parent watching with kids, and I chose to be negative, I'd miss chances to talk about why Middle Eastern architecture is so grand, or about why Jasmine might prefer Aladdin to be honest about who he is. I'd miss a chance to wonder about where the ideas of genie lamps and flying carpets came from anyway, or to bring home hummus and baklava for the kids to try, and mention how this is that weird food Genie was talking about in the movie. I'd miss giggly late-night conversations about what three things each kid would wish for if they had a genie, and whether they'd use the last wish to set him free. I'd miss picking up Jumanji and Flubber and season one of Mork & Mindy, because the kids loved Genie so much and they might like those, too. I'd miss talking about what kind of monkey Abu might be and pointing out similar ones on our next trip to the zoo. I'd miss mentioning that in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, the story was set in China, and I might miss a kid asking to hear the original to compare them. If I were universally Disney-negative, I'd miss dozens of other movies and songs. I'd miss Disney World and Kingdom Hearts.

But most of all, I'd miss the joy. I'd miss having one more favorite movie to pop in when a rainy or grouchy or everyone-has-the-flu kind of day needs brightening up. I'd miss loudly singing along with the soundtrack in the car. I'd miss the Raja plushies and the spinning fortune tellers. I'd miss those great moments all Disney movies seem to bring, when a teenager or young adult drops all pretenses of being cool and is reduced to a giddy ball of pure, childlike joy, and doesn't feel at all self-conscious because their friends are all doing it too.

Those are all the things I give up if I choose cynicism. If I choose joy, all I give up is the chance to feel indignant and smug for a little while. Some people seem to like being smug a lot more than playing around, so maybe for them it's a fair trade, but I just don't see it. I'll take the joy.


Anonymous said...

I completely agree. I hate that people point out things that would really do nothing for the movie if they were actually there. If they wanted something historically accurate, watch a documentary. Or if they wanted something true to the original story...READ THE ORIGIAL STORY!! Those Disney movies are some of the best memories I have from childhood, and have even created some great ones while in college. At least Disney doesn't try to dumb things down for kids like some other studios *coughDreamworkscough*. I will continue to support their work, at least their films (screw you Hannah Montanna!!). Thank you so much, for being able to see what really matters.

Justina said...

Totally agreed, Disney is awesome in every way. If Disney was completely faithful to original stories, kids would have been terrified halfway through Pinocchio and The Little Mermaid, the Jungle Book would have been horrifying, Tarzan would be naked and the less said about Hercules the better. I will say one thing for Disney.
At least they didn't make Rock-a-Doodle.

jill said...

this is great bonnie :)

dandeliongirl said...

i love this post, followed a link on facebook to find it, and will now be following your blog.
well said, and thanks for saying it! ;)

Marilou said...

What a wonderful post!

I love Disney movies. My favorite is Pocahontas, and I much prefer the Disney version to the real story. It breaks my heart to know that she married someone else and went to England and wore fashionable dresses and stopped painting with all the colors of the wind.

L'équipe du Journal JOSE said...

I agree with you. I love DIsney movies, musics, and parks. There are the only places on Earth I visited (with family) where we could just have fun, nothing else to do or think about it. I'm sure there are lots of things not really perfect in Disney movies and parks, but if Walt was still living, I think he would make those parks a better place. I really hope that every child (and adult) on earth will have the possiblity to live life with that joy and fun in every minute as Walt Disney dreamed of.