By Corey Patterson
The long awaited live film adaptation of Disney’s Aladdin hit theaters last month and fans have not been shy about voicing their opinions. Some disgruntled moviegoers claim Will Smith’s CGI Genie doesn’t compare to Robin Williams’ rendition, while others bemoan the vast number of scenes from the original script. Personally, I found the film to be hilarious and rich with theological implications (unsurprisingly, given this blog) that can inform people of all faiths.
An Arabian Night in a World of Privilege
As most Disney fans are aware, the story of Aladdin features a poor young man ostracized from society. But in a stroke of luck he runs into the princess of Agrabah, Jasmine, who ignites a desire for something better in life. And in the fortunate timing only narrative can facilitate, the “street rat” runs into a magical genie (named “Genie”) who can grant three of his wishes.
Aladdin goes through a transformation process after wishing for Genie to make him a prince, which ultimately amounts to an increase in wealth, privilege, and status — three areas he believed would allow him to be noticed by Jasmine and society at large.
The Diamond in the Theological Rough
Is Aladdin’s belief in the importance of privilege reflective of reality? Do we as a culture believe someone’s true nature is defined by how much they own? Or is there something deeper going on behind the scenes that makes wealth and privilege look like dirty rags in comparison?
Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit priest and theologian who’s lead much of the development in liberation theology, has much to say regarding our world’s understanding of the nature of privilege. In his seminal work, The True Church and the Poor, Sobrino flips the notion of privilege (as commonly understood) on its head. He writes, “The poor are accepted as constituting the primary recipients of the Good News and, therefore, as having an inherent capacity of understanding it better than anyone else.”
Speaking in this Christian context of the Good News of Jesus Christ, Sobrino makes it clear those without wealth and status are the true privileged class. The Gospel is more easily embraced by them than those with so much wealth (material and immaterial) preoccupying their lives.
Aladdin Through the Eyes of Privilege
If we watch the narrative of Aladdin unfold through Sobrino’s flipped notion of privilege, the core message of the story starts to shine through. Aladdin’s status as a poor peasant led him to believe he was worthless. He couldn’t rise to the level of others in his society or even court Jasmine (whom he believed to be her handmaid at the time). Lacking privilege in the eyes of those around him, it’s no wonder Aladdin’s first wish is for Genie to make him a wealthy prince of high status.
Aladdin believed his upgraded status would solve all of his problems and make Jasmine fall in love with him. Unbeknownst to him, however, the princess had already started falling for him after getting to know the man underneath back in the streets of Agrabah. And it’s this understanding of Aladdin’s character that allows her to recognize him for who he really is despite him disguising himself with the wish. As Genie says to Aladdin shortly afterward, “Character always finds a way of shining through.” 
It is here Aladdin begins to adjust his perspective. He realizes the tempting appeals of status won’t make him more worthy or privileged. In fact, as Sobrino reminds us, those without these things are often more privileged to accept grace/love in their life. Jasmine, who understands this perfectly, does her best to use her material privilege for the betterment of others, such as the kindness she shows to her guards and handmaid. And through her example, Aladdin eventually uses the immense power granted to him with his last wish to free Genie.
Our wealth, privilege and status will never define our worth. They are at best tools that we can use to improve the lives of those less fortunate, but will never serve as a substitute for our worth as human beings. Through the Gospel of Christ, we are called both to use what privilege we have in this world to help those without and listen to them — they’re often closer to the Truth than those with wealth and status.
Corey Patterson is a writer and webmaster. He is passionate about the synthesis of theology and geek/pop culture stories. His interests lie primarily in superhero and fantasy genres. Check out his blog here and some of his reviews on Monkeys Fighting Robots.
- Sobrino, Jon. The True Church and the Poor. Orbis Books. 1984.
- Ritchie, Guy. (2019). Aladdin, Walt Disney Pictures.