The fraught cultural politics of Disney’s new Aladdin remake
Disney’s live-action Aladdin, a remake of its 1992 animated film, has finally arrived in theaters, and on one level, it’s something of an achievement.
The production, helmed by Guy Ritchie, had a hefty amount of cultural baggage to overcome, and has been dogged by controversy and skepticism over its premise and execution since before filming even began.
All the backlash isn’t entirely the 2019 film’s fault. Although the original movie was a critically acclaimed masterpiece, it was also dripping in Orientalism and harmful racist depictions of Arab culture.
The new film has, for the most part, managed to shirk much of its inspiration’s exoticism and cultural inaccuracies, but despite Ritchie’s clear efforts to deliver a more respectful version of Aladdin, it may not be enough to satisfy many of its detractors.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a press release earlier this week asking reviewers and critics to acknowledge that the “Aladdin myth is rooted by racism, Orientalism and Islamophobia” and to “address concerns about racial and religious stereotypes perpetuated by the [new] Disney film.”
Most people think that the story of Aladdin comes from the original 1001 Nights tales, which is a collection of traditional Middle Eastern and Asian folklore. But in fact, Aladdin isn’t a traditional folktale; it has a different history, and it’s one that still causing controversy today.
The tale of Aladdin is born from a hodgepodge of cultural influences — each with an Orientalist viewpoint
Aladdin had no known source before French writer Antoine Galland stuck it into his 18th-century translation of 1001 Nights.
Galland claimed to have heard it firsthand from a Syrian storyteller, but claiming your original story came from an exotic faraway source is a common literary device, and it’s likely this Syrian storyteller never existed.
In other words, a French guy with a European colonial view of Asia gave us the original Aladdin.
The story’s exoticism — a xenophobic view of other cultures, or people from those cultures, as being somehow strange, unfathomable, or alien — is entrenched in that framing. A specific flavor of exoticism is Orientalism, an idea famously conceptualized by Edward Said.
Said was a leading figure in early postcolonial research, and in his 1978 book Orientalism, he outlined literary and narrative tropes that US and European writers used (and still use) to portray Asia and the Middle East as bizarre, regressive, and innately opaque and impossible to understand.
The othering of these cultures often takes the form of romanticized depictions of these regions as mysterious or mystic fantasy lands, framed through a colonial perspective.
What’s fascinating about the origins of this tale is that, even though 1001 Nights has been traditionally translated in English as Arabian Nights, the original story was set not in the Arab world, but in China. Early 19th and 20th-century versions of the story clearly show Aladdin as culturally Asian.
The 1992 Aladdin
codified how we think of the story
And the new film had to grapple with that legacy
Perhaps in response to its alleged roots as a Syrian story, the 1992 animated film transplanted the fictional Chinese city of Agrabah to somewhere along the Jordan River.
But Disney also gave the film several architectural and cultural flourishes that seem to hail from India — like basing the Sultan’s Palace on the Taj Mahal.
The 1992 film revels in a lot of Orientalist stereotypes: Its mythos reeks of mystical exoticism, with Agrabah explicitly described as a “city of mystery.”
Jasmine is a princess who longs to escape an oppressive and controlling culture; her ultimate aim is to gain enough independence to marry for love rather than political expediency, which made her strikingly evolved for the time but seems hopelessly limiting now.
Meanwhile, her father, the sultan, is a babbling, easily manipulated man-child. The citizens of Agrabah are frequently depicted as barbarous sword-wielders and sexualized belly dancers.
Worse, the opening song, “Arabian Nights,” originally contained the ridiculously racist line, “They cut off your ear if they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”
Perhaps most crucially, the film renders its heroes, Aladdin and the Genie, as culturally American.
Their wisecracking street-smarts, sheer cunning, and showy braggadocio are all coded as things that set them apart from the residents of Agrabah, and Robin Williams’s famously improvisational jokes as Genie are anachronistically drawn from contemporary American pop culture.
In essence, it’s very easy to unthinkingly read Aladdin and the Genie as two Yankees in a land full of exotic Others.