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Can Disney Get ‘Aladdin’ Right?

The 1992 animated film was loosely based on a Syrian tale, but helmed — and voiced — by white people. Debates over the authenticity of the live-action remake are understandable, but a radical change in representation would require an overhaul of the film’s source material.

(Getty Images/Disney/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Disney/Ringer illustration)

On Saturday, Disney announced the main cast for its live-action adaptation of the 1992 cartoon film classic Aladdin. The Guy Ritchie–directed remake, due out in 2019, will star the Egyptian Canadian actor Mena Massoud as Aladdin, the British Indian actor Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine, and black American movie star Will Smith as Genie. What a relief — we have thankfully dodged the prospect of prolonged, widespread disagreement over the ethnic integrity of Aladdin, a children’s movie–musical that white people made about a Middle Eastern kingdom that doesn’t exist.

The live-action Aladdin is one of many adaptations that Disney has dedicated the 2010s to churning out, especially since Beauty and the Beast, released in March, has grossed nearly $1.3 billion worldwide. In 2019 alone, a new live-action Mulan movie, a live-action The Lion King, and Aladdin are all slated to be released. But unlike Beauty and the Beast — Disney’s highest-grossing live-action adaptation of a cartoon to date — these stories are set in regions that would seem to prohibit casting exclusively white actors, or even a plurality of white actors, as Western film studios frequently do. Aladdin is set in the fictional kingdom of Agrabah, an aesthetic mash-up of Agra and Baghdad. Mulan, a historical drama, is set in China during the Han dynasty. Both animated films lack white characters entirely.

In the week before Disney announced the main Aladdin cast at its D23 Expo in Anaheim, California, The Hollywood Reporter published an anonymously sourced report suggesting that the film’s producers were struggling to cast actors of Middle Eastern and South Asian heritage in the lead roles of Aladdin and Jasmine. The Hollywood Reporter described efforts to scout actors in the U.K., India, Egypt, and Abu Dhabi, suggesting a concerted effort on Disney’s part to cast non-white actors across the board. Still, many critics interpreted the rumored difficulties that the producers faced in picking from such a wide talent pool as a sign that the studio might ultimately cave and cast Tom Holland and Lorde as Aladdin and Jasmine anyway. "It can’t be easy to cast a Middle Eastern actor as a terrorist but difficult to cast the same people in a leading role," the journalist Rawan Eewshah wrote for Allure on Friday. "Or is this all a ploy to whitewash the characters?"

Typically, the term "whitewashing" applies to artwork that people of color created, or a style that they popularized, before white people developed plans to gentrify the source material. Aladdin is a strange case since the 1992 movie is itself a white dream about North Africa and Central Asia in antiquity; whitewashing is the movie’s original sin, and its casting isn’t the half of it. Aladdin is only loosely based on an ancient tale that traces back to Syria (and some versions of the story refer to him as Chinese), but the movie is, effectively, an original work that was written, scored, produced, and directed by Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Alan Menken, and Tim Rice — a team of white men. Clements, Musker, Elliott, and Rossio are also the only people with screenwriting credits; one woman, Amy Pell, has a coproducer credit. Despite their story being set in the fictional Middle Eastern kingdom of Agrabah, and despite its human characters all having Arab and Persian names, the voice cast of Disney’s original Aladdin movie is white. Cartoon ethnicities aside, no actual Arabs were involved in the making of this film.

It would be hard for the new Aladdin to be any whiter than the original film already is. But the hasty rally to defend the film from the prospect of a white cast does underscore a general frustration with American media: Popular culture offers so few desirable vessels for Middle Eastern representation that the one, contested property in this regard is a cartoon movie starring Robin Williams and Gilbert Gottfried (among others). Aladdin is a film now so overloaded with purpose in its casting that some critics hold that Naomi Scott, who claims Indian heritage but no Middle Eastern ancestry, has no place in a story that features a palace that’s very clearly modeled after the Taj Mahal. Aladdin is a classic children’s film that at least gestures at Middle Eastern heritage and complexions in romantic terms, sans the overwhelmingly explicit barbarism or terrorism that dominates Western portrayals. It is, in other words, as good as it gets for Arabs (and Middle Easterners … and South Asians?) in massively popular American media. Aladdin isn’t credible mythology. On no level whatsoever is it true. But it is, for lack of better examples in popular culture, a beloved and thus hotly contested bit of catch-all Arab, Middle Eastern, and even South Asian representation in American pop culture.

In November 1992, the wide release of Aladdin marked the start of a shift in Disney’s brand of storytelling. Where the studio once produced Anglo-ambiguous fairy tales for U.S. audiences, for the most part, Disney has spent the past couple of decades growing into a global role as the world’s premiere myth factory. Slowly, but necessarily, Disney has come to grips with the challenges that diversity presents in practice. Aladdin was a rough stab, and a few critics, including Roger Ebert, knocked the film’s goofy, muddled sense of ancient Arab culture upon the film’s release in 1992. But in recent years, the company has gradually improved upon its attempts to demonstrate respect for foreign cultures.

Mulan, released six years later, strives toward a semblance of ethnic heritage in dramatizing the life of the legendary warrior Hua Mulan, and that film can boast a diverse voice cast, including Ming-Na Wen starring as Mulan. Disney’s latest animated megahit, Moana, which hit theaters in November, is a heroic coming-of-age tale rooted in Polynesian history and mythology. Moana stars Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, two voice actors of Pacific heritage, and the producers took strides to characterize tribal culture in a respectful, if not entirely faithful, manner. Disney failed, in parts — Pacific Islanders criticized the producers’ design of the demigod Maui (played by Johnson) in particular. Nonetheless, Moana is the most considerate film that Disney has produced to date, a sign that the company takes the cultures it depicts seriously.

The question now is whether Disney can retroactively apply that sort of sensitivity in remaking a film that could’ve used such careful judgment in the first place. Jon Favreau’s live-action take on The Jungle Book, released last year and starring Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, and Lupita Nyong’o, suggests that casting is the critical benchmark by which an "exotic" adaptation lives or dies; whether the director is white or the source material offends modern audiences is nearly beside the point. But does that mean that a brown cast can refashion a story as broad and apocryphal as Aladdin toward truer, prouder ends? Can Disney take a constitutionally whitewashed property and, ultimately, do right by the culture(s) it’s profiting from? In representation debates over mainstream entertainment properties, presentation generally takes priority over constitution, and so of course the Massoud- and Scott-led Aladdin now largely passes the initial inspection of its newly announced cast — even though the movie’s creative team is as white as ever.

Disney’s casting announcement from the past weekend has given fans some small reason to hope for a quasi-radical take on Aladdin, a relatively safe box-office bet that nonetheless demonstrates all the studio has learned about diversity, representation, and whitewashing between the original movie and now. For Disney, diversity is, as ever, a process. For once, though, imagine the company attempting it from the start, from the ground up, from the choice of director all the way down to the casting. Imagine the company building a whole, new world from a new, fantastic point of view.