A blog by Josh Humbert
What can we learn from the 90’s? Are there real lessons for us from a time that gave us “The Macarena“, Steve Urkel, and Jerry Springer? I contend there is wisdom to be gained, if only we look in the right places. This series will dive into the culture of a decade that changed so much.
“What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient…highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed – fully understood – that sticks; right in there somewhere.”
These words were spoken by the main character in the Christopher Nolan film from 2010 called “Inception.” That’s not just clever dialogue; it’s true. The power of a idea can consume the mind like nothing else.
Yet, 18 years before Inception, there was a young upstart, a “street rat,” from the rough part of ancient Arab town, who knew the power of an idea. It would be his skillful use of this knowledge that would reveal his brilliance.
His name is Aladdin. Let us consider this Prince of Thieves, for he brings wisdom of the 90’s.
The 90’s saw Disney’s animated films go on a meteoric rise, though the decade started off slow. In 1990, Disney was releasing films such as “Ducktales” and “Rescuers Down Under.” While most 90’s kids can still sing the theme song to Ducktales (whooo ohhh), those two films were nowhere close to what Disney was about launch into. Their run in the next four years would be legendary.
In 1991, Disney released “Beauty and the Beast”. In 1992, it followed up with “Aladdin”. Then in 1994 came “Lion King” and then “Toy Story” in 1995. Those four films in those four years would be hard for any studio to match in terms of box-office appeal, critical reception, award nominations, and overall quality. Disney put an indelible mark on cinema in the first half of the 90’s decade, and Aladdin was instrumental in that run.
It’s probable that the easy answer to this question begins with Robin Williams. His performance as the Genie is one of the most memorable in all cinema history (not just animated films).
There are ever-so-rare moments in time when an actor finds a role that he/she is perfectly suited to play. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. Harrison Ford as Han Solo. Heath Ledger as the Joker. Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly. For Robin Williams, the Genie was the role he was seemingly destined to play.
To convince him to take the role, the animators of Aladdin produced a short film of Genie bouncing around set to some of Robin’s old comedy audio. Robin was immediately sold and ended up OWNING the role (he actually produced over 16 hours worth of material for Genie!).
While the Genie looms large throughout the film, the film worked on several levels. The music (One Step Ahead, Friend Like Me, Whole New World, etc) had the requisite Disney hits. The animation and coloring were superb. Jafar as the villain was strong (rated #2 all time Disney villain on UltimateDisney.com).
Beyond all that, the love story contained rich themes like social mobility, classism, honesty in relationships, parental authority issues, and royalty.
Oh, and Aladdin himself was no slouch.
So what about Aladdin and the ideas of Inception? How does this reveal his brilliance?
Twice, in really tough situations, Aladdin uses the power of an idea to get himself free. The first instance comes shortly after meeting Genie as they are all stuck in a cave with seemingly no way out.
Notice that subtle move by Al? He didn’t have to use one of his wishes to escape the situation. Instead, he plays on the Genie’s “limitations” and power restrictions. He plants that idea in the Genie’s mind and sits back (literally) to watch the Genie get them out. The mind game Aladdin plays is indirect and understated, but it works perfectly.
Aladdin will use this same tactic late in the film when he finds himself in the clutches of Jafar. With no avenue of escape readily available, Aladdin will once again put forth the idea of “limited power” and how Jafar isn’t as strong as he thinks. “Face it, Jafar, you’re still just second best.”
An idea planted in Jafar’s mind that will quickly bear fruit.
There is tremendous power in an idea and Aladdin is able to harness this concept to rescue himself two different times. Well played, Al, well played.
However, not even Aladdin himself, the master of mental games, is beyond the same exploit.
Perhaps there is an idea that’s in Aladdin’s mind that is more powerful than even he realizes: the idea of royalty. In a way, this longing to be royal has been driving Aladdin all along. Early in the film, he says this:
“Someday, Abu, things are gonna change. We’ll be rich, live in a place, and never have any problems at all.”
Aladdin believes that if he could just be royal, if he could just have riches and live in the palace, then everything is solved and his troubles are over. It ends up being one of the oldest lies in the book that ensnares Aladdin — the supposed power and problem-solving ability of “having it all.” This idea has been tricking people for ages and we see it has taken root in Aladdin’s mind as well.
In fact, Aladdin’s first wish is used to make himself a Prince. Obviously, he was interested in Jasmine and figures the pretend-royalty can increase his chances with her….but, is that the sole reason he chose that wish? I think a case can be made his motive wasn’t purely for Jasmine. He wanted to be a Prince for himself as well. Just watch his swag as “Prince Ali” rides into town!
Alas, gaining royalty and riches isn’t the key to Jasmine’s heart or to his own happiness. Maybe Aladdin’s story is pointing us to a deeper and better lesson on royalty.
The wisdom of this piece of 90’s culture isn’t just about egos, pride, and the powerlessness of royalty and riches. Those are valuable lessons we can glean, but the greater truth is found in how Aladdin shows us the Gospel, just in upside down way.
Aladdin seeks joy in riches and royalty. If he can have the right bloodline, if he can parade through the city like a champion, if he can have the money stacked up, then he will get Jasmine and “never have any problems at all.”
This is the inverse of what we see in the amazing truth of Jesus.
For Christ is the anti-Aladdin, the opposite in every way. In order to save His bride, in order to secure lasting joy for others, in order to display His greatness, Jesus will give up His royalty and His riches. This is the stunning truth of what the Incarnation means.
He gave up His wealth so that you can have riches untold in Him. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake, He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.” 2 Corinthians 8:9 Incredibly, the One who had it all chose to willingly be born to a dirt poor family in the backwoods.
He didn’t parade through the city with all the swag and bluster of a pretend prince like Aladdin — instead, He came lowly and humble, riding on a donkey. “Jesus, finding a young donkey, sat on it; as it is written, ‘Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your King is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.’” Incredibly, the One who has all the power in the universe didn’t come with fireworks and a fake resume; He came quiet and obedient so He could fulfill the royal prophecies from hundreds of years prior.
He gave up His royalty so that you can be clothed in royal garments. “…although He existed in the form of God, He did not regard equality with God as a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:6-8. Incredibly, the One who is the King of Kings set aside that crown of glory to take upon Himself a crown of long, sharp, piercing thorns in order to shed His innocent blood for you.
Jesus is the Great and Glorious King who willingly became the street rat. He left the Palace of Heaven to go be crucified outside the gates. He didn’t come to defeat a cartoon snake like Jafar but to crush the head of the great serpent Satan. He didn’t need to earn the approval of some Sultan because He was perfectly obedient to God the Father in every thing He did.
Maybe you’ve never had a friend like the Genie but even better than the blue guy is the Friend of Sinners. He doesn’t grant 3 selfish wishes but He does grant full forgiveness of sins and pardon from the debt you owe. He doesn’t need you to free Him, but instead, when He sets you free….hey, you’re free indeed!
He isn’t struggling to stay one step ahead of the bad guys, nah, see He is sovereign and He is strong enough to take what they mean for evil and instead use it for good.
And when He holds out His hands and asks you, “Do you TRUST me?” let your eyes take note of the great scars where the nails were driven into His flesh and bone. Yes, you can trust Him, with everything.
There are many interesting religious ideas in our world. Philosophies on how to live, how to act, and what one must do to earn peace with God…there are plenty of ideas that can stick in your mind.
However, the difference with Christianity is that we don’t worship an idea. We don’t give our lives to some philosophy or set of do’s and don’ts. What makes Christianity unique is that we believe and treasure the truth of Immanuel, God WITH us. We worship the God who came down and got involved with us. Our hearts overflow with praise for Jesus, who isn’t just some lofty idea but, in fact, is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He’s not a thought to be considered but a Person who lived, died, and rose again.
Jesus is God. Jesus is the Lord. He takes unworthy, unclean, unqualified street rats from the gutter and He makes them royal family.
There is power in ideas, but the greatest power lies in the truth. That’s what Jesus is. That’s who Jesus is.
“But you are a chosen race, a ROYAL priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness and into His marvelous light.” 1 Peter 2:9
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Want more “Wisdom of the 90’s? Dive in here:
Goo Goo Dolls “Name”
The great Chris Farley.
Have a piece of 90’s culture you want me to consider for this series? Hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org