Examining Hollywood Remakes: Aladdin

Disney has taken many famous old stories and made them into modern cinematic blockbusters. One of those was 1992’s Aladdin, which was based on the story “The Thief of Bagdad” from Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights. Of course, this was not the first time the story was translated to film. It was done previously in 1940 as The Thief of Bagdad, which has been described by Roger Ebert as “One of the greatest fantasy films ever made, on a level with The Wizard of Oz.” (There was actually a silent version released in 1924, but we’re going to save the old silent films for another time.)  Was the Disney remake a worthy follow-up to the 1940 classic? Yes, it was. It was a very different take on the old story but the changes worked in this case and the animated film has become a much loved family movie.

Some people might say that equating a live-action film to an animated movie is an apples-to-oranges comparison, but this is the fantasy genre and even live-action movies of this type can do fantastical things which are comparable to the type of animated outlandishness you might see from Disney/Pixar or even from Studio Ghibli.

There’s no need to review the plot of Aladdin, since you all know it. The plot of The Thief of Bagdad is very similar. Young King Ahmed (John Justin) has just inherited the throne of Bagdad and is convinced by his ambitious Vizier Jaffar (Conrad Veidt) to go out among the people anonymously to see what it’s like to be one of the commoners. Evil Jaffar, of course, just wants the throne for himself, so he has Ahmed arrested as a vagrant and thrown in the dungeon. While there, Ahmed meets the resourceful young thief Abu (Sabu Dastagir) and they strike up a friendship, escaping together. Following Jaffar to Basra, Ahmed meets and falls in love with a beautiful Princess (June Duprez). However, Jaffar is also in love with the Princess and uses his magic to compel her father the Sultan to arrange a marriage. Although Ahmed and Abu try to come to the rescue, Jaffar uses his magic to blind Ahmed and turn Abu into a dog. The grief-stricken Princess falls into some sort of self-induced sleep state and only Ahmed can awaken her. Jaffar is forced to reunite them to awaken the Princess.

Jaffar makes a deal with the princess: If she’ll go with him, he’ll cure Ahmed and Abu. She agrees to this. Ahmed and Abu pursue Jaffar’s ship but Jaffar conjures up a storm to sink their little boat. Abu is stranded on a deserted island where he finds a magic lamp with a Genie. After wasting the first wish on a sausage, his other wishes give him the “Magic Eye” and reunite Ahmed with his Princess. After being abandon by the Genie (who leaves after granting the three wishes) Abu uses the Magic Eye to free the mystic inhabitants of the island who were long ago turned to stone. As a gift, they give him a flying carpet and a magic bow-and-arrow. Using these tools, Abu flies to the rescue and kills Jaffar just in time to save Ahmed. At the end, Ahmed gets to marry the hot princess and Abu flies off on his carpet to find new adventures.

The biggest difference between the two stories is that the character of Aladdin is split into two people in the 1940 version; Abu the thief and Ahmed the young King. In the Disney film, Aladdin makes a wish to become Prince Ali in order to pursue Princess Jasmine. In the 1940 version, Ahmed is a king turned into a peasant by Jaffar and must battle the powerful sorcerer for the hand of the girl they both desire. Abu the thief in the 1940 film begins as a totally self-interested character, who just wants to save himself and make a little profit along the way. However, his friendship with Ahmed pushes him to move beyond his self-interest and become brave. He risks his own life to save Ahmed, who ends up with the Princess, while Abu goes off to enjoy a whole new life as a hero instead of a thief.  

Abu, played by a young Indian actor named Sabu Dastagir–who also played Mowgli in the live-action version of Jungle Book (1942)–is really the star of the film, despite his character having no stake in either the power struggle for the throne of Bagdad or in the competition for the hand of the pretty Princess. It’s unusual (in a good way) to see a hero who has no personal motivation for his bravery except friendship. Abu had nothing to gain, unlike Aladdin, who not only got the girl, he also became a prince. All Abu got was a carpet.  

The other main difference between the two films is the Genie. In the 1940 version, the Genie is played by Rex Ingram, and is much more intimidating than the Disney Genie for two reasons. First of all, he’s a towering giant in the older film. (Forced Perspective camera trickery allows Ingram to dwarf Sabu like Godzilla standing over Aaron Taylor Johnson.) He doesn’t change shape like the Disney version does. He’s always a giant. Secondly, the Ingram Genie is much more hostile. When he first gets free of the lamp, he’s so angry about being bottled up that he wants to kill the first human he sees—meaning Abu. Abu, however, outsmarts him, tricking him back into the lamp and threatens to destroy it, which is why the Genie promises to give him the three wishes. The Genie remains untrustworthy and menacing throughout their brief association, ultimately abandoning Abu alone on a deserted island. This is obviously a very different interpretation from the playful Disney Genie.

In Disney’s Aladdin, the Genie is voiced by the late Robin Williams, who gives a wild, hyper-energetic performance.  His comical, quirky interpretation is as far from menacing as you can get. He provides most of the humor for the film. (Gilbert Gottfried as the angry parrot Iago provides the rest.) His wacky performance, along with the musical interludes (the songs are very catchy and fun) totally changed the tone of the film, making it completely unlike the 1940 version which has very little comedy relief. There is a far more serious tone to the older film, which gives us tense scenes such as Abu’s battle with the giant spider. In the newer film, the Genie is so farcical with his constant anachronisms and references to 20th Century pop-culture, it sometimes gets a bit too excessive.  

Interestingly, the main love interests in both films come across as rather mundane and routine, and both are overshadowed by the secondary relationships. The friendship between Abu and Ahmed in Thief of Bagdad and the comic bond between Aladdin and the zany Genie in Disney’s Aladdin are both much more interesting than the romance aspect of the story. The 1940 scene where the blinded Ahmed is praising the loyalty of his dog—which is really Abu transformed by Jaffar—is actually more touching than the scenes with Ahmed and the Princess. Similarly, in the Disney version, the Genie’s joy at finally being free to live his own live is more apt to make you smile than seeing Aladdin and Jasmine get together.

Both films had more than one director, which is not unusual for animated movies but it’s surprising that the Thief of Bagdad is so good considering how many hands were gripping the steering wheel. This is usually a bad sign but it didn’t hurt in this case. Both were visually interesting. The animation team was very imaginative in the images they created for Aladdin, especially with the Genie and his constant shape-shifting, transforming to anything and everything. Obviously, no live action movie can do what a cartoon does, but the live SFX in The Thief of Bagdad were excellent for 1940 and described by Ebert as a “break-through” in visuals. Even legendary FX master Ray Harryhausen praised the film for the influence it had on him.

Disney’s animated version of Aladdin is not the best work that Disney has done. It’s not on the level of the Lion King or Beauty & the Beast or Snow White & the 7 Dwarves. It’s also not as good as the 1940 live-action version which was, as Ebert pointed out, one of the great fantasy classics of all time. Still, Aladdin is very entertaining family fun and kids will love Williams’ manic performance as the silly Genie. It’s a worthy successor, if not quite on the same level as The Thief of Bagdad.

So that’s all for this week’s look at Hollywood Remakes. We’ll be back next week to examine another cinematic remake. In the meantime, check out the earlier articles in our Examining Hollywood Remakes series.