Disney stories seen from the eyes of a film studies student 

Okay, if we were asked to summarise the events of a film, we could probably do so in about a paragraph: “A young boy learns that he is an android, serving as a child for a couple, so he ventures off to try and become real” (Artificial intelligence). Some people believe in “The Disney Theory”; where all the films are all somehow related in the same Disney universe. So according to said theory, the story never really ends and we just get different threads. However, writers and narrative scholars view a film’s plot as more of a mirror to the real world, rather than a sequence of events.  In this post, we’re looking at how two Disney films show two sides of the same coin.

The Disney Theory:

Far in the world of tumblr and fanfiction, some brainiac created a chronology of Disney films, talking about how each film follows the next. For instance, Aladdin is (supposedly) set in some post-aplocalyptic future, where Genies are computer-generated holographic beings from a nuclear war that began (hence why the reference to the 21st century exists). he could also be a time-traveller, or just exist outside of time, but this is the way the Disneyverse rolls. I’m not going to reference the Disney Theory at all in my discussion, but the possibility of Aladdin being set in a post-apocalyptic waste-land is essentially how film studies view the world. it’s not simply a case of: the scene is set, we meet a character, the character gets into situations that lead to him meeting more characters, something happens, film ends. Narrative theory is very complex, and involves setting, character, plot, style and various other things.
1. Aladdin

In my eyes, this story is about exploration of the self: A young boy meets a princess, he shows her a world outside her sheltered palace and together they break free from their social backgrounds. Disney’s adaptation loses the cross-cultural heritage of the original tale in One Thousand and One Nights (but a narrator, like in most fairy tales, is still kept). The Disney version differs from the original One Thousand and One Nights in that 1) there is no framec narrative and 2) the original is technically set in China. Keeping an original narrator is a common theme in Disney, previously done in the style of a leather bound book with illustrations and gothic writing for authenticity. This, however, has a street vendor breaking the fourth wall.

The film has two narratives. The first shows Aladdin as a young pauper, scraping his way through the streets of Arabia. We don’t know why he’s on the streets, but we assume it’s because he is an orphan. Aladdin is a kind soul, even though he is poor, which he shows by giving his bread to two starving street urchins. Aladdin could easily be anywhere; from the suburbs of modern day England to the shanty towns of India. He is our classic “Rags to Riches” character, like that of Cinderella. The Genie serves as our fairy godmother, who grants the wishes of Aladdin. Abu, Aladdin’s pet,  is the equivalent of Gus and Jacques in Disney’s Cinderella. This might make Jafar and Iago the ugly stepsisters, who try and foil Aladdin.  However, there is no evil stepmother who serves as a barrier; instead, social class is the thing which divides Aladdin from both Jasmine and the other inhabitants of Agrabar.  I would probably put this film under Aarne-Thompson type 851 “Wining the Princess with a riddle”, even though the story doesn’t involve any riddles.

Meanwhile, in the palace, we have princess Jasmine, who has rejected yet another suitor, a pompous prince (Aladdin meets the rejected after he leaves the palace, by preventing the prince from whipping two small children). Jasmine is a rather modern princess in that she doesn’t wish to marry, actually wants to explore and that speaks her mind. This leaves her father, the Sultan, very annoyed  as yet another day approaches to her birthday (when she is supposed to marry). The inclusion of Jasmine is supposedly Disney’s attempt to be feminist, since maidens, damsels and princesses are usually ignored in traditional fairy tales (where a male protagonist or hero is present). Jasmine wants to learn more about the world beyond the palace, so she isn’t confined by the law placed on royals. Jasmine’s father isn’t necessarily a blocker for Jasmine, but he does feel a duty to obey the law. Not being able to stand palace life any longer, Jasmine runs away from the palace.

