Why is the story of Aladdin always the story of the exotic Other?
Weird as it is for Westerners to think about (or at least for me), most of the stories of the mysterious and exotic Arabian Nights are in fact set in a milieu that would have been intimately familiar to contemporary readers and/or listeners: their own world. We don't blink at TV shows about doctors or high schoolers; even though they use tools and language that would seem miraculous to someone from another time or culture, they're a part of our world that we take completely for granted. How different is your garden-variety fairy godmother from your average djinn, anyway? Same in-story function, different trappings. And to people hearing the stories of the Arabian Nights, viziers and bazaars and multi-colored fish would have sounded as familiar to us as presidents and supermarkets and... multi-colored fish.
Fast-forward to America in 1992. Is China as exotic and mysterious as it was centuries ago, at the height of the silk trade? Of course not! It's a Communist country with restrictions on childbirth, a lousy human rights track record, and potential nukes. You bet your sweet patootie Disney's not setting their next blockbuster in China barely two years after the Berlin Wall came down.
It can't be the magic - or rather, it can't be just the magic. We'd scarcely recognize the Arabian Nights without the dazzling overflow of magic carpets, magic rings, magic horses, and djinn of every stripe, from benevolent to enslaved to murderous. The genie of the lamp is probably the best known example of that kind of power, but he performs fairly traditional djinn magic as the stories go. It can't be the cross-social romance - not only are there a few of those in the Arabian Nights, the West can't get enough of Cinderella stories. The cynic in me wonders if it's the fact that the story continues past the "happily ever after," which hardly any Western fairy tale seems to do, but the simple fact of married life and misunderstandings blowing out of proportion don't really telegraph "mystical Other." And if it's the characters' relationships, then why do most adaptations ignore the far nicer and gentler genie of the ring, who actually seems to like helping Aladdin out, in favor of the haughtier and more remote genie of the lamp?
Or maybe there's something super simple and coherent going on that I've completely overlooked. Leave a comment and let me know!