For many, the live-action remake of Aladdin was an “unwanted” addition to Disney’s roster, but to me it felt like coming home. As a South Asian, I had long since given up on being represented in the movie powerhouse that is Disney. So what Aladdin came with. Inclusiveness in Disney’s live-action fare remains poor, but the remake was a step in the right direction with a cast full of actors of color, gorgeous sets and costumes.
I know the original animation Aladdin is loved by many, but my connection to the film is tenuous. The movie stood out in Disney’s list because it was based in a “far away place” with brown animated characters, places that felt like my home. But the voice cast was predominantly white, and the film understandably came under scrutiny for its exoticism and racism. The remake was an attempt at course correction, and it did a lot to fix things, but not completely. (Obviously, it’s a Disney movie after all.)
Despite my reluctance to watch the movie at first, it didn’t take long for me to change my mind. I felt particularly drawn to places of Aladdin because when the film came out, I had left my two countries of origin. Crowded markets, opulent monuments, and bright, colorful clothing are sights I’m used to, even amidst the big cities I’ve always lived in.
Agrabah, the fictional kingdom of the film, is a bustling city populated by people from diverse backgrounds. The multicultural melting pot of characters reminded me of my home for a decade, Dubai. The city is teeming with people from all over the world, speaking many languages with a variety of accents, their cultures blending together to create a vibrant atmosphere. The international cast of actors selected from the Aladdin remake added to Agrabah’s multiculturalism. Mena Massoud, who plays the main character, is a Canadian actor of Egyptian origin; Jafar actor Marwan Kenzari is a Dutch actor of Tunisian origin; leading lady Naomi Scott is Anglo-Indian, and the writers wrote in Jasmine’s mixed origin making it clear that her late mother was from nearby Shirabad, while the Sultan (played by the Iranian-born actor Navid Negahban) comes from Agrabah. Jasmine’s friend and assistant, Dalia, is played by the Iranian-American actor Nasim Pedradand of course, Will Smith stars like the Genie. Casting a fantasy film with actors of North African, South Asian and Arab descent meant that this film did not present its predominantly brown cast as a monolith. They – or rather we – are all unique.
The remake is Bollywood-lite – there’s the song-and-dance aspect of Disney/Bollywood, but not the melodramatic baggage. The “Harvest Dance” sequence is particularly reminiscent of Bollywood films, which is another nod to Jasmine’s mixed heritage. I’m not going to lie, I really like how the film evokes the style and tone of Asian and Middle Eastern film industries.
The characters feel so much more nuanced in the remake which adds depth to the film, not to mention a much richer experience for the viewer. Finally, we’re not stuck looking at caricatures and stereotypes, but rather there’s a reason why these characters behave the way they do. Jafar isn’t just bad; he has a vendetta against Shirabad, where he was imprisoned, and keeps trying to use his power to declare war on the place. The sultan is a bereaved man, terrified at the thought of losing his daughter, to the point of suffocating her. The Genie gets a romantic subplot that unfolds in a hilariously sweet, yet sweet way. The addition of Dalia was a surprise, but she gives Jasmine a more rounded personality. Plus, Dalia is such a gem – everyone should watch the remake just for Nasim Pedrad’s performance.
The biggest change is Jasmine. She was truly in love with a singular goal of getting married in the animated version, and I’m so glad we’ve moved beyond that trope. Jasmine improved her motivations a bit in the remake. She has a best friend she can talk to, but she also struggles with the restraints placed on her by an overprotective father and a scheming, power-hungry vizier. Jasmine wants to take over her father’s kingdom, and it makes me so happy that little girls have Disney princesses who have ambition and aren’t afraid to fight for it.
Jasmine living an overly sheltered life is one of the most genuine elements of the movie – most South Asian women know that. Look, our parents had good reason to worry about us when we were kids, and it’s hard for them to get over those worries even when we’re adults. Thanks to movies like turn red and shows such as Ms. Marvel and I have never, more and more audiences are now aware of this particular (although understandable) trait of Asian parents. But Aladdin was well ahead of the curve.
Jasmine having more depth makes her relationship with Aladdin easier to root for. Yes, they get married 2.5 days after meeting, but other than that, it’s obvious they’re taken for each other because of their adventurousness and intelligence. Aladdin is also less power-hungry in this version, using the Genie’s magic not to trick Jasmine, but to bend the system to be with her. He’s smart and kind, but also flawed, which makes Aladdin approachable.
I love that when Jasmine appropriately becomes Sultan at the end of the movie, Aladdin doesn’t even bat an eyelid because he knows she deserves it. Gender imbalances still characterize far too many cultures, so this was a nice change of pace in a film featuring characters based in the Middle East.
Aladdin maybe too twee, too Disney for some, and it definitely evokes some complicated feelings among Middle Eastern and Arab viewers. But in the Hollywood landscape, the film stood out for me for another reason. For once, characters of color didn’t have to deal with racism or misrepresentation — they’re just characters in a story. Heroes and villains singing and dancing, losing and winning, all against a backdrop of minarets, ghagra-cholis, markets and camels and, of course, magic. Every story by and about people of color is always expected to have a message, but the power of Aladdin is that the medium is the message. It’s a blockbuster movie that’s shamelessly about brown characters trying to live their best life, and it’s a triumph in itself. Watching Aladdin, you can literally leave your worries at the gates of Agrabah.
Granted, Aladdin is not perfect. The origins of Disney’s story remain controversial, and the making of the film has received a lot of backlash with every update. Additionally, since the creators are both white males, the film lacks elements of authenticity such as the use of Arabic script and multilingual dialogue. Diegetically, Jasmine should have had more to do in the final act and the singing could have been more powerful. But these issues are far outweighed by the end product. Considering how poorly Hollywood portrays people of Islamic descent and Arab and South Asian culture, watching a movie that is purely an escapist fantasy featuring actors of color is long overdue for a very large segment of the Disney audience.