Disney’s live-action remakes of their classic animated films have been absurdly successful both in terms of dollars earned and hype accumulated. So why does it seem like every mistake that could be made while creating Aladdin has been made?
2015’s Cinderella was a strong early installment, with fantastic costume design from Academy Award winner Sandy Powell, a delightfully evil turn from Cate Blanchett (warming up for Thor: Ragnarok), and solid chemistry between Lily James and Robb Stark, the Young Wolf. 2016’s The Jungle Book was stunning visually (that voice casting—Bill Murray, Idris Elba!—was excellent), and Pete’s Dragon was absurdly underrated, with a deeply emotional story that had me up in my feelings. And looking toward the future, everyone lost their damn minds when the cast for 2019’s The Lion King was announced, and why wouldn’t they? Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, and Beyoncé—that ensemble is singular.
That Lion King remake is coming out in July 2019, only eight or so weeks after the live-action Aladdin remake will be released in May. But reaction to these upcoming films couldn’t be more different. Lion King will be helmed by the Disney-live-action-experienced Jon Favreau, who already directed the super-successful Jungle Book, while Aladdin is guided by Guy Ritchie, a man whose filmography has gotten significantly less interesting with each new movie. I guess you could say that the grimy criminal underworld of movies like Snatch and his latest flop, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, make Ritchie somewhat suited to exploring the world of a particular street rat. But Ritchie seems to keep failing upward (I wonder why!) and nearly every new development since he assumed the role of director has been concerning.
Oh, it was rumored that Ritchie wanted to cast Tom Hardy as the villain? A villain we have known as JAFAR? How rebellious! Oh, Disney spoke publicly about how difficult it was to cast this movie with brown people—seemingly glossing over the fact that countries like India, Egypt, and Iran have their own thriving filmmaking and music industries, and that the expat, immigrant, and diaspora communities for these countries span the globe? How sad! Oh, they did go ahead and cast a new character, a romantic rival played by Billy Magnussen, essentially injecting a major figure who isn’t brown into one of the only Disney movies about brown people? How cutting edge! (Oh, and Magnussen is now second-billed on IMDb, right behind Will Smith, and above leads Mena Massoud as Aladdin, Naomi Scott as Jasmine, and Marwan Kenzari as Jafar.)
And in the latest “Fuck, why?” turn, there’s this Jan. 7 story from The Sunday Times, in which one of the extras from Aladdin, which is currently filming in Longcross, Surrey, about 30 miles from London, shared that Disney is using makeup to change “very fair-skinned actors” into looking “darkly tanned” or “heavily tanned.” According to stand-in Kaushal Odedra, he and other actors witnessed about 20 other members of the production “waiting to have their skin tone changed” but decided against complaining at the time because they reasoned “this is how the industry works, and there’s no point complaining about it since it isn’t going to change. … Also, if I’d wanted to discuss it, speaking to the almost entirely white crew seemed somewhat intimidating.”
In response, Disney issued a statement through a spokesperson:
“Great care was taken to put together one of the largest most diverse casts ever seen on screen. Diversity of our cast and background performers was a requirement and only in a handful of instances when it was a matter of specialty skills, safety and control (special effects rigs, stunt performers and handling of animals) were crew made up to blend in.”
So yes, Disney had admitted that crew members were “made up to blend in,” and there is so much that is depressing about all of this! First, let me say this: It’s not like the 1992 Aladdin is some flawless pillar of filmmaking. It’s a pretty Orientalist telling of a story a French dude may have made up to add to One Thousand and One Nights, and in that text it focuses on a youth in China, not in the Middle East, and the Disney version fetishizes various Middle Eastern and Asian countries and cultures, and it’s not like Agrabah is a real place, and it’s not like the original animated version didn’t have white people voicing characters, with Robin Williams being of course the most notable. (Honestly, one of the only reassuring things about this movie is that Will Smith will be the Genie this time around; it may be the best thing he’ll do onscreen in some years.)
Putting all of those things aside, though, we are living in a very different cultural climate now than in 1992, and I was a brown kid who grew up loving Aladdin because I enjoyed seeing a princess who was strong-willed and headstrong and didn’t want to end up in an arranged marriage, as a “prize to be won” (that part hit particularly close to home). Disney is a company now with nearly 40% of the market share, who is practically printing money because of its Marvel and Star Wars properties, and who has literally every resource at its disposal to make Aladdin as inclusive, respectful, and fun as it can be—and they have claimed, from the beginning, to making this a production that honors diversity.
But how are they using that word? In a piece I wrote about Mr. Robot recently, I noted that creator Sam Esmail has talked about the dangers of flattening diversity into a casting checkbox rather than a genuine curiosity about people’s lives, and I fear that’s what’s happening with Aladdin. Because yes, Disney claims that “More than 400 of the 500 background performers were Indian, Middle Eastern, African, Mediterranean and Asian”—but how did they not understand that darkening the other people was a profoundly terrible move? If the film is presenting this new version of Agrabah as a place similar to the Ottoman Empire or Persian Empire, or located on the Silk Road, just write those “fair-skinned” people in as representatives of different places and different cultures! That would be fine! And certainly less offensive than tanning them!
Let’s also go back to what Odedra said about “the almost entirely white crew” and how he and other actors felt discouraged from bringing up their concerns. Representation matters not only in front of the camera, but behind it, too, which we keep talking about with #OscarsSoWhite and recently with #TimesUp. There was not one person on the Aladdin crew who Odedra and the other cast members felt comfortable engaging in discussion about this? Do better, Ritchie. Do better, Disney.
We still have a year and a half to go until Aladdin hits theaters, and Ritchie so far has refused to comment about this latest casting controversy. Disney has offered that weak-ass statement. Aladdin should be a celebration of us, and sure, that selfie Will Smith posted back in September when filming started was kind of cute. But with each news story, the persistent concerns with Aladdin keep undercutting the hope and delight so many of us onetime brown kids felt when this live-action remake was first announced. I’m already cringing in anticipation of what comes out next.