With Aladdin, Disney overcomes the racist tropes of the original, creating a loving cultural celebration I’m proud exists for our generation.
When Disney announced that they were making a live-action Aladdin, I was immediately concerned. Aladdin is one of the movies that has aged the worst — and as a ’90s movie, it wasn’t something to be particularly proud of at its time, either.
I elaborated more on it in this article, but the combination of racist caricatures and blatant Orientalism make the original movie almost impossible to rewatch without feeling ashamed at how badly represented anything related to the Middle East has been, even in a funny, colorful movie as Aladdin.
The bar was low, yes. But the live-action Aladdin surpassed my expectations in a much more creative and interesting way than it had to. We would have been happy with a mediocre movie that was simply a rehash of the original with a few fixes, but Disney went above and beyond.
It’s hard to make a respectful movie when the story itself is based on an Orientalist amalgamation of many very different cultures, but somehow Disney made it possible for me to overlook all of this. It delivered a celebration of Middle Eastern and South Asian culture that is really worth watching — one I’m proud to say I watched in theaters.
So, looking back at my original criticism, here’s how what I hoped would be changed was changed — and what surprised me.
Showing Agrabah in all its beauty
The first thing I was worried about was, of course, one of the opening lines of the film: “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”
Deep down, I think I was hoping that they’d do away with the line altogether, but the writers did exactly the right thing. They completely redid the introduction, having the now-human Genie start the film with the introductory song in a fashion that was very similar to the cartoon – but that said “It’s chaotic, but hey, it’s home”… and, unlike the original, was followed by a sequence that completely avoided caricatures. Instead, it presented a beautiful look into a Middle-Eastern market full of spices and fruit, streets full of people in beautiful clothes, and a palace with exquisite architecture… and it was breathtaking.
This Agrabah is colorful, it’s racially diverse, and it’s accurate. Well, at least as accurate as any Disney-fied moment in history, in a land that is a conflation of many different countries, can be. No longer are all the women dressed as belly-dancers — instead, we have beautiful bejeweled veils, and dresses that more accurately reflect the clothes women from a similar time in history would wear. There are wonderful nods to Bollywood in three different dance scenes, which themselves make the show stand out among all other Disney live-action films.
Finally, we get to see a western movie truly love Middle-Eastern and South Asian cultural elements, and pay them the attention they deserve.
(The only strange thing that stuck out to me was the suspiciously Christian wedding between Jasmine and Jafar. Come on, guys… you didn’t have to make it Muslim or Hindu if you didn’t want to choose one, but at least don’t make it so blatantly Christian when you have a chance to bring some diversity to the Princesses’ religions.)
A properly empowered Jasmine
We all wanted to see Jasmine have more agency in the story, especially given the personality she has in the original. In the cartoon, she is headstrong and ambitious, but never really shows interest in ruling… just in escaping her plight.
This Jasmine is just as headstrong, but is also three-dimensional, which makes her look less like a bossy princess and more like a smart, ambitious woman who deserves to become sultan. She studies, she has plans, and she calls Jafar out on his lies when he tries to control her father. Seeing her genuine skill being suppressed because of her gender is even more frustrating here, because you can actually envision what she could become if given the chance.
I was initially worried that they might be too heavy-handed in the feminist narrative without actually putting in the effort to deserve it, which is why I was wary of “Speechless” when it started. But by the end, Naomi Scott’s tears of frustration made me cry and I am fully on the “Speechless” train (caravan?).
I never thought I would see a female sultan on screen, and it spoke to me in a very profound way. I wrote an entire frustrated article about what could have been done with Ahmanet’s story in The Mummy remake, and my dream story was actually told beautifully — and less tragically — in Aladdin.
That’s not to say that Jasmine is perfect. She’s still naïve in the streets of Agrabah, and a little unapproachable, although it’s understandable given her history. She’s a real woman in a difficult position. And because the story no longer ends with her chained up and enslaved by Jafar (in what was probably one of the most disturbing scenes ever), but rather gives her the primary position of power, instead of having Aladdin “win” her, she can fall in love and get married, and loses none of her agency for it.
A truly charming Aladdin
I never understood why people found the original cartoon Aladdin likeable, when he was a cocky liar, but Mena Masoud instantly made me understand the appeal. He is so smooth, and so believable as a very clever person who is secretly very self-conscious when it comes to his socio-economic position.
Because Aladdin is so smooth and likable as himself in the beginning, the theme of staying true to yourself, which has always been at the heart of Aladdin, shines through much more powerfully. He’s so uncomfortable as Ali, which at times is funny, but at others is tragic. And yet the way he struggles with his identity never comes across as annoying — it feels genuine, because Masoud is so good at portraying a kind of class insecurity that is very prevalent in society. You can totally understand him, even when he’s wrong.
Because of this, his final victory — which ultimately isn’t over Jafar, but over his own ambitions when he lets go of the Genie an even of his own dream of marrying Jasmine — is all the more powerful.
A supporting cast that dismantles tropes
We all had questions about how Will Smith would do in his role as the Genie, but he does an amazing job. He doesn’t try to emulate Robin Williams, but makes the role his own and makes you forget that he’s Will Smith at all — which is no small task.
Making him and Dalia’s relationship the overarching set-up for the narrative was a genius move (certainly better than making the parrot sing it), and Nasim Pedrad’s matter-of-fact approach to romance was absolutely adorable. It’s great to see another very skilled actress given a role in what was previously a one-woman, many-men movie; especially because she gives Jasmine a strong female friendship, which is always important to see in a Princess movie.
The CGI was amazing all around, both for the Genie (although it was a little weird), and for the adorable Abu and the Magic Carpet. Although the Carpet was cute and loveable in the cartoon, I never expected it to translate so well to a live-action remake!
Young Jafar really is more meaningful
I had my suspicions about why Disney decided to go with a younger Jafar, and I was happy to see it play out even better than I hoped on screen. Having a younger Jafar easily sidestepped the uncomfortable creepiness of his interest in Jasmine, which opens up a whole new can of worms when he’s the same age as her father (a can of worms that I’m frankly tired of seeing associated with Middle Eastern men, although that’s not to say that it isn’t a problem everywhere).
It also allows us to focus on what Jafar really wants: the throne. We can focus on the parallels between him and Aladdin, which in this version are a lot more pronounced, since this Jafar is from a poor, thieving background. Seeing Jafar as what Aladdin could potentially become really helps drive the point of the movie home. Aladdin has to make different choices if he wants to stay a good person and be happy, because power corrupts.
Also, Marwan Kenzari is a great actor, and I’m so happy we got a chance to see him in this role.
Overall, this live-action Aladdin succeeds in every aspect that the original failed, and is actually better than the original. It’s so refreshing to see Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian actors get a chance to have roles in such a big fantasy film, and start breaking down stereotypes about the types of characters they can play.
Even the use of Arabic in this movie is bound to have a positive effect in changing the context people generally hear the language in, which in turn helps dismantle preconceived notions about real people, out in the real world.
While the 1992 movie will forever be beloved because of Robin Williams’ great performance, I think the overall story, cultural elements, and character development in this year’s Aladdin are infinitely better — and I’m so happy that future generations will have this to reference as a Disney classic.