Review: Mena Massoud is Perfect, But Count on Disney to Make 'Aladdin' More Orientalist Than the Animated Classic Already Was
As a brown kid in the ’90s, Disney’s Aladdin was all I had in terms of mainstream representation. Agrabah was a fictional place, and the characters were mostly voiced by white actors, and that song lyric “It’s barbaric, but it’s home” is not ideal! But the impact of that film is real, thanks to the revelatory nature of Robin Williams’s performance as the Genie and the fieriness of Princess Jasmine’s “I am not a prize to be won!” and the winsome, longing quality of Aladdin’s tone as he speaks to Genie about the supernatural being’s future. Everything in the 1992 version amalgamated into something great, despite the Orientalism at hand. The same cannot be said for Guy Ritchie’s remake.
Oh, elements of this film are well-made, I must admit. Ritchie’s visual style and his recognizable gimmicks are both at play here. His longtime editor James Herbert (who has worked with Ritchie since 2008’s RocknRolla, through the cult hit The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the flop King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) is on hand for those trademark quick cuts, slowed-down and then sped-up scenes, and frozen moments. Chase scenes are very much Ritchie’s thing, and so Aladdin’s (Mena Massoud) parkour abilities are cranked to 11; he flips and tumbles and even turns out to be an excellent break dancer. And although there’s far too much CGI in this film, the way the movie conceptualizes the Magic Carpet as a friendly and loyal sidekick and friend is quite lovely.
So let’s talk plot before we talk, you know, ALL THE ORIENTALISM. For the most part, Ritchie and co-screenwriter John August (who previously worked quite often with Tim Burton, with screenplay credit for Frankenweenie, Dark Shadows, and Corpse Bride, among others) stick quite closely to the animated film. Aladdin (Massoud) is a young orphan well-known in the streets of Agrabah for his quick fingers and monkey best friend, Abu; he bristles at being called a street rat, but he can’t imagine another future than the one he has, trapped by poverty and poor circumstances. Meanwhile, Agrabah’s Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) feels similarly claustrophobic. Kept confined in the palace by her father, the Sultan (Navid Negahban), after her mother’s killing many years before, Jasmine yearns to be free—and to rule the kingdom on her own instead of waiting to be married off.
Aladdin and Jasmine come from different worlds, but their paths intersect on the streets of Agrabah, and later in the palace—diverging again when the kingdom’s Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), who has plotted for years to overthrow the Sultan and take power himself, realizes that Aladdin is the “diamond in the rough” he has been waiting for. So Jafar kidnaps Aladdin, takes him to the mystical Cave of Wonders, and hopes that Aladdin will steal a simple oil lamp inside for him, not knowing that Aladdin will eventually come into possession of the lamp—and the Genie (Will Smith) inside of it—for himself.
What happens next, well, you either know from the ‘92 original, or you can intuit from the trailer: What will Aladdin’s three wishes from the Genie be? Will Aladdin and Jasmine fall in love? What will come of Jafar’s plan? Is this movie really going to make Will Smith be a blue floating CGI creation with that top-knot thing the whole time? The latter I can answer for you—yes! Smith calls that terrible hairstyle his “cherry on top”! I survived all of this for you people!
But what is new here? What is original to Ritchie’s creation is, well, the extra Orientalism I mentioned previously, and I want to contextualize this by referencing an excellent piece at the New York Review of Books by Adam Shatz, “‘Orientalism,’ Then and Now,” in which Shatz discusses the origins of the concept of Orientalism, as discussed by the Palestinian American intellectual Edward Said in his seminal 1978 work, and the current iterations of it, as practiced by President Trump and his administration. What Shatz notes is that the first version of Orientalism as defined by Said, although interested in fetishizing the exotic, was at least also interested in the cultures of the Middle East, of Arabic and Iranian and South Asian and East Asian traditions, of all the iterations that manifested in different nationalities and peoples and ethnic groups. It was a scholarly interest that was based in the notion of, “As white people, we’re still better than these savages,” but an acknowledgment that the savages were still people.
