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Literally everyone has heard that a live-action remake of “Aladdin” is coming in 2018. Just this week, in fact, the internet swooned when it was revealed that (smoldering hot) actor Marwan Kenzari is in talks to play the film’s villain, Jafar. And while the announcement about the remake has inspired some real excitement, it has also raised some valid questions around diversity, authenticity and the merits of remaking the film.
The controversy started when director Guy Ritchie said he couldn’t find a Middle Eastern or Indian actor to play Aladdin who could sing, dance and act — which made the internet pretty angry. Many people online noted that Bollywood is a thriving industry packed with tons of talented young men who can sing and dance, thus providing a pretty substantial talent pool for Ritchie and his casting director.
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Others just put their hands together and prayed that Disney wouldn’t cast a white actor in the role of a brown person, as the company did in 2010 when Jake Gyllenhaal starred as an Iranian royal in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.”
Then, after a lengthy search, Disney announced last month that Egyptian-Canadian actor Mena Massoud had been cast as Aladdin, alongside “Power Rangers” star Naomi Scott, a British actress whose mother is from India. This fact alone raised some eyebrows around lumping the entire region of the Middle East in with the very different culture of India.
But Disney’s casting of two non-white actors to play Middle Eastern characters (“Aladdin” is set in the fictional Middle Eastern city of Agrabah) wasn’t enough to end the conversation around the film.
Critics still have lot to stay about the fact that a live-action remake of this 1992 classic is happening at all.
The themes of the film have come under recent scrutiny, as critics pointed out that the story of “Aladdin” is an Orientalist fantasy (a term used by historians for the imitation or depiction of aspects of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and East Asian cultures). Many feel that the film paints an unfair and inaccurate picture of the Middle East.
In the original film, Arab culture is presented as barbaric — Aladdin narrowly avoids having his hand cut off after he’s caught stealing, for example.
The original lyrics from the opening song “Arabian Nights” included the line, “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face.” Many Arab-Americans were critical of this line, which prompted Disney to change the lyrics. “Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense” replaced the film’s original lyric in 1993.
In terms of physical appearances, Aladdin and Jasmine — who were both originally voiced by white actors — are portrayed as lighter-skinned and have more classically Western features. Aladdin, in fact, is even rumored to have been modeled after superstar Tom Cruise. The villains, on the other hand, have darker skin tones and more stereotypically Middle Eastern features.
There are societal questions as well. In the film, it is “law” in the fictitious land that princess Jasmine is forbidden from marrying a person of her choosing, which many feel only reinforces stereotypes around women and gender roles in the region.
Meanwhile, the real-life Middle East is a place where the U.S. has long been in conflict, and Middle Easterners here are facing higher levels of race-based violence than ever before. Not to mention, the Trump administration continues to fight for a travel ban, which disproportionately affects people from Muslim countries.
Given all that, critics say, another version of “Aladdin” is the last thing we need right now. But others think there may be a way to save it…
Instead of simply remaking the old “Aladdin,” writer Aditi Natasha Kini has a suggestion: Adapt “Aladdin” to better represent the real Middle East, set it in a Middle Eastern city that actually exists, and use the live-action film as a way to share authentic images of a culture so deeply misunderstood — and so massively under attack.
“I understand the capitalist needs of Disney’s studio,” she says. “[But] reimagining the tale by employing Middle Eastern studies scholars, storytellers, and film crew members would be a huge step.”
Melody Moezzi, an attorney and author of “War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims,” agrees. “There are so many talented Middle Eastern artists out here doing our own thing,” she says. “It’s just harder for audiences to find us — our books, our films, our art.”
She adds, “We need more narratives written by and about Middle Easterners, and we need more agents, publishers, and producers picking them up.”
These ideas make a lot of sense in the larger conversation our country is having around race and inclusion — but they actually make financial sense, too. Just recently, a new study found that films with a more diverse cast are also more profitable, proving that audiences like to see themselves better represented on-screen.
There are so many things we love about the original “Aladdin.” Two words: Robin Williams.
The film also portrays Princess Jasmine as an independent, strong-willed young woman who refuses to marry a suitor — and instead temporarily escapes from the palace. Aladdin has similarly commendable traits. Instead of taking Genie’s advice to use his last wish to become royalty so that he can marry Jasmine, Aladdin chooses to free Genie instead (a touching act of selflessness).
The film’s standout song, “A Whole New World,” could really take on new meaning in the 2018 remake. What do you think about the issues of stereotypes and race in the film? Do you think the new version should be updated? Let us know in the comments below.