As you may well have heard, Disney unveiled the cast for its live action Aladdin movie this summer. The decisions earned mixed reviews. The decision to cast Will Smith as the Genie is perhaps the strangest, though it’s understandable that this role, if any, should go to a recognizable face. It’ll take a lot for any actor to live up to the persona established by Disney’s animation teams and the voice acting incomparable Robin Williams. But Smith may be up to the task. Meanwhile, people seem intrigued by the Egyptian-Canadian actor Mena Massoud, who will play the title role. The controversy is largely surrounding Jasmine.
The role of Jasmine has gone to Naomi Scott, an up-and-coming actress of British and Indian descent. And Disney is being criticized for failing to cast an Arab actress in the role, particularly when it did cast an Arab male lead. Insofar as these decisions imply Disney is equivocating Arabs and Indians, this criticism is perfectly fair. But if people are taking issue because they believe Aladdin is a wholly Arab tale, there may be more to it.
On the one hand, much of what we associate with Aladdin, from the design of the flying carpet to the style of the magic lamp, is loosely derided from ancient Arab culture. There’s an online slot game called “Genie’s Touch” that puts it well, actually. The game’s description reads that a captivating Arabian soundtrack makes you feel as if you’re somewhere in the Middle East, and that’s what Aladdin and similar fictions do. They make you feel like you’re getting a fictionalized glimpse of ancient Arab lands. In this sense, it would perhaps have been more appropriate for Arab actors to be cast.
On the other hand, there’s very little evidence to suggest that Aladdin was ever explicitly set in a land based solely on Arabia. Certainly there are influences from this culture. But the original story that Aladdin was based on was actually set in China. That’s not to suggest this live action remake should have been set in the Far East, because at this point that would make it a vastly different project than the story people have come to know and love. But it does indicate that the Arabia vs. India vs. Pure Fiction debate might be missing the point to some degree. Agrabah, where the animated movie was set, was a fictional construct spinning off of a tale set in China.
There is also some argument in favor of Indian influence, actually, and by extension in favor of Scott’s casting. An entertaining list of real world locations that inspired Disney films reveals that it was in fact the Taj Mahal that inspired the design for the Sultan’s palace in Aladdin. Not for nothing, the Taj Mahal is located in the town of Agra, which clearly bears a strong similarity to the fictional name “Agrabah.” In fact, some have suggested that Baghdad also influenced the setting of Aladdin. It may be that “Agrabah” is meant to combine Agra and Baghdad.
Ultimately, this controversy isn’t about getting to the bottom of the factual influence behind a fictional tale. The truth of the matter is that Arab actresses are badly underrepresented in Hollywood, and it would have been nice to see Disney try harder to cast such an actress in the role. That’s a perfectly fair and logical point. To suggest that Ms. Scott’s background makes her somehow inaccurate, however, isn’t exactly right either.