When I heard of Disney’s decision to release rebooted versions of old classics, I couldn’t help but hope it would skip its 1992 film “Aladdin” in the new lineup. It may be a favorite to some, but to me it’s always been a rude, racist caricature that I could never identify with as a Middle Eastern girl.
If I could have three wishes from Genie’s magic lamp, the first would be to force Disney to forgo its reboot in favor of a completely new story set in a Middle Eastern fantasy kingdom. Yet, despite all my wishes-upon-stars, Disney has shown no sign of backtracking. If the “Aladdin” remake must be released, then there isn’t much anyone can do but hope for the best.
The original movie is set in the fictional kingdom of Agrabah, which was based off of modern-day Iraq, and borrows heavily from orientalist tropes that have always plagued Middle Easterners. From belly dancers to camels, parachute pants, thieves and over-sexualized women, “Aladdin” is chock-full of racist tropes that have persisted throughout history. Jasmine, the female lead, is subject to her fair share of exotification.
Even the main characters are imbued with uncomfortable origins. Created by a nearly all-white cast and team, both characters were based off of white models and then changed ever so slightly to seem more exotic. Aladdin, the titular lead, was reportedly modeled after Tom Cruise. The original tale of Aladdin and his magic lamp wasn’t even coined in the Middle East, but was instead written by a Frenchman and inserted into his translation of “One Thousand and One Nights.” Out of the hundreds of thousands of rich stories originating from the Middle East, Disney chose one that was written by a white man.
The new cast for the remake is predominantly Middle Eastern and South Asian, which is promising, although the relatively light-skinned actress set to play Jasmine has raised some eyebrows on the grounds of colorism. The introduction of a completely new white character, Prince Anders, doesn’t encourage much faith either.
For “Aladdin” to be saved in my opinion, the movie needs to prove to me that it did its homework on Middle Eastern culture. No more cringe-worthy stereotypes, hook-nosed Jafar, or lyrics discussing the barbarism of the region. There can be no room for orientalist tropes, and certainly a change in the plot that allows Jasmine to be a 16-year-old princess in love, rather than a seductress whose main purpose during the climactic showdown is to distract the enemy with a kiss.
I have no faith in Disney when it comes to delivering a poignant and likeable narrative set in the Middle East. I would love to be pleasantly surprised, though, and you can be sure to find me sitting skeptically in theaters come May of 2019.