'Aladdin' casting spurs controversy


Shirrel Rhoades


By Shirrel Rhoades

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Which genie do you like best — Robin Williams or Will Smith?

Both actors have played Aladdin’s djinn in a bottle. Well, a magic lamp actually.

Both versions are Disney movies, one an animated cartoon, the other live action. The Mouse House does that, take several bites from the same apple, redoing its films as animations, live action, theme park rides, TV series, video games, even touring shows on ice. More bang for the buck.

In this case, Disney has appropriated a middle-eastern folk tale, one of the “One Thousand and One Nights,” (“The Arabian Nights”), a series of stories supposedly told by Scheherazade to postpone her execution by the King.

As proof of this appropriation, the posters plainly state: “Disney Aladdin.” Just like their retelling the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge was rebranded as “Disney’s A Christmas Carol” for theatrical distribution. Sorry about that, Charles Dickens.

In this new live-action Arabian nights story, we have Mena Massoud as the street urchin Aladdin, Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine, and Marwan Kenzari as the conniving Grand Vizier Jafar. And, oh yes, we have Will Smith as the big blue genie in the lamp.

The plot is all about a magical lamp. With flying carpets,

Jafar: “I can make you rich ... rich enough to impress a princess.”

Aladdin: “What do I have to do?”

Jafar: “There’s a cave of wonders. Bring me a lamp.”

And up pops Will Smith with a shaved blue head and a topknot.

Not surprisingly, Aladdin is taken aback by this sudden appearance.

Says the apparition: “You really don’t know who I am? Genie, wishes, lamp, none of that rings a bell?”

This version of “Aladdin” was directed by Guy Ritchie. As one early viewer put it, “Guy Ritchie really does bring this animated classic to life with a spectacular cast with both new and original songs that have so much heart, love and power in them.”

Alan Menken again provides the music, with lyrics by Tim Rice, Howard Ashman, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. You’ll hear “A Whole New World” and “Friend Like Me” along with “One Jump Ahead” and “Speechless,” among others. Smith returns to his musical roots to perform “Prince Ali.”

More than 2,000 actors and actresses auditioned for the roles of Aladdin and Jasmine, but finding a male lead of Middle-Eastern or Indian descent in his 20s who could act and sing proved difficult.

Some purists have complained about the movie’s “whitewashing” … uh, make that blackwashing. “ I hate when this movie is based on Middle-Eastern culture but yet we have a genie who is black. Why wouldn’t it be just a Middle-Eastern cast playing it. Heck, they make ‘Black Panther’ 99 percent black but wouldn’t made ‘Aladdin’ Middle-Eastern?”

Aside from Smith being African-American and Marwan Kenzari an award-winning Dutch actor, the casting of non-Arab actor Naomi Scott (British with an Indian mother) led to additional controversy. And when a new part was created for caucasian actor Billy Magnussen, the outcry was dubbed “the white dude row.”

However, titular star Mena Massoud was born in Egypt. Nasim Pedrad (Jasmine’s handmaiden) was born in Iran, as was Navid Negahban (The Sultan). Numan Acar (head of the palace guards) is Turkish. And Ocean Navarro (Little Acrobat) was born in Saudi Arabia.

“This is the most diverse cast ever assembled for a Disney live action production,” says a Disney spokesperson. “More than 400 of the 500 background performers were Indian, Middle Eastern, African, Mediterranean and Asian.”

Despite this pronouncement, it was reported that brown makeup was applied to the numerous white extras during filming to help them “blend in.”

Disney responded: “Diversity of our cast and background performers was a requirement and only in a handful of instances when it was a matter of specialty skills, safety and control (special effects rigs, stunt performers and handling of animals) were crew made up to blend in.”

Although Aladdin is set in a fictional country called Agrabah, fans generally assume it represents some part of the Middle East. After all, the first English-language book containing the Aladdin story (c. 1706-1721) was titled “The Arabian Nights Entertainment.”

Disney execs should be rubbing on that magic lamp, asking the genie to make this controversy go away.