We finally know who will be playing Jafar in the upcoming live-action Aladdin! But does his age mean that we’ll be seeing a love triangle play out?
Continuing with their casting announcements for the live-action Aladdin, Disney just announced Marwan Kenzari as Jafar, the villainous Royal Vizier intent on foiling Aladdin and Jasmine’s plans. Kenzari is known for his roles in The Promise and The Mummy, but his part in Aladdin will probably be his biggest one yet. It’s promising to see that Disney continues to cast lesser-known actors in such a big film, because it’ll make for a refreshing new experience.
But casting a 34-year-old as Jafar is a surprising decision on Disney’s part. Both Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott, who will be playing Aladdin and Jasmine, are 24 years old, which means that Kenzari is only 10 years older than them. Unless Disney has plans to counter-productively invest in lots of makeup to make Jafar look older, this decision significantly changes the dynamic between the characters.
Although his age is never specified in the animation, it’s understood that Jafar is an evil older man, which makes his decision to pursue Jasmine as his wife all the more creepy and cruel. It also distances him from the heroes of the story, placing him above Aladdin — who is just a boy and a thief in Jafar’s eyes — both because of his social status and his age.
It would only seem natural for an older actor to be cast instead (I personally expected — and I’m glad I was wrong — someone like Ben Kingsley, since Hollywood seems to have made him their go-to guy whenever something Middle-Eastern comes up); someone with a big name, who would stand out among the other relatively unknown actors and bring in a bigger audience. Instead, they chose to go with Kenzari, a significant change in the usual genre formula and an award-winning actor who’s bound to do a great job in the role.
Jafar’s inherent nastiness as a villain has always made him unsympathetic on all counts, which might be something that Disney is looking to change for the live-action retelling. A younger Jafar is naturally more relatable, and becomes less distanced from Aladdin as a character. If they’re almost the same age, we feel that we can compare the two; we begin to feel a need to know more about his motivations, and perhaps feel sympathy for him as well.
He also becomes a more valid candidate for Jasmine’s affections than the original Jafar was. In the animation, Jafar’s eagerness to marry her is instantly a cause for disgust. But a younger Jafar might actually have a chance when it comes to pursuing Jasmine and persuading the audience to support him: he’s young, high-ranking and clever, and he does magic.
Of course, he’s also a villain — but Disney knows we love to fall in love with villains, and even if Jafar ultimately fails, the road to that failure will probably look a lot different than it did in the animation.
It’s worth noting that Kenzari was also cast at the same time as Nasim Pedrad, who will be playing a mysterious new character in the story. It’s a relief to know that there will be at least one more female character in a movie that originally only had Jasmine in it — maybe there are actually hopes for it to pass the Bechdel test? — and it makes things all the more interesting. How are Jafar and Pedrad’s characters linked?
These changes might greatly alter one of the main messages of the animated film: the importance of freedom, specifically when referring to marriage by force. Jasmine’s character arc is based on her battle to choose a husband for herself, and Jafar’s desire for her — and his enslavement of her — is probably the most shocking aspect of the story.
It’s also a delicate topic in of itself, and not one suited for this particular production. A Middle-Eastern story that isn’t written by Middle-Eastern writers is just fertile ground for controversy, and the subject of arranged marriage is often used as a means to demonize Middle-Eastern cultures. The issue of older men preying on young women is also an extremely dark and complicated subject, and focusing the Aladdin movie on it might be counterproductive, since it probably can’t succeed in being as nuanced as it should be.
So it might be a good thing that Jafar and Aladdin are on more equal ground now, and that Jasmine won’t be trapped in a relationship with an older man the way she is in the animation. But what does this mean for the narrative in general? Will Jasmine’s connection to both men become a love triangle?
Hopefully Guy Ritchie has a more profound idea in mind for the story, rather than reducing the romance to a love triangle, which is the most overused plot device in the history of plot devices. Beauty and the Beast did dodge the love triangle, but Disney will want Jafar to stand out on his own with a story that is much different from Gaston’s.
It’ll take effort to avoid settling for a love triangle, especially if Kenzari makes the character appealing (which he probably will). And beyond that, it’ll take effort to make the story as profound as it should be. But thankfully, these new casting announcements are giving us a glimpse at a brand new story, with talented actors finally taking on lead roles in what is tentatively looking like a great Aladdin retelling.
And if we get a truly scary, nuanced (and handsome) Jafar in the mix, then who are we to complain?