Iman Sultan | Longreads | November 2019 | 16 minutes (4,062 words)
In Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, released back in May, Princess Jasmine finds herself in the clutches of the palace guards after Jafar has taken over the throne and stripped her father, the rightful Sultan, of his majestic turban. Trapped in a moment of doe-eyed silence and unable to reverse her situation, Jasmine is dragged away in a dreamlike sequence. Then, in a striking departure from the 1992 animated film of the same name, she suddenly breaks out into song.
“Written in stone, every rule, every word,” she sings. “Centuries old and unbending. Stay in your place, better seen and not heard. But now that story is ending…”
In the age of Disney live-action remakes, Aladdin has shattered the box office and proven the commercial viability of the genre. Bringing in a little over a billion dollars in worldwide ticket sales, and with a sequel already under discussion, Aladdin revealed to the public that a diverse cast, strong female leads, and a reformed Disney isn’t just good for the culture. It’s also — if not primarily — good for business.
A dizzying, colorful, and high-budget romp, 21st-century Aladdin tries to do it all: the leads are of Middle Eastern, North African, or South Asian descent. Will Smith plays a genie who yearns for freedom. Naomi Scott reimagines Jasmine as an unbending, dignified princess who claims political agency and saves her kingdom from the impending doom of the evil Jafar.
“I saw her as a young woman, not a teenager, with a mature strength that can cut you down,” the British-Gujarati actress told British Vogue. “So I said to them, ‘Just to let you know, I want to play her strong, and if that’s not what you’re looking for, that’s okay, but it’s not for me.’”
Aladdin is seemingly designed to transcend feminist or antiracist criticism by embodying diversity and “strong” womanhood itself. The filmmakers created a near-identical copy of the animated film with tweaks that, in the words of producer Dan Lin, proved Disney “could create a movie that was both diverse and inclusive” as well as “wildly commercial.” Arabic interjections like yalla are casually heard in the background; the Genie seems to riff his dance moves off of Bollywood choreography; elaborate costumes echo elements from South Asian, Kurdish, and Turkish clothing; and the controversial lyrics of the opening song, “Arabian Nights,” shift from “barbaric” (in the 1992 version) to “chaotic.”
And yet, despite these touches, the essence of the remake remains near-identical: it blends cultures together, distorts the source material, and uses “Arabian Nights” as a song title that sets the atmosphere of a film that ultimately takes place in a fictional world. But the world of Aladdin, the storytelling behind it, and the rich tradition of orally passing down tales across generations in Southwest Asia are not fictional — they’re real.