How Disney handled the casting and cultural authenticity of live-action Aladdin
In bringing the world of Aladdin to live-action, Disney and director Guy Ritchie had numerous hurdles to tackle — finding the right Genie in Will Smith, finding lead actors to play Aladdin and Jasmine, and building the world of Agrabah.
But Disney and Ritchie also had to weather some reports and issues around casting, production and maintaining the authenticity and representation of a hybrid Middle Eastern-South Asian world.
As part of EW’s first look at Aladdin, due in theaters on May 24, 2019, we break down the studio and the creative team’s approach to creating an authentic new world.
As the start of production loomed, reports emerged online saying the production team were facing difficulties in finding actors of Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds to play the leading cast.
Julie Ann Crommett, Disney’s Vice President of Multicultural Engagement, explained that while the casting process took time — around six months across more than 15 countries — Disney and Ritchie were dedicated to finding the right actors for the film.
Crommett said: “We had such an opportunity here with this film. If you think about the realities of portrayals of Arab people on screen, this is really the first time in a long time that you get such a positive and uplifting portrayal of the community and so it presented such an amazing opportunity to cast a whole cast of people who were from the region or to present a whole cast of people who are diasporically from the region, and I think the casting process reflected that intent, which I think is tremendous. First of all, I think it opened up a lot of doors in terms of hopefully people copying us, future productions wanting to find people, and I think for us, it wasn’t that it was difficult — it was exhaustive and far and wide because we were really trying, I think at a very deep level, to cast this as authentically and as culturally associative as possible.”
After the leads were announced — Egyptian-Canadian actor Mena Massoud to play Aladdin and British actress Naomi Scott to play Jasmine — there was some online backlash against Scott not being Middle Eastern but rather, half South-Asian, half Caucasian.
Crommett explained Scott’s background was crucial to representing a community that also saw themselves reflected in Aladdin, and that in the live-action Aladdin, the fictional Agrabah is very much a hybrid city.
Crommett said: “Given the first animated movie and the origins of the story in terms of the entire history of the text and story of Aladdin, it very much reflects a mixing or association of different cultures in a broad region that you can consider the Middle East slash South Asia and even to China actually by extension, so really the Silk Road. There was a real intention for Agrabah to become the center of the Silk Road and reflect the diversity and movement of what we can loosely construe that time period to have been, which was a golden age as well for the region.
I think you’ll see, not only the principle cast but also in the background, a city that reflects the extended regions. I think what’s interesting about Naomi was that — and we had a deep conversation about it — there are South Asian individuals who associate with Aladdin and with Jasmine as well, and I think there was a sense of we should reflect some part of the community in the principle cast so that we’re actually being inclusive of who sees themselves and identifies with this text…What we’ve done intentionally with Naomi’s character as part of the plot is that her mother is actually from a different land, and it’s very clear in the movie that her mother is from a different land that’s not Agrabah and that’s drawing on a lot of her motivations in terms of how she sees the future of Agrabah as a welcoming place that embraces people from other places because her mother was from somewhere else.
And we felt that was really important for so many reasons to speak to the idea of trade, intersectionality, intersectional identity, as part of the broader Arab experience and South Asian experience by extension … that opens up a really beautiful conversation and I think nods to all the different audiences who possibly saw themselves in the original animated film.”
With closer scrutiny nowadays on the filmmakers telling stories of people and cultures of color and Guy Ritchie and his main creative team not being of Middle Eastern or South Asian backgrounds, Disney brought on culture advisors to help craft the story of Aladdin.
Crommett said: “What we were able to do, which is a practice we’ve done on many movies such as Moana and Coco as well as now with Aladdin and on several upcoming projects, is that moving forward, you will see a shift in that in many different directions that you’re already probably seeing. I think, no matter who is in front of or behind the camera, there is huge value to engage communities often and early in the creative process to be able to see multiple view points, and also for no one person to carry the burden of representing their entire community, which I feel really strongly about. I think what was wonderful is, to Guy’s credit and the creative team’s credit, they were incredibly open and excited to have perspectives at the table from different parts of the extended communities reflected in this film.
I think that shows in a lot of the creative decisions in the movie, moving away from stereotype and really celebrating the culture in quite a positive way and really depicting it in a way that feels more nuanced and more authentic. I think the openness of that team to know what they don’t know and to have a really deep conversation with our consultants the whole way through, I think has actually proved a model that’s really interesting in terms of really getting at that authenticity and really actually involving the audience to some extent — our consultants are consumers — in our process. That, I think, feels really good and feels like a learning and a practice that we want to continue to share because I think there’s value in it, no matter who is in front of or behind the camera.”
While the 1992 animated Aladdin is a beloved Disney classic, it did include cultural inaccuracies and insensitivities, such as depicting the street-market sellers of Agrabah as greedy and grotesque or describing Arabia (in song lyrics) as a place “where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face” (the song “Arabian Nights” was edited in later releases to remove this line). Disney and Ritchie said the live-action film has been updated for a present day world, with help from the cultural advisors on board.
Crommett said: “There are quite specific changes in this movie that address specific stereotypes that were in the first movie. Iconography that’s in the first movie like swords, a removal of sword iconography that somehow that goes immediately to violence. There is a move away from what feels like stereotypes in terms of portrayals and characterizations very deeply — Jasmine’s character arc is one that is very empowered and not based around the idea of marriage…There is a quite deep understanding of nuance of background in shade and color in terms of representation of the region. We really went through the animated version, all the feedback that happened then, and we looked at this new text and we did a fine tooth and comb and had deep conversations and you will note the changes, they are definitely obvious and that includes lyric changes as well, additional ones than even were done in 1992.”
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