That is the Orientalism of the ‘92 Aladdin, of the film describing its own characters as “barbaric,” of the flattening of Arabic identity that meant creating Agrabah. But how Orientalism has changed, Shatz notes, is that now it’s not academics and scholars and professors making these sometimes-racist generalizations, but politicians, analysts, news personalities with agendas, and they have no curiosity about the Middle East, only the will to dominate. And so the cultures, as they understand them, remain flattened, and yet every person connected to the Middle East also immediately and inherently has the ability to be violent, to be conniving, to be a terrorist. Give them a little bit of power and they’ll want to topple the whole world, shape it in their own image, destroy it. It’s not only Orientalism as a textbook concept but Orientalism as political policy, and that is the version of the ideology on display in Ritchie’s update.
It’s in how Jafar’s motivations have changed: Now he’s a former street rat like Aladdin, a one-time pickpocket and criminal and now expert sorcerer who wants to overthrow the Sultan not just to be in power himself but to wage war with other kingdoms, to overthrow other rulers, to wage war and subjugate others. “I’ll create an empire that history cannot ignore. I can destroy cities. I can destroy kingdoms!” Jafar exclaims, and doesn’t that sound a little bit like the Islamic State to you? And on the flip is the film’s re-imagining of Jasmine, who is now being protected because her mother was murdered (the movie half-heartedly suggests it may have been a political assassination?) and whose identity feels narrowed because of the men in her life, not because of her royal status. Doesn’t that sound a bit to you like how women in the Middle East are portrayed to Westerners, arbitrarily controlled by men because that’s what homogenized brown culture dictates? And the film’s tweaking of Jasmine into being a populist who throws the words “my people” around as she makes her case to be Sultan is very nice, but the movie also makes her interact with normal people only once, and she has no idea how their society works, and so when she makes grand statements like “Will you do what is right and stand with the people of Agrabah?” they fall utterly flat. To think, that Ritchie had the ability to dream up a new version of Aladdin where anything could happen, where anyone could rule, and yet the best he could come up with is … support a monarchy, as long as it’s allegedly benevolent? (Who underwrote this movie, the Saudis?)
Superficially, Ritchie’s Aladdin is a film attempting to be more inclusive in its presentation of Agrabah, but stripped of any cultural or religious context, every production design choice in the film feels like a copy of a copy of a copy. Aladdin lives in what looks like an abandoned muezzin’s tower, from where Muslim calls to prayer would be announced, but Agrabah doesn’t seem to have any sort of religious structure. Terms like “Sultan” and “Vizier” can be traced to the Ottoman Empire, but the movie also uses the term “Shah,” which is Iranian monarchy. The dance scenes and outfits are mostly influenced by Indian designs and Bollywood styles; the military armor looks like leftovers from Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. The first song describes Agrabah as including “every culture and tongue,” but we don’t hear any of them; yes, there are black and Asian extras here, nodding very slightly to how the Silk Road passed through the Middle East, but none of them have speaking roles. And hell, the movie entirely ignores the supernatural rules of the Islamic jinn figure. There’s so much of everything that it mostly means nothing, and so the addition of elements like Jafar’s power-hungry desire for a caliphate and Jasmine’s patriarchal subjugation—concepts that feel more modern in contrast to the movie’s backward-looking establishment of Middle Eastern and South Asian identity—make the film feel even more uneven in its world building.
But, well, it’s colorful, and Massoud is unbelievably charming (between this role and Run This Town, he is one to watch), and I can appreciate that the film’s main cast comprises actors of Egyptian, Indian, Iranian, Tunisian, and Turkish ancestry, and Smith’s rendition of “Friend Like Me” is energetic, and I suppose if you want to hear the Genie spouting anachronisms like “thirsty” and “ghetto chic,” then Ritchie’s Aladdin is for you! What a frustration, though, that in the 27 years from when the animated version of Aladdin was a cultural phenomenon and Disney’s greatest blockbuster hit before The Lion King, until now, when we’re theoretically so much more aware of the differences in Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures and more open to representing them with nuance, that the studio still can’t figure out a way to remove the Orientalism from Aladdin and replace it with authenticity instead.
Image sources (in order of posting): Walt Disney Studios, Walt Disney Studios, Walt Disney Studios, Walt Disney Studios, Walt Disney Studios,
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