Disney’s Live Action Aladdin: A Step in the Right Direction?

By Jennifer Allen

So unless you've avoided all things movies for the past 80 or so years, you know about how Disney can create some timeless classic films that tug at both our heartstrings and our wallets. Ever since Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was released in late 1937, we've been mesmerized at what they can come up with using story, animation, and magic.

It seemed for a very long time that Disney could make anything turn to gold. Then a 1946 film, Song of the South happened. I actually got to see the film in theaters when they re-released it in 1980. The irony of the film producing not only one of the most memorable songs in Disney history (“Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah") and the first ever African-American actor (James Baskett playing Uncle Remus) to receive Oscar recognition, it did shine a rather controversial light. It didn't help that Walt Disney decided to premier the film in Atlanta, a city which in 1946 was still extremely segregated. It wouldn't be Disney's last misstep either.

Regardless, Disney has managed to produce more good than bad as far as family films. We all remember classic films like Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, The Fox & the Hound, and others from the earlier part of Disney's catalog. It wasn't until 1989 that the studio got its mojo back as far as making timeless gems like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, and Aladdin. I was in a weird period when these films came out. Either in my late teens or 20's when I should be acting more “grown up" and not thinking about children's stories. I didn't care. Beauty and the Beast (which does have its own flaws, I'll admit) is still one of my all-time favorite Disney films and it came out when I was a senior in high school.

Aladdin was the 2nd film Disney produced that was based around a story set in or near the Indian subcontinent (The Jungle Book being the other). Sadly the original doesn't have a single South Asian actor in the speaking roles, but that's just how voice actors were chosen at the time. While most people remember the film for Robin William's performance as the Genie, I think the entire cast did pretty well. Jafar's voice actor, Johnathan Freeman, was a remarkably perfect fit as was Douglas Seale as the Sultan.

Unfortunately it was also the first Disney movie that I refused to see in the theater during its initial run. Disney at this point was cranking out at least one film per year, and something clicked in me that Disney had turned from a studio simply making beautiful films into a purely money making machine. This mentality stuck with me for most of the 90's. To this day I have never seen The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pocahontas, or Hercules. It was actually Toy Story and Mulan (where 90 percent of the voice actors were actually of East Asian heritage) which helped me realize that maybe there was a little bit of that magic left.

I didn't finally see Aladdin in its entirely until it came out on Home Video. A college friend had bought it and had everyone come over to watch it. I was rolling my eyes at first due to my own stubbornness, but as soon as I heard, “Ten thousand years can give you such a crick in the neck!" with Robin William's voice I immediately was sucked in.

Now Disney has stated that the story takes place in modern day Jordan, with the scenery and characters depicted as Arabic and Muslim. Unfortunately it seems that a lot of misconceptions (similar to Song of the South decades earlier) made it into the finished product. It shows Arabs as typically violent people. It shows the wealthier (and “nicer") people with more pale skin. Also Jasmine is an extremely oversexualized character. In a true Muslim society she would not be allowed dress like that at all. It also didn't help that some of the original lyrics for “Arabian Nights" were offensive including, “Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face." The heroes of the story all have American accents, while the villains all have British, New York (I'm looking at you Iago the Parrot), or bad Arabic accents.

Really Disney?

I understand Aladdin was a product of its time as it came out during Desert Storm and all of the conflicts between Middle Eastern nations due to Saddam Hussein and his attacks on Kuwait. You can even see Jafar as a bit of a caricature of Hussein with his appearance and ultimate plan to rule through any means necessary. Regardless, the stereotypes are still a problem.

And now Disney has decided (thanks to the success of recent musical stage productions of The Lion King and so forth) that they want to “breathe new life" into classic Disney stories with live action versions. Coming out in 2019 will be live action versions of Dumbo and Aladdin. So far, the live action films have been hit or miss. The Jungle Book is amazing. Cinderella not so much.

I have high hopes for Dumbo. With Tim Burton directing it, it'll be a nice mix of whimsical and crazy. And honestly, only he could do the infamous hallucination scene with the dancing pink elephants justice.

Aladdin will be helmed by British director Guy Ritchie. Like Burton, Ritchie started out with some great films but gradually lost his appeal and his signature style as the films got bigger budgets. Like Burton, he can either breathe new life into an old character (Robert Downey, Jr's version of Sherlock Holmes), or do too much and make the film completely ridiculous (2017's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword).

At least this new version will have a mostly South Asian/Middle Eastern cast, granted Disney reportedly said the casting process took a really long time because they had difficulty finding “a singing, dancing actor who is Middle Eastern or Indian to play the title role."

Really Disney?

Have you bothered to look into the many notable performers in Bollywood and Tollywood alone? You do realize that you've also used playback singers in your productions, right? Why is this suddenly a problem now?

While the live action The Jungle Book may be a step in the right direction for South Asian stories in Hollywood, I think Disney has a long way to go before they can truly prove that they understand the culture they're trying to portray. I guess we'll find out in May of 2019 if they can live up to the original… or surpass it.


Jennifer Allen works at Saathee and is also a Podcaster, Blogger, Photographer & Graphic Artist.