Nobody goes to a Disney movie expecting to hear the princess give a rousing speech about the Reformed doctrine of interposition. And yet, in Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake of the 1992 animated Aladdin, that’s more or less exactly what happens.
Evil vizier Jafar has just seized power from Princess Jasmine’s father, the the Sultan. Hakim, a palace guard who declares his paramount loyalty to the law, reluctantly obeys the new sultan’s orders to arrest those faithful to the old regime. In the power ballad that follows, Jasmine shrugs off her guards and storms back into the throne room while the power figures that have ruled her life till now vanish in a puff of smoke. “I won’t go speechless,” she belts, in a show-stopping moment that has become the new film’s signature scene.
That was nifty, but it was what came after that made me want to cheer.
Instead of making demands, using magic, or grabbing a sword, Jasmine turns to Hakim and gently but authoritatively appeals to him to disobey the new sultan: “Duty isn’t always honour. Our greatest challenge isn’t speaking up against our enemies, but defying those whose approval we seek the most.”
This is what her big power ballad led up to: not a display of brute force, raw power, or even the original film’s callow petulance, but wise and gracious words delivered with kindness and respect. It was such a satisfying moment, and I wasn’t the only person who was excited. Friends messaged me to say how thrilled they were to see their daughters learn about interposition from a Disney princess.
For those who are new to the idea, interposition, also known as the doctrine of the lesser magistrate, is a Christian doctrine that developed during the Reformation but had roots much earlier, in the writings of the early church and medieval theologians such as Isidore of Seville. Interposition has to do with defying authority when it requires you to sin. As John Calvin put it,
“For earthly princes lay aside their power when they rise up against God, and are unworthy to be reckoned among the number of mankind. We ought rather utterly to defy than to obey them whenever they are so restive and wish to spoil God of his rights, and, as it were, to seize upon his throne and draw him down from heaven.”
The seventh-century theologian Isidore of Seville laid the groundwork for this doctrine much earlier. In a time when the bishops and emperors of Rome and Constantinople claimed pre-eminent apostolic authority over the whole Christian world, Isidore responded that even a little, out-of-the-way kingdom like Visigothic Spain had every bit as much Christian authority as Rome or Constantinople—in fact, more, if their actions showed greater faithfulness to God. Rulers must be servants of their people, rather than ruling them by force: “Unlike past emperors, the new rulers share fully in the human condition and must convince their Christian subjects by counsel and good example, rather than by force.”
Isidore’s ideas implied a revolutionary new idea: the responsibility of kings to their people. Later, during the Reformation, the religious wars of the period drove Christians to develop the doctrine further, determining just how and when to defy authority. Drawing on Romans 13, which describes the civil magistrate as a minister of God who must administer God’s justice rather than his own, Reformed preachers encouraged “lesser magistrates” – local governors – to lead their people against unrighteous kings and emperors rather than to obey their unjust commands.
These ideas, once so radical, continue to be controversial today. Even today, some Christians hold to a wooden interpretation of Romans 13 which requires Christians to obey governing authorities no matter how unrighteous their demands, so long as it doesn’t involve a direct verbal denial of Christ. It was precisely because of this that we were so excited to see Princess Jasmine defy tyranny with an appeal to a lesser authority (the palace guard) and a winsomely presented case.
“I wish nothing but glory for the kingdom of Agrabah,” Jafar defends himself.
And there’s more than a hint of Isidore of Seville in Jasmine’s reply: “No. You seek glory for yourself. And you would win it off the backs of my people! Hakim, these men will follow where you lead, but it’s up to you. Will you stand silent while Jafar destroys our beloved kingdom or will you do what is right, and stand with the people of Agrabah?”
We see that Jasmine’s ideal of leadership has to do with serving her people, not with exploiting them for personal glory. Instead of dictating to Hakim as an underling, she appeals to him as an individual – an individual she knows, respects, and trusts to follow his conscience. In so doing she proves her right to rule not because of her blood or her power, but because of her servant heart.
Responsibility and Marriage
This is a far step beyond her role in the originated cartoon version, in which she complains, with justice, of being a caged bird but has little vision for what she wants to do with her life beyond mere escapism. “I don’t want to be a princess,” she complained in the original, but in this version it’s not her life of privilege as a princess that she deplores, but the inability to do anything useful with it. She doesn’t want to escape her responsibilities; she wants the freedom to meet them. In this version, as in the animated cartoon, Jasmine meets Aladdin when she ventures into the streets of Agrabah, but instead of just looking for a taste of freedom, she’s genuinely trying to get to know her people better and assess their needs. Aladdin courts her with a magic carpet ride that shows her the world outside the palace she’s lived in her whole life, but it’s obvious that for Jasmine, what turns her attraction into commitment is Aladdin’s intimate knowledge of life for the majority of people in Agrabah.
