Celebrating Princess Jasmine

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

When people talk about the Disney animated feature Aladdin (1992), the first thing that usually comes to mind is actor Robin Williams' amazing performance as the Genie. However the film is filled with several wonderful characters including an iconic Disney princess.

Princess Jasmine perhaps does not get enough recognition for some significant milestones. She was the first non-Northern European Disney princess so is usually considered the first ethnic princess because of the color of her skin. She was the first Disney princess not to be based on a European fairy tale.

She was the first princess to marry a man who was not a prince from birth. She was the first princess who was not the primary star of an animated feature film but the supporting romantic interest. She is the only female character in the film who is given a name.

She was the first Disney princess where one performer did the speaking lines and another performer provided the singing voice. She was the first Disney princess to wear pants instead of a dress.

The story of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp is one of the stories in The Arabian Nights (also known as A Thousand and One Nights). The version of the story that is most familiar began with a 1709 translation by a French scholar, although over the centuries that story has been re-translated many times with each new translation reflecting the perspectives of the translator.

As part of the story, Aladdin uses the help of a genie from a lamp to become rich and powerful. He marries Princess Badroulbadour, the vain and materialistic daughter of the sultan who only cares for clothes and jewelry, after magically breaking up her engagement to the vizier's son, and the genie builds the newlyweds an opulent palace.

An early concept sketch of Jasmine and Aladdin.

Of course, the Walt Disney Company made its own changes to the story and the characters. For one thing, in the original story, Aladdin was the master over two genies: the Genie of the Ring and the Genie of the Lamp, which was a concept that writer Howard Ashman pursued in the beginning of the development of the project during the production of The Little Mermaid.

Ashman proposed two potential love interests for Aladdin: Jasmine and a tomboyish character reminiscent of a young Judy Garland whose affections are not reciprocated by Aladdin.

Naturally, Disney changed the name of the princess and decided on "Jasmine" because of the popularity of the actress Jasmine Guy at the time on the television show A Different World. In fact, Disney artists even did some preliminary sketches of the character based on the facial features of the actress but felt the look was too severe.

Obviously the facial expressions and movement of blonde-haired, twenty-one year old American actress Linda Larkin, who voiced the character of Jasmine, provided some of the inspiration for the final design. Supervising animator Mark Henn looked at a number of different exotic models as well.

The idea for the long hair came from a guest at Walt Disney World who Henn glimpsed while working at the animation studio at Disney's MGM Studios. For the most part, he based the face on a picture in his wallet of the high school graduation photo of his younger sister Beth Allen from Trotwood-Madison High School in Dayton, Ohio.

Animator Mark Henn used his sister, Beth Allen, as inspiration for Jasmine's face.

Henn also was inspired by the appearance of actress Jennifer Connelly, specifically her eyebrows. Model Robina Ritchie did some live action reference modeling for the character performing to Larkin's pre-recorded lines.

As Larkin remembered, "Mark and I went out to dinner on the Disney MGM lot and he told me, 'Jasmine will be a little bit of you, a little bit of me and a little bit of Robina Ritchie'. And the final version was also a little bit of singer Lea Salonga who was brought in to do the singing voice for the character. Jasmine was a combination of all of us."

As Henn recalled, "It was a little challenging at that point because I had done several Disney princesses in a row, so I really wanted to try to do something different. Emotionally, Jasmine grew out of the story made by the story artists and the directors.

"But I needed something fresh to help with the physical look of her. That's where my sister's photograph became invaluable. But I had also Linda Larkin, who was the voice of Jasmine, to get my inspiration. I had a dinner with her once in Florida. We talked and she was also very inspirational in terms of finding Jasmine's emotional side.

"When you work on a film like Aladdin, you literally spend years working on a character like Princess Jasmine. She becomes like a member of your family. But once production of that movie is finished, you have to send her out into the world and you rarely if ever get a chance to revisit or interact with her again."

Art director Bill Perkins based Jasmine's design on the famous Taj Mahal, particularly the curves demonstrated in the character's hair, clothes and jewelry. Director John Musker added, "Jean Gillmore helped design Jasmine as did other women who were involved in the process of visual development, character design and animation."

Animator Andreas Deja, who supervised the character of Jafar, told the Los Angeles Times, "We thought of each character in terms of two-dimensional shapes. Aladdin is composed of two inter-locking triangles formed by his chest and his pants. Jasmine is sort of pear shaped. Jafar is basically a 'T' – a very skinny body with these broad shoulders."

Like most Disney animated characters, Jasmine's final design underwent many different renditions with the shape of her eyes and nose being distinctly different than earlier Disney princesses. However, her design has received criticism that her skin tone remains lighter in comparison to other Arabic-inspired characters in the film and she speaks without an accent.

Henn said, "Everything gets run past Jeffrey (Katzenberg) for approvals and he's a real strong romantic. He likes his leading ladies to be very attractive. I wanted to make her a real babe.

"I was nervous when I first unveiled Jasmine, but he said, 'Home run'. Then he looked at me and asked, 'What is it with you and these women (Ariel, Belle)?' Jasmine turns on this playful, false come-on to Jafar that was something we've never shown before."

Jasmine's light blue dress was meant to represent water, the most precious substance in the desert. In fact, her first scene was next to a fountain to emphasize that connection. That pool was inspired by a photograph taken by Layout head Rasoul Azadani in front of a mosque in his home town of Ispahan, Iran.

The movie is vague about the specific time period but Jasmine is certainly dressed in a manner not consistent with most Middle Eastern cultures including not only showing in public her feminine shape but her bare midriff and navel.

Her attire is more reminiscent of the stereotypical "harem girls" that appeared in Hollywood movies and is perhaps more inspired by Indian culture. Over the years, the Walt Disney Company has gradually made it more and more modest, especially for the costumed character in its theme parks, so that it covers more skin and is less overly sexual.

Jasmine is fifteen years old but on the verge of her sixteenth birthday, when by the law of Agrabah she must be married, which is why the Sultan has filled the palace with suitors for her hand in marriage.

Mark Henn was responsible for animating Jasmine.

As Henn remembered, "Our original plot line for Aladdin had the Sultan saying, 'Jasmine, the law says you must be married by your sixteenth birthday.' That was the original story concept and it stayed for quite a while. Then Jeffrey (Katzenberg) started to worry about what kind of a message we would be sending all the fifteen year olds in the world – that it's okay to get married before your sixteenth birthday?

"Of course, Aladdin is a fairy tale and presumably happened a long time ago but he thought it would be better to change the line to 'married to a prince by your next birthday'. Jeffrey added 'prince' to make it more clear."

In the first scene, Jasmine releases birds from their aviary cages to suggest a metaphor to her situation where she is forbidden to go beyond the palace walls and is taken care of and well provided for but feels trapped. She is truly a bird in a gilded cage.

That is one of the reasons that she relates to Aladdin who also feels trapped by his poverty and perception of him as just a street rat.

This theme is emphasized by the appearance of Jasmine's boudoir which very much resembles a covered birdcage. This feeling of not being in control of her own destiny is one of the underlying reasons for her rebellious and rude nature against what she feels is unjust.

Famously the character says, "I am not a prize to be won…. If I do marry, I want it to be for love."

The scene of Jasmine disguising herself and escaping the palace to experience the real world was inspired by the Audrey Hepburn 1953 movie Roman Holiday. Hepburn plays Princess Ann who is visiting Rome but struggles against her security that keeps her sheltered and sneaks out of the royal embassy to enjoy being a "regular person" for one day and meets a man and they fall in love. Her bodyguards come after her.

Director Ron Clements said, "In Howard Ashman's original version of the story, Princess Jasmine was not a really sympathetic character. She was kind of spoiled and Aladdin didn't end up with her. She actually had a small role.

A sketch of Jasmine and Aladdin.

"It was more of a buddy story that was very old Hollywood, an exotic romp in the Arab world. In fact, Mark Henn was assigned to animate Aladdin's mother, who had a bigger role than Jasmine. When that character was cut by Katzenberg, Mark moved over to Jasmine and her role was expanded."

Larkin said, "Jasmine was more of a minor character when I auditioned and the part kept growing."

The character of Jasmine has a powerful independent streak and is stubborn, not afraid to use her royal authority or her feminine wiles; strong and courageous as well as clever and smart.

She has a naivete because she has never been outside the palace walls, so she doesn't understand how things like money work in the outside world and that you just can't take whatever you want. She also demonstrates compassion, although she can be hurtfully outspoken and sarcastic that is sometimes described as "feisty".

Her intelligence and her desire to make her own choices about her life made her more similar to contemporary women. She does not grow as a character during the film but remains essentially the same at the end of the film as she was at the start. Unlike Ariel and Belle, she demonstrates no curiosity in learning more about the outside world – just the desire to escape the one she is currently in.

Larkin's first audition for Jasmine was just one of several she did that week. In fact, she only auditioned because she went with a best friend who was also auditioning because they had the same manager.

"I thought it was for something like DuckTales," recalled Larkin. "I didn't read the side (one page of dialog given to actors to audition) until we were in the car going to the audition."

The directors were looking for a more sophisticated voice for the character similar to actress Lauren Bacall but Larkin's interpretation changed their minds.

Henn stated, "With Linda there was something different from the other voices for princesses we've had. The thing I've always liked about Linda's voice was the quality of sincerity coupled with a quality that sounds different from Jodi [Benson] and Paige [O'Hara] (the two actresses who had voiced Ariel and Belle). Her voice is a little lower, but there's also a very individual spark and liveliness in her enthusiasm."

Larkin returned for additional auditions over the next several months. Larkin's final audition lasted four hours where she read through the entire script for the first time. She was eventually cast but six months later had to re-audition because Katzenberg didn't feel her voice sounded regal enough.

Directors Clements and Musker staged a recording session where they coached Larkin to speak slower and in a lower register in front of Katzenberg. Katzenberg had already opened up auditions for additional actresses six months into the film. When he approved, she went back to using her regular voice.

Clements said, "Jeffrey (Katzenberg) had some questions about Linda and actually did want to recast. We didn't. We liked Linda a lot. We thought there was something very appealing about her voice. We finally convinced Jeffrey.

"We just needed to find a singer who could match her speaking voice. And Lea Salonga, who had won a Tony Award for Miss Saigon matched perfectly."

Linda Larkin performed the voice of Jasmine. (Lea Salonga provided the singing voice.)

Larkin said, "I like to sing but am not a professional singer and don't sing like a princess. Jasmine didn't have a song at first and then they added A Whole New World and I thought 'Oh, I am getting fired for sure'.

"One time at the recording studio I just burst into tears. I'm like, 'I'm just afraid because I don't sing that you guys aren't going to want me to be your princess anymore'. The directors were like, 'We are confident that you are going to be our princess. We're going to fight for you.' And they did."

In the sequels to the original film, Liz Callaway provides the singing voice. Salonga returned to do the singing in the animated television series and both she and Larkin became Disney Legends in 2011. A Whole New World won the Academy Award for Best Original Song at the 65th Academy Awards in 1993.

Larkin jokes that voice match with Salonga was so perfect that she was almost convinced that she had done the singing.

Larkin went on to provide the voice of Jasmine for the two direct-to-video sequels, the television series and cameo appearances of the princess in House of Mouse, Sofia the First, Hercules: The Animated Series, Ralph Breaks the Internet and video games, read-along storybooks and more.

"To be Jasmine for three decades is something better than I could have ever imagined for myself," she said. "It's not something that I ever feel anything but grateful for. My great-great-grandchildren will know me as Princess Jasmine.

"Jasmine was ahead of her time. In 1992 this wasn't how young women were being represented – certainly not in film. She was courageous and passionate and politically active. She stands up and says the law is wrong. And she changes the marriage laws.

"Then 25 years later, the kids who watched Jasmine in 1992 grew up and changed the marriage laws in their own country. I have people coming up to me at these conventions, like hundreds of people who say, 'You have no idea what Jasmine means to me'."

Jasmine appears in a wide variety of merchandise, including magazines, books, toys, video games, clothes, stationery and school supplies as well as Disney entertainment venues from Disney on Ice to a long running Broadway theatrical show to a live action movie to a walk around costumed character in the Disney theme parks worldwide.

Her theme park appearance has been modified in the last decade so that she no longer wears harem pants and a tube top but has a long sleeve top that covers her midriff and instead of pants a floor length gown. Some theme park guests complained that her original attire set a bad example for young girls.

Genie, Abu, Jasmine, and Aladdin.

At Epcot, Jasmine and Aladdin appeared in the Morocco Pavilion in World Showcase because it was reminiscent of the fictional Agrabah from the film, but Imagineers complained that was mixing fantasy with reality. So the meet-and-greet was moved from the front of the restaurant at the back of the pavilion (meant to draw guests into the pavilion itself) to the walkway promenade in front of the pavilion.

Aladdin – A Musical Spectacular debuted on the Disney Fantasy cruise ship and now appears on the Disney Wish. It even includes a flying carpet scene. Jasmine and Aladdin appear in the water spectacular Fantasmic!

Castle of Magical Dreams is the icon of Hong Kong Disneyland. Each tower of the castle features individual color representations of the princesses and queens that blend harmoniously with the castle's architectural features.

An Arabic fabric pattern embellishes the fuchsia walls of Jasmine's tower. Because of her signature outfit, her tower also features a turquoise dome with a golden Arabic pattern that includes sword-like shapes. The golden finial that tops Jasmine's dome depicts Abu playfully hanging onto the decorative spire as if caught in the wind.

An Agrabah-inspired marketplace at Arabian Coast at Tokyo Disney Sea gives guests an opportunity to celebrate Jasmine and other characters of the movie in the Magic Lamp Theater while outside is Jasmine's Flying Carpets, an attraction that also appears in Adventureland at the Magic Kingdom in Florida and Disneyland Paris.

Jasmine opened up a whole new world of diversity for Disney princesses while still adhering to many of the more traditional aspects of the franchise.