ALADDIN, the live-action remake of Disney’s hit 1992 animated musical, marks another milestone of the Mouse House’s campaign to mine past hits. They are a studio with a long history, so their catalog is generational. If you loved that movie as a kid, come watch this new version with your kids 20 years later!
They were highly successful with remakes of 101 DALMATIANS (1996) and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017). And later this summer comes the “live” action version of THE LION KING – though the trailer looks very much as if all the creatures are photo-realistic CGI. Which begs the point – if you’re going to do FX animals, can you really call your movie a live-action remake?
ALADDIN was a challenge for Disney – both back in 1992 as well as this year’s remake. Set in a fictional Arab kingdom of Agrabah, rather than the source material’s Baghdad, how do you make a musical without resorting to stereotypes? 1992’s ALADDIN’s very white cast starred Robin Williams as the Genie and relatively unknown Scott Weinger, of FULL HOUSE fame, as Aladdin, and Linda Larkin as Princess Jasmine. When the movie was released, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee protested against the racist lyrics of the opening song. Disney responded by changing the lyrics for the video release.
Fast forward to today. Disney was much more concerned about casting authenticity. There were some detractors who pointed out that the original story of Aladdin was set in China, but using the 1992 movie as its starting point, Disney was determined to cast more authentically. However, some fans cried foul when they chose Tunisian-Dutch actor, Marwan Kenzari, as Jafar, Egyptian-Canadian actor, Mena Massoud, as Aladdin and British actress, Naomi Scott, as Jasmine. Scott is of Asian-Caucasian background.
Julie Ann Crommett, Disney’s Vice President of Multicultural Engagement, defended their choice of Scott. She said, “There was a real intention for Agrabah to become the center of the Silk Road, that you can consider the Middle East slash South Asia and even to China actually by extension.”
Casting Will Smith as the genie was a smart move regarding box office – Smith’s over-sized persona might just make you forget Robin Williams’ performance.
Ethnicity aside, the other complaint about the cast of Aladdin include the fact that this live-action Aladdin is pretty modest. Cartoon Aladdin ran around barefoot and wore a shirtless vest that revealed his abs, while Mena Massoud wears a baggy shirt under his vest. Buzzfeed noted, “shirtless Aladdin was the sexual awakening for an entire generation of closeted gay kids growing up.” It’s funny to recall that Disney cartoonists drew Aladdin to look like a young Tom Cruise.
Disney has learned – like the GAME OF THRONES producers – that you’ll never be able to satisfy everyone, but the efforts involved in making this ALADDIN ring true are all moves in the right direction. Next year comes the remake of MULAN.
Below, watch the behind-the-scenes featurette.
About the contributing writer: Harrison Cheung is the award-winning author of the Christian Bale biography, THE INSIDE STORY OF THE DARKEST BATMAN.