Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
In 1956 C. S. Lewis published Till We Have Faces, remembered by most literary scholars as his pinnacle work. Perhaps ironically, Till We Have Faces is also—strictly speaking—his least original work, being a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. By reimagining the story of the god of Love and his beautiful, unwitting bride as a tale of tension, longing, and love between sisters and the “God of the Mountain,” Lewis turned the myth into one that speaks deep truths about our own longing for God, for eternality, and for a Joy that transcends. In so doing, Lewis epitomized what all good retellings should do. A good retelling should elevate the story not just to the new mores of a new time and culture, but should transcend those to point to absolute Truth, absolute Beauty, and absolute Goodness. A good retelling should both look back and look forward, pushing the audience to long for more.
Is Disney, a massive and impersonal corporation driven unquestionably by a bottom line, a proper steward of our cultural myths?Retellings of classic stories are in no short supply coming out of Hollywood these days, so we have many opportunities to question whether or not any of these reimagined tales are good. So many are being made, in fact, that it’s not unusual to hear people question whether Hollywood has simply run out of original story ideas. Predictably, Disney has for many years had their toe in the retelling business, and with so many successful classics in their vault, they have ample source material from which to draw. Disney, which used to be known in the movie industry primarily for their quality animated features, has become the powerhouse behind such production companies as Marvel, Lucasfilm, 21st Century Fox, and more. Having also recently purchased the streaming giant Hulu, and primed to launch their own television streaming service, Disney+, this fall (2019), Disney has no plans to slow down. This means that Disney now, and for the foreseeable future, controls a significant portion of our culture’s visual storytelling—and thus the formation of our cultural imagination—of this current period of history.
A company like Disney can also serve a double-function in the entertainment industry. Not only do they push social change, but they also signal social change. This is especially apparent when comparing differences between old and new versions of their classic stories. In retelling a story, we see it with fresh eyes, and we are able to introduce a new generation to the story in a new way. The questions then become: is Disney, a massive and impersonal corporation driven unquestionably by a bottom line, a proper steward of our cultural myths, and thus much of our artistic legacy? Is Disney capable of transcending other motivations and holding fast to the true, the good, and the beautiful?
Some of Disney’s classic films unquestionably contain material that was considered acceptable in earlier decades, but is now—due to cultural shifts and changing mores—not.It is true that Disney holds great influence over our cultural imagination, but it is also good to remember that corporations are made up of people—many of whom do desire to make real change in the world through the stories they tell. Many of whom also desire, by retelling earlier films, to correct what they perceive—rightly or wrongly—to have been egregious errors or cultural missteps.
Retellings (from Disney or otherwise) usually fall into one of two categories, and the two categories are certainly not mutually exclusive: Capitalizing on nostalgia by telling the same story over again, or reimagining the story in a new way to correct perceived or actual errors. There is no doubt that nostalgia is lucrative, thus accusations that Disney, and other companies, are neglecting to make original stories are not unfounded. On the other hand, it is also true that some of their classic films unquestionably contain material that was considered acceptable in earlier decades, but is now—due to cultural shifts and changing mores—not.
There has been much to celebrate in the “corrections” of Disney’s classic retellings of the last several years because many of the shifts in our cultural mores have brought us closer to a biblical understanding of the intrinsic worth of all people—whether it’s in the areas of interactions between the sexes, or in correcting racial discrimination. And these changing understandings are rightly reflected in our stories. Most notable in the recent Disney live action remakes when it comes to the role of women, we see passive heroines becoming active participants in their own fate. Furthermore the way male heroes interact with them have been rethought and reimagined in light of such things as the #metoo movement and the (rightly ordered) need for consent in romantic relationships. Backstories of female characters in particular have been fleshed out, giving them clear goals and motivations and making them less objects of sexual objectification and more complete people on equal footing with their male counterparts.
Ritchie’s appropriately cast film reimagines the story in all the best ways possible.Aladdin, Disney’s most recent retelling, is a fantastic example of this. Stylistically, it falls somewhere between 2015’s Cinderella remake (directed by Kenneth Branagh) and 2017’s Beauty and the Beast (directed by Bill Condon). Like Cinderella, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin builds on what was good about the original story, expanding in needed ways into the empty spaces, answering questions of origin, motivation, and desire, all while—like Beauty and the Beast—preserving much of the integrity of the animated feature through the use of the original musical score (with the exception of one added song) and a close adherence to the original story structure. Thus, it is a remake that unquestionably capitalizes on nostalgia.
But there are many places the storytellers deviate in this remake, making it also one that seeks to correct errors of the original. As I’ve mentioned already, part of the benefit of remaking a film is the ability to reimagine it in light of new cultural mores—to set a new and better standard moving forward. In Aladdin, this was definitely to the story’s benefit. When Disney made the original animated version of Aladdin in 1992, it was their first foray into telling a non-Western story for one of their big animated features, and Jasmine was their first non-white Disney Princess. Although an important first step in visual representation and inclusion, the production seriously erred in white-washing the entire cast of voice actors. As much as Robin Williams is remembered with more than a heavy dose of fond nostalgia for his excellent turn as Genie, Middle Eastern actors or other people of color should have been cast to voice Middle Eastern characters. Other missteps in the beloved ‘90s animated film included an overly sexualized wardrobe for Princess Jasmine (and occasionally an oddly sexualized manner, considering it’s a children’s movie), a lack of backstory and character development for Jasmine, and character developmental problems for her father—who is portrayed as almost childishly stupid. Despite these issues, Aladdin was a rousing success for Disney and well-remembered as one of their classic films, beloved by more than just my generation—a generation at peak Disney-princess-appreciation age in 1992.
Ritchie’s appropriately cast film reimagines the story in all the best ways possible, drawing out motivations for Jasmine (Naomi Scott) that are both realistic and believable for a character in her position. She desires to succeed her father as sultan, not because she wants power, but because she loves her people and wants to serve them. Juxtaposed against this is the power-hungry Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), whose motivations in this version of the film are much more strikingly evil now that he has a true foil character in Jasmine. The sultan (Navid Negahban) is no longer silly or childish, but rather a flawed, but loving father who is afraid for his daughter and caught in the traditions of the past. Aladdin’s (Mena Massoud) best characteristics are preserved as the big-hearted, noble, and carefree—if myopic—street urchin, and it is in the tests of friendship and loyalty with Genie (Will Smith) that he finds his greatest crucibles.
Some remakes of classic tales may reflect changed cultural mores, but it is a fallacy to believe we are morally evolving with each passing decade.Powerful themes prevail in this retelling, themes of friendship, loyalty, the corruptive nature of the lust for power, and more. But beyond that, even, I walked out of the movie theater impressed with how Disney took one of their most sexualized animated princesses and empowered her with her mind and her voice and her love for serving her people. She defies the villain of the story by appealing to the fidelity of the soldiers meant to serve her, and even though her father has hurt her by keeping her locked away in the palace, she still honors him as her father. Aladdin is a love story and there is no doubt that it is romantic, but the love that flows out of this reimagined tale comes in many forms. 2019’s Aladdin demonstrates the many facets of love—how love is not just eros, but phileo and agape, too. It also shows, through Jafar, how disordered love leads to self-destruction.
Sometimes a retelling can bring out the hints of virtue that were present in an original tale, like polishing a gem to bring it new shine or to reveal a new facet. And the best retellings are those that don’t just reflect what is good about current culture, but transcend our mores to point beyond them to absolute Goodness, as Lewis did in Till We Have Faces. Some of the Disney retellings have done this well, as 2019’s Aladdin has, and I’m encouraged by it as I have been with many of their other retellings. Have they proven themselves to be a sound steward of our cultural imagination? As long as they continue to demonstrate an ability to tell stories that hold fast to truth, beauty, and goodness, I am willing to say yes. But it is also wise to remember that Disney will follow whichever cultural mores are the most profitable for them, and mores can be as shifting as the sand.
We must be discerning consumers of culture to determine which stories are good—which retellings are beautiful and true. Some remakes of classic tales may reflect changed cultural mores, but it is a fallacy to believe we are morally evolving with each passing decade. What our culture deems acceptable now may in ten years be anathema. We must not base our morality on the stories we tell, but rather base the stories we tell on a higher morality that transcends us all. And when we find stories that do this—be they original or retellings—we should celebrate them, calling out what is excellent, identifying what is praise-worthy. God’s standards of right and wrong do not change, and it is to his standards that we are called to tell—and re-tell—stories.