A new Aladdin movie means a return to Hollywood’s perennial Arab problem, which in this case boils down the awkwardness of setting a family fairytale in a region that has been both vilified and bombed to ruin by the US in recent years. With Aladdin, the answer is to create a whole new world: a fantasy “Arabia” with as few references to Islam as possible or actual Arabs.
That all worked a treat with Disney’s 1992 animated Aladdin, featuring an all-white voice cast and set in the fictional city of Agrabah. Never mind some overt racism – such as the since-removed song lyric “Where they’ll cut off your ear if they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric but hey, it’s home” – it was still a huge hit.
Time - Round - Disney - Aladdin - Guy
This time round, Disney knows it has to be more careful. The new Aladdin, directed by Guy Ritchie, claims to be “one of the most diverse casts ever put on screen”. The lead is played by the Egyptian-Canadian Mena Massoud; Jasmine is played by British actor Naomi Scott, who is of Indian descent; and Will Smith is a blue genie from the Uncanny Valley.
Disney has form in whitewashing Arab characters – remember Jake Gyllenhaal as the “Prince of Persia”? – but it is far from the only culprit. See also: Liam Neeson as Batman’s adversary Ra’s al Ghul, Geoffrey Rush and Gerard Butler as Gods of Egypt, or Christian Bale as Moses. Actually, if we’re talking Middle Eastern ethnicities, see pretty much every biblical movie.
Casting - Settings - Disney - Area - Cartoon
But it is not only the casting, it’s the settings; and Disney has form in this area, too. Like the 1932 cartoon Mickey in Arabia, in which the locals are all “sambo” caricatures: jet-black skin, giant white lips, big eyes. These orientalist lands take a swathe of diverse “eastern”...
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