Yesterday I watched Aladdin with my daughter Elli. I was taken aback by the behaviour of the hero since he acted like a villain for much of the movie.
First he steals some food. Aladdin is not crippled, old, or incapable - he is marvelously athletic, smart, charismatic and handsome. We should note here that he isn't stealing from some outrageously wealthy sultan or merchant prince but rather from food vendors at the market. This isn't Robin Hood-like redistribution of wealth but rather straight up robbery.
Then Aladdin leads the city guards on a chase about the town he lives in. He smashes carts, ruins merchandise, spills food, wrecks clothing, knocks down scaffolds, injures people and causes utter mayhem. After he finally evades the guards he does end up giving the bread away to some poor children, furnishing him with some kind of plausible deniability after his rampage.
Throughout the rest of the movie Aladdin is rude to his friends, lies constantly to princess Jasmine, goes back on his word to the genie, is hopelessly selfish in his outlook and ignores those who try to give him good advice.
So why do we cheer for Aladdin when he acts much like a villain instead of a hero? The city guards are twisted, hateful monsters, zealous in their lust for blood and happy to commit murder when asked. The vendors Aladdin steals from are huge, hulking brutes with a penchant for violence and of course all of Aladdin's foils are hideous. We might feel like Aladdin is doing things that are wrong, but is it truly wrong to steal from people who are ugly? (Hint: Yes) We cheer for Aladdin at the end when he is battling Jafar simply because Jafar is far worse. He is happy to murder, mind control and ruin people on a whim and is clearly more dangerous to the world than Aladdin. Perhaps Jafar's morals are no less, but he is intelligent, patient, hardworking and dedicated and as such he is more of a threat.
Of course the core of the Aladdin story is the love at first sight between princess Jasmine and Aladdin. In typical movie-logic we can safely cheer for Aladdin because he has found true love - never mind that it is clearly just lust spurred on by the princess' legendary beauty. No one else in the movie seems to love anybody and the idea that people who are truly in love are always the good guys is firmly entrenched in lore.
The end of the movie is quite pathetic when viewed through a more objective lens. Aladdin and Jafar duke it out in the palace to see who is going to rule the city and who will not. Both are scoundrels, thieves and liars; both abuse magic artifacts to gain what they want. Which one is good and which is evil is decided by which one is handsome, young and foolish and which is ugly, old and rational.