I remember having mixed feelings about Aladdin’s live-action reboot when Disney announced it back in the day.
Sure, most Disney fans were very excited; I just didn’t know what to expect. Would I just end up spending a sum of money in this crippling economy to have my Aladdin experience tainted?
Or maybe, just maybe, I would actually get to watch a re-imagined tale that is more representative of changing times.
As production houses become more sensitive to ideas related to representation, gender and race, I hoped Disney had also done some self-reflection.
Had they sensitised their camera lens to the racial and gender prejudices that they have intentionally or unintentionally perpetuated? To some extent, it did.
We all imagined that Will Smith will be the biggest change in the feature but the reboot of Aladdin was promising because Jasmine was reimagined as a powerful female lead and some other changes were made that warmed my heart as a Disney fanatic since childhood.
Aladdin led the film but Princess Jasmine got her chance to shine
We all knew that Aladdin’s main plot would be the same rags to riches story where Aladdin, a petty thief who steals to eat along with his monkey, Abu ends up with Genie’s lamp and the subsequent three wishes that he could choose from.
He ends up marrying Jasmine without the wishes being relevant in the end though. However, the way the plot progresses has been tweaked by Disney.
While the 1992 feature was based around Aladdin as the lead with Jasmine’s portrayal being limited to being Aladdin’s love interest, the reboot involved Jasmine having her own arc where she has ambitions to become the sultan rather than just finding a suitable match for her marriage.
Her perspective on their (Aladdin and Jasmine’s) love story is also explored which was neglected previously and was limited to either the moments they shared onscreen or Aladdin’s perspective on how to become a suitable match for the love of his life.
The reboot actually zooms in the camera on Jasmine’s point of view and we get to hear what’s going on in her head especially in scenes where she is interacting with Dalia, her handmaiden and confidante.
Jasmine was also never given enough screen time so Disney fans wanted more of her strong character; the filmmaker never explored her character to its fullest depth in the animated feature. This changes in the reboot as we’re introduced to a Princess Jasmine with a real personality.
Apart from having her character’s trajectory distinct and separate from the male lead, Jasmine also gets her own song finally. Yes, ‘Speechless’ really did leave me speechless! The song served as an ode against the patriarchal nature of the political order in Agrabah which has her restricted and bound and how she will have none of that.
Aladdin is definitely secondary here because Jasmine pursued her will to become Sultan rather than having her sultan father change the marriage law to marry Aladdin. And I for one was more than happy with that.
There’s more to Jasmine than just her love for Aladdin
We loved Princess Jasmine when she made her way to the Disney roster back in 1992. She was no damsel in distress waiting for her Prince Charming. We loved her for her resilience and her ability to express herself so unabashedly. Let’s not forget her best dialogue: “I am not a prize to be won!”
But that’s as far as Disney could go when it came to deviating from their conventional portrayal of female agency because in the end, ’92’s Jasmine’s main conflict was being unable to marry whomever she wants to. While being able to pursue your romantic interest is something that women should be able to do, there is so much more about strong-headed female individuals that Disney failed to get right.
Ironically, Jasmines love for Aladdin in the original led her down the path of being the damsel in distress more than her previous situation. Hmmm…
Disney learned its lesson as Naomi Scott’s Jasmine is more of a strong-headed female character allowing Disney’s non-male audience members to relate to their princess more.
Jasmine is portrayed to be politically ambitious where she moves far beyond just aiming to change the royal marriage law as she hopes to be Sultan one day. She expresses this impossible desire unabashedly numerous times in the movie especially in her interactions with her father, the Sultan.
Interestingly, not only are her political aspirations a central feature of the plot, the motivations behind her dreams and ambitions are also carefully examined.
She is shown to be an empathetic political ruler who cares about the suffering, and conditions of her subjects in Agrabah, and hopes to improve their socio-political conditions by becoming the Sultan one day. Even when Jafar becomes immensely powerful in the aftermath of getting his hands onto Genie’s lamp which serves as a gateway to his wish to become Sultan, Jasmine is still shown to be legitimately worried about her subjects under Jafar’s evil regime rather than worrying about how she will be able to pursue her love for Aladdin.
While this clearly seems like an inaccurate depiction of how monarchies work, it still portrays women in a more realistic manner than the 1992 feature.
Jasmine gets backup as new standalone female characters add another dimension to the reboot
Apart from the contrast in the depiction of Jasmine in both the movies, I also noticed more lively female presences in this one.
Dalia is another strong female character that we come across in the new feature film. Dalia’s presence is alluring, refreshing and memorable as she confidently flirts with Genie (played by Will Smith) on screen.
Dalia serves the purpose of letting us understand Jasmine more through their conversations. We were able to explore her motivations and goals and along the way we enjoyed a supportive friendship, something we also haven’t seen much of from Disney princesses – they usually lack female companions.
We also see the presence of Jasmine’s deceased mother resurrected in Sultan and Jasmine’s memory. The deceased queen is remembered to be an impactful, empathetic and strong-willed political leader and can we just say kudos to Disney for imagining female characters outside the breadth of romance; they made sure that they actually reimagined the tale of Aladdin keeping in mind changing time and needs.
Disney did their homework
Did you know that the original Aladdin’s design was based off Tom Cruise? Just remember the smile and you’ll know it to be true! Is that the recipe to an animated ethnic heartthrob? I don’t think so Disney.
Perhaps that’s why it took so long for Guy Ritchie to find the right Aladdin for his reboot, they couldn’t find an Arab actor who looks like a white actor. Good thing Disney did get Egyptian actor Mena Massoud for the role.
That’s one thing I really appreciated in Disney’s reboot of Aladdin apart from the representation of female characters. They cut down on casual racist commentary and propagation of harmful stereotypes that the 1992 animated feature failed to shy away from.
Case in point: The infamous line from the original animated feature song, Arabian Nights, “where they cut off your hand if they don’t like your face, it’s barbaric but hey, it’s home” was omitted and replaced with “it’s chaotic, but hey it’s home”.
Owing to the efforts of American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (AAADC), Walt Disney Company came under a lot of pressure for only depicting evil characters as more Arabic by giving them exaggerated physical features such as an overly long nose, and unrealistically thick lips compared to the protagonists who looked like white teenagers except for the fact that their skin was warmer (obviously).
The AAADC argued that such unrealistic representation tends to perpetuate a very negative stereotype against people of Arab descent in the United States. But Disney fixed this as they kind of ended up making Jafar prettier than most characters onscreen.
I’m glad that Disney has started to be responsible with its content because their audience mostly consists of impressionable children who were heavily socialised into casual racism. I’m looking at you, Peter Pan and Aristocats!
I appreciate the efforts made in Maleficent to show that true love comes in all forms or the announcement about the upcoming Mulan reboot being more respectful to Chinese culture.
Even then, we saw many different ethnicities being lumped in for the Aladdin reboot as inhabