UPDATE 2019: With the release of the live-action remake of Aladdin in the summer of 2019, this older post has seen a lot more traffic, I think from people looking for reviews and information about that new re-make. If that describes you, you can find my reaction to the new film here. But a lot of that reaction is based upon how I understand and enjoy the original animated film, so you might as well read the post here too. 🙂 – GMG
Been a while with life getting in the way, but here is the first story structure analysis that I’m going to post – Disney’s Aladdin.
Now, I haven’t seen this film for a long time, but found myself thinking through it a lot over the last day and figured it was time to get this train rolling.
Aladdin is a fun film to analyse because I’m seeing lots of ways of going about it. All three of the structures I mentioned before could serve as good models. Indeed, I’m starting wonder if some of the best stories actually make each of these work, to some extent. I’ll start with the Story Circle because I think this does the best job of showing the character arc that Aladdin must go through, combined with the plot.
Go check out the post then come back. Oh, and just in case you haven’t figured it out yet, SPOILERS are ahead.
The story opens with our protagonist or the “You” in Harmon’s Circle – Aladdin, a street-wise thief, running from the law. This shouldn’t make us like him, but the film does a great job of invoking our sympathies for him in the opening song – he’s having fun, he’s competent, and by the time the song ends, we find out he’s a “good guy” as well, giving his hard-won apple to a small boy and girl. He’s a thief by circumstance, not desire; as the film later calls him – a diamond in the rough.
Aladdin wants a better life. Looking longingly at the sultan’s palace he sings of his desire to be seen as something more that gutter trash, to be respected. But because he needs to have some emotional arc, we can’t just have him wishing for all these grand and lofty moral goals. Instead, he promises Abu all the materialistic things – riches, live in and castle, and never have any problems at all.
It’s a fun moment because his song tells of his real desire, but he can’t bring himself to acknowledge it to Abu, who represents his life as a thief – the foil that constantly challenges him to just accept what is and work on surviving rather than dreaming.
Now, here’s where things get tricky with story analysis – which “go” do we choose? In the Story Circle the “Go” is the crossing over the threshold into unknown territory, the start of the adventure, the entry into the new or the unfamiliar. Depending on which story in Aladdin where looking at (plot, love story, personal arc, etc) this might be different.
I’m going to go with the moment that Aladdin chooses to follow the disguised Jafar out of the dungeon. Yes, we had some set up before – meeting Jasmine, helping her, getting caught – but for the plot, this is the moment. It has the call to adventure, the life-choice (i.e. “stay and die or leave and live”), and the character drive (come and gain riches beyond your wildest dreams) all in one scene.
The road of trials. The journey looking for the object of desire, the breaking down of the character in preparation for what is to come.
In a lot of ways, Aladdin’s search doesn’t seem that hard. He follows Jafar through a raging sandstorm, true, but in the end he goes in a magic cave and finds a magic lamp. Done. Only that’s not the search that’s most important for his story. Finding the lamp is the beginning of problems, not the end. His search is something more now.
Part of why I like the Story Circle so much is that it does a better job of exposing the structure in terms of phases rather than events.
The “Search” for Aladdin is pretty much everything from following Jafar to the moment when he wishes to become a prince. His heart has changed – he has the chance to just become rich, but instead he wants to parlay that into a chance for something more – love. And he thinks that being a rich prince can help him get there. They get to the palace with all the pomp, circumstance, and song the Genie can muster only to be rejected by the Princess Jasmin. He tries to woo her on the balcony and lets just a hint of his real self out. He’s working, trying to get her to accept him.
And is works. She likes him. That’s the “Find”. She likes him – not because he’s a rich guy, like the other suitors – but because she see’s something more in him. She sees someone who understands the desire to be free. The thing she saw in the boy in the marketplace.
The carpet ride makes for a wonderful symbol for this desire – the freedom of flight – no longer bound to Earth and petty gravity. Up in the air, they are free. Free to be together.
The Find is the comfortable place he is at with Jasmine after singing “A Whole New World”, the seeming culmination of his two desires up to this point – he’s rich and he’s got the girl. If nothing else bad were to happen in the film, he’s won. But of course, there’s more.
Harmon uses the name “Take” but specifically calls this the section where the protagonist has to pay the price – he or she has found what they want, but now there is a price that has to be paid to keep it. It’s the second challenge – it wasn’t just enough that Aladdin had to “Search” for what he was after, he has to prove he’s worthy of it.
First, he’s captured by the guards. Then thrown in the water to die. Then Genie saves him, but it costs a precious wish to do it. And though he exposes the evil plot by Jafar, his greed/fear causes him to lose his friendship with the Genie because he can’t wish the Genie free. Then he loses the lamp entirely to Jafar after Iago steals it. And finally gets shot into the snowy mountains golf-rocket style.
It ends up a pretty bad day.
He’s out of the fight, probably going to die of exposure. Abu is going to die with him. Except that would be a horrible way to end the film.
He returns. Literally, he returns – the carpet having just managed to make it onto the tower before it blasted off into the snow. Now he goes back, intent on righting all the wrongs that he has caused and kicking Jafar in the teeth, as it were.
The “Return” is the final fight – it’s the last overcoming of the journey, of trying to cross back over the threshold that started us on this weird and wild ride.
Aladdin makes it into the palace and tries sneaking in to steal the lamp. That fails. He tries fighting. That fails. Jasmine gets cast into a giant hourglass of sand and he tries to break her out. That fails. Jafar is too powerful, too fast, too strong. Aladdin’s caught, Jasmine’s going to suffocate in sand, and it’s all been for nothing.
In the 7-point structure this would be “Pinch 2”, primed and waiting for “Plot Turn 2” to snatch victory from defeat. And we aren’t cheated. Aladdin sees the Genie and his street-rat wits take over. He starts taunting Jafar and, in a really fun bit of mental maneuvering, convinces Jafar to use wish his own last wish to become an all-powerful Genie. And we all know how that turns out. “Phenomenal cosmic power; itty-bitty living space.” Jafar becomes a slave to the very power he had been desiring.
Aladdin has become the master now, master of wishes because he sees how they operate. Which leads us right into the next section.
They’ve won. The kingdom is restored, the villain defeated.
But the full price that Aladdin had to pay in the “Take” section now becomes apparent – he’s no longer a prince. He can’t marry the princess. He lost the wealth. It all gone.
And in that moment, he proves that he was worth it all, that he truly was the diamond in the rough. When the Genie reminds him, prompts him to use his last wish to return to being a prince, we see the same character from the streets at the beginning of the film – the one who was willing to give his hard-won apple to the orphans gives his final wish to the Genie. He wishes the Genie free.
Aladdin has changed. He’s returned from this journey wiser, accepting who he is, willing to be the good guy that he always was at heart, and seeing his other materialistic desires as the base things they always were.
And that clinches the deal. As far as the Sultan is concerned, Aladdin has proven himself worthy and the Sultan changes the law to allow the princess to marry whomever she wishes.
We come full circle – Aladdin gets the better life he always wanted. He gets the girl. And he gets what he wanted most of all – to be seen as something more than an petty thief. He loved by Jasmine and respected by both Sultan and Genie. He has realized that he doesn’t have to give up being a good guy at heart gain all that he wanted. The diamond in the rough now gets to shine, having earned his new and better life.