Jasmine and Aladdin both meet in the Bazaars of Agrabar, where Aladdin saves Jasmine from getting her hand cut off after she steals an apple for a young boy. Aladdin, assuming that Jasmine is a poor “street rat” who wishes other unfortunate souls to have the social justice she can’t have (demonstrated by the boy with the apple). Realising the two have a penchant for trouble and a longing for adventure)  Aladdin and Jasmine bond over feeling confined by their circumstances, with the sunset framed behind the curtains creating a romantic mood (Aladdin does not know at this point that Jasmine is out of his league). Unfortunately, the two are briefly separated when the guards find Aladdin and Jasmine, ordered by Jafar. When Jasmine tries to show her authority as a princess, she is taken back to the palace whilst Aladdin is locked away.

Jafar, the antagonist, sits between Jasmine and Aladdin, serving as the blocker for those two characters to get together. Jafar wants to be an almighty sorcerer and sultan, and tries to use Aladdin and Jasmine for these things (to marry Jasmine for legal power, and Aladdin to gain cosmic). Jafar already knows some black magic, such as a an hourglass which serves as a crystal ball, allowing him to see Aladdin Jafar serves as the royal vizier for the Sultan. Jafar is quite intelligent, and roughly middle aged with a thin body and pessimistic humour, making him a villain on a par with Scar.  He manipulates the Sultan  using a magic staff, shaped like a cobra for ironic effect. Jafar’s staff isn’t the only way Jafar manipulated others; he is a habitual liar and plots  dastardly plans. The bulk of the film involves Jafar trying to steal the Genie, who can grant him power, and marry Jasmine.

First, Jafar imprisons Aladdin in the dungeon as a result of realising he  is  “the diamond in the rough” foretold by the spirit at the entrance to the cave. Jafar lies to Jasmine and the Sultan  about Aladdin being taken away. So Aladdin tries to win Jasmine by posing as a foreign prince, with the aid of the genie. Eventually he is discovered and proved that he is capable of Jasmine’s heart.

2.  Tangled

From my perspective, Tangled is essentially the story of Aladdin told from Rapunzel’s perspective: after spending 18 years locked in a tower by her stepmother, Rapunzel longs to see  the lanterns flying annually on her birthday.  Rapunzel meets Flynn Rider, who shows her the world outside her room,  where she discovers the truth about the lanterns and who her “mother” really is. 

Obviously, this story is type 310, “The Maiden in the Tower” (Rapunzel), perhaps with hint of Cinderella with the festival which her mother doesn’t allow her to see.  In the Prologue, we see Madame Gothel snatching Rapunzel from her parents, the king and queen, as a baby. Gothel wants Rapunzel because of her magic hair, which has healing properties and keeps Gothel young. Flynn, like Aladdin, is another ne’er-do-well thief who is constantly on the run from guards. We don’t know much about Flynn, other than he is a criminal on the run, that his real name is Eustace and he chooses Rapunzel’s tower as his hiding place. Flynn initially serves as Rapunzel’s escort, where he takes her on a tour of the town. Flynn is considerably more mature and streetwise than Rapunzel, so she relies on him to guide her. Rapunzel has never left outside her room, and Madame Gothel claims this is to protect her. As it turns out, the lanterns are flown as a call out to Rapunzel, in hopes that she returns home to the palace.  Instead of our heroine being limited by her social class, her royal status gives her the key to her freedom.

Essentially, the Disney matrix is far more complex than any DVD case or Sky Review could possibly have us believe. Other writes such as Salman Rushdie and Angela Carter try significantly harder to update tales into either a timeless setiing or for modern day life; Rushdie with his “Haroun and the Sea of Stories” has a mechanical Hoopoe bird, problems of air pollution, and a water genie who uses pipes to aid Rashid’s imagination. Carter, on the other hand, uses Metafiction in ‘Ashputtel  or The Mother’s Ghost’ to blend the world of folklore into the real world. For instance, the dove steals the dresses from Ashputtel’s stepsisters instead of them magically appearing from the tree. Moreover, Ashputtel is made more real by the mother and Ashputtel actually talking rather than the author implementing thoughts for them. Both writers make the stories slightly more real by explaining how they lived and felt. Not simply a rags to riches story, like the Grimms.


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