I watched both the old and new Aladdin films for the very first time a week ago, and here’s another difference that stood out for me. The older film paints Jasmine’s plight in much broader strokes; its feminist message is overt and clumsy. When a much older, unwanted suitor turns up to court Jasmine, she sicks her pet tiger on him and laughs as he storms away calling her a shrew. By contrast, when an unsuitable prince turns up to court Jasmine in the new film, he’s an appealing match and his introduction to the princess is actually less disastrous than our hero’s. He gets a name (Prince Anders), a personality (adorkable), and when her tiger takes offense to him we wince in sympathy rather than cheer in triumph. Even Jasmine acknowledges his charm. What makes Anders the wrong man for her is not that he’s repulsive or creepy, but that he doesn’t know her country or her people. Married to Anders, Jasmine would give Agrabah rulers that were fundamentally ignorant of the country’s needs. Married to Aladdin, she has someone at her side who has lived among and known her people.
With such a fully-fleshed character motivation and character arc, Jasmine ceases to be the “love interest” in the story, and steps into three-dimensional life as the film’s deuteragonist – a character whose actions drive the plot as strongly as those of the protagonist do. This Aladdin is Jasmine’s story every bit as much as it is Aladdin’s. And—no surprise—Aladdin’s own story mirrors Jasmine’s.
The four most prominent characters in the film – Aladdin, Jasmine, the Genie, and antagonist Jafar – all face questions of power, service, freedom and imprisonment. Aladdin feels trapped in his life on the streets, Jasmine in her gilded cage, the Genie in his tiny lamp. Jafar is someone who, like Aladdin, was once trapped in the streets, but he’s clawed his way out of poverty and into power. The thematic question is therefore how does one escape oppression? And the richness of this film lies in the different solutions presented by the characters.
Aladdin, for example, tries to escape through magical sleight-of-hand. By disguising himself as Prince Ali Ababwa he hopes to magically transform himself into someone who isn’t a street rat. One hilariously awkward speech about jam later, we know that this isn’t working, and as the film proceeds, his attempts to leverage himself into wealth and power through manipulation and deceit increasingly jeopardise his happiness.
At the other end of the spectrum is Jafar, who explains his motivation with the words, “If you’re not the most powerful man in the room, you’re nothing.” For Jafar, the solution is power, not magical manipulation. His solution to oppression is for the oppressed to become the oppressor. Eventually, however, it is his lust for power that transforms him into a slave, trapping him inside the lamp of a genie. We can never escape the truth that he who would be the greatest of all must be the servant of all, and if that service will not be done willingly then it will be done unwillingly.
By contrast, as we’ve seen, Jasmine’s solution is to pluck up the courage to speak and then to appeal graciously to the consciences of those around her, elevating them from faceless flunkies to conscientious individuals. The Genie provides another example. As the slave of the lamp, the Genie has been oppressed far longer than anyone else. He’s also by far the most powerful person in the film, but under the terms of his enslavement he can only ever use his powers in obedience to the owner of his lamp – and his vantage point has given him intimate knowledge of the pitfalls of power. When Aladdin promises to use his third and final wish to free the Genie from the lamp, allowing him to live out his life as a normal human, the Genie predicts that this will never happen: power will go to Aladdin’s head, and the more he gains the more he’ll want. In fact, this is more or less what happens: Aladdin’s manipulative escape gradually begins to slide into something that looks a lot more like Jafar’s oppressive escape. In the end, both magical manipulation and overt power-hunger are about gaining autonomous control of our lives.
A Rough Diamond
I never saw the original 1992 animated film until a few days before seeing the update, and I’ve never particularly enjoyed Disney’s animated fare anyway. With no nostalgic connection to the original, I was able to enjoy the 2019 version on its own terms – which I think is the best way to experience it. The film has received mixed reviews, but in my opinion, this Aladdin stumbles mostly in its reliance on the previous film. For instance, plot points that were given full explanation by the original are elided here, as if the director assumes that we’ve already seen the original a dozen times and don’t need the story world explained to us. For another thing, the film feels chaotic and overstuffed, full of CGI, each frame bursting with eye-popping detail as if the set designers felt compelled to outdo all the colour and detail of the original. It’s a shame that Aladdin 2019 doesn’t step more boldly out of it’s predecessor’s shadow, because in fact with its greater thematic richness and depth of characterisation, this is the version that should have been remembered as Disney’s great Aladdin.
Suzannah lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, writing historical fantasy fiction informed by a covenantal Christian perspective on history. Find her online at SuzannahRowntree.site