Cultural Nostalgia and Distraction in Disney’s Live-Action Aladdin

A whole new world or merely the same conversation over and over again?

Aladdin 2019

Disney is making the same movie over and over again.

For years, that complaint was based on a general sense that Disney films recycled previously-used plots and scenes. Now, as evidenced in 2019’s Aladdin, it is a literal truth.

With the exception of a Will-Smith-on-boat framing device that replaces the 1992 original’s turban-wearing merchant storyteller, Aladdin’s first sequence is identical to the cartoon. Characters deliver exact lines, in both dialogue and song, down to the weirdest details — like, for instance, that random husky woman singing “Still I think he’s rather tasty!” in song One Jump Ahead.

It’s as if the movie is screaming, “You’ve watched this before!” – I’d best describe the effect as “unsettling.”

What’s the point of reenacting a twenty-seven-year-old cartoon with real people and CGI? Basically every review converges on the obvious answer: It makes Disney a lot of money.

When I voiced these complaints to a friend, however, she rolled her eyes and defended Disney saying, “They’re bringing the story to a new generation!”

Her reply gave me pause. Through the day, I kept wondering, What the heck does that mean?

What about “bringing a story to a new generation” suggests inherent value? Why not just show new generations the original, which is actually good? Should we make another Citizen Kane? Cast Emma Watson in a new Gone with the Wind? Create a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho — well, Gus Van Sant did that in 1998, and not even a Vince Vaughn Norman Bates could save it from being really bad.

Then again, Van Sant’s Psycho was at least offering a postmodern commentary on the exploitative nature of remakes and Hollywood’s unwillingness to take risks. It had a point. Perhaps Aladdin’s point is to fill Mickey Mouse’s pockets, or maybe it’s to bring a good story to a new generation. Either way, Disney is capitalizing on our affinity toward nostalgia.


Remakes, Reboots, and Cultural Nostalgia

I saw Aladdin because my friend and I wanted to laugh at a blue Will Smith. Halfway through, I found myself enjoying his Genie, refreshed at seeing Smith channel the exuberant energy that made him famous in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I thought, “Gosh, things were so simple when Fresh Prince was on TV …”

And down the slippery slope of nostalgia my mind tumbled, fueled by thoughts of a better time, when the world wasn’t totally bonkers.

Nostalgia brings a unique emotional pleasure. It’s a strange combination of sadness and gratitude for things past, a yearning that feels so, for lack of a better word, human. At a personal level, it’s often fleeting, incited through association with a song, a smell, a photo — or anything that instantaneously conjures a pleasant memory. These days, nostalgia’s going haywire. We’re being inundated with cultural nostalgia.

Cultural nostalgia reflects through shows and films like Stranger Things and Ready Player One that glorify decades past, but it most clearly and consistently manifests through Disney. Aside from these “live-action” reboots, Disney’s pumping out repetitive Pixar sequels, Star Wars prequels and recycled originals, and Marvel movies celebrating Marvel’s own past. Avengers: Endgame, for instance, concludes with nostalgic recollection of the original Iron Man that started the Marvel Cinematic Universe, making fans think, “Can you believe it’s been over ten years? Weren’t things so simple in 2008?”

Though other studios follow similar trends — i.e. Warner Bros. pumping out Fantastic Beasts films to capitalize on Harry Potter affinity — no one makes more money doing it than Disney.

At the time of this article, Avengers: Endgame has made nearly $3 billion, obliterating Disney’s previous $2 billion high achieved through Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Endgame is currently the second-highest grossing film of all time, just $70 million shy of Avatar — which, as of their March 2019 acquisition of 20th Century Fox, Disney now owns as well.

Since each nostalgia-inducing sequel and prequel and reboot and remake is guaranteed to make an absurd amount of money, why wouldn’t one of history’s largest corporations pump them out at an increasingly-furious rate?

The issue, in my estimation, is moral. When we oversaturate ourselves with nostalgia, we turn away from what’s happening now. We look backwards, training our unconscious minds to think, “Things used to be so much better!” — which, with time and repetition, is bound to cast the present in a Jafar shadow of negativity.


Disney and our Search for Meaning

2019 is drastically different than 1992. The U.S., if not the world, is experiencing an existential crisis involving profound fear and confusion over where this technological, climate-chaotic moment of history is headed. Truth has lost it footing, and no one seems to know what “America” is anymore.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued the world has no inherent meaning; rather, we imbue it with meaning. Nihilism, as Nietzsche used the term, is a condition of a culture where meaning has been lost — in the words of academic Karen L. Carr, it’s “a disproportion between what we want to value (or need) and how the world appears to operate.”

Just take a stroll through a news stream or two, and you’ll be hard-pressed to argue this disparity between value and culture isn’t central to this existential crisis.

But Nietzsche never suggested nihilism was inevitable. The antidote to a meaningless culture is new meaning, and Nietzsche believed the highest form of meaning is communicated through life-embracing art.

With the possible exception of television and video games, film is the world’s most popular art form. Thus, movies have the potential — or, depending on your perspective, responsibility — to offer values in today’s crises.

And since Disney continues setting box office records amidst this confusion, they possess unique power to influence values at a widespread scale.

The problem is, a backward-looking nostalgia, through insistent focus on what was, seems more life-denying than life-embracing. And though Disney has undoubtedly created great works of art through their history, are these reboots among those? Or are they more akin to products?

Art inspires contemplation on existence. Aladdin, since even before its release, has inspired contemplation solely on Aladdin.


The Aladdin Conversation and Distraction

Defenders of Aladdin point out that while the 1992 voice-acting cast was nearly all-white, the 2019 remake is filled with actors of diverse cultural backgrounds. Detractors argue that Disney isn’t making any real leaps in cultural sensitivity; rather, they’re avoiding controversy in order to sell more tickets.

A similar debate has arisen around Princess Jasmine’s “updated” story. This time around, Jasmine wants more than to find her prince; she wants to become the next Sultan. “But Sultans are always men!” she’s told. Jasmine won’t accept it, and she belts out the movie’s only new song, Speechless, to let everyone know. And in the end — Princess Jasmine becomes the first female Sultan of Agrabah.

Some folks see this as laudable progression. Others argue it’s no more than Disney’s attempt at appearing progressive to maintain a reputation of “getting it”New York Times critic A.O. Scott, for instance, describes Speechless as “a ham-fisted attempt to paste some power-princess feminism into the film.” Numerous other reviews dismiss the song as a recycled “Let it Go,” Disney’s clear attempt at winning another Best Original Song Oscar.

So, outside of evoking nostalgia, Aladdin has incited conversation around race and feminism. But these conversations have little to do with the issues themselves; rather, they remain within the context of the film, circling around whether whether or not Aladdin is feminist and whether or not Disney is culturally sensitive. Once you add a few thoughts on the implications of a blue Will Smith, you’ve taken the Aladdin conversation about as far as it appears to go.

Regardless of your stance on Disney’s cultural sensitivity and a blue Smith, would you argue that conversations around an Aladdin reboot are important? Are they examining real issues that are really altering the fabric of cultural identity? Or are these Disney reboots and the conversations they evoke simply offering distraction and escape from the existential struggles we are facing?

Perhaps Hollywood has always commodified distraction, and today’s Disney is its apotheosis. Perhaps today’s Disney is our “opiate of the masses”, veiling the confusion of existence behind a reclining seats, familiar plots, and soda.

But pummeling cultural nostalgia into people’s minds isn’t simply offering escape — it’s convincing us more and more that this is a world from which we need escape.

Perhaps there’s value in escape — after all, who doesn’t need a break from time to time, especially today? But maybe today’s struggles aren’t causing our desire to escape. Maybe our desire to escape — and our ongoing willingness to feed that desire — has brought these struggles to be.


Finding Value Here and Now

Insofar as we prioritize yearning for a lost time, we’re limiting our ability to construct a better present.

Disney films have tremendous power to promote value systems and frameworks through which to contemplate our relationship with this strange time. Regardless of the addition of feminist overtones or a blue Smith, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to recreate a twenty-seven-year-old story does little apart from embedding cultural nostalgia and two-dimensional conversation that frames itself as important.

Art can help us circumvent our capacity towards distraction. Disney is undoubtedly capable of artistic production — yet with a Lion King remake and another Toy Story just weeks from release, they’re showing no signs of changing their flatlining ways. If Disney truly wishes to better the world, it will come through discovering and declaring meaning in a historical moment that hasn’t happened yet.

It may be easier to flee today’s culture than to engage with it, but so long as we keep letting a blue Smith dupe us into buying tickets to pointless movies, we encourage Disney’s bringing shallow, profit-driven values to new generations, closing our eyes and humming A Whole New World to recall a lost time when that sentiment felt like an optimistic possibility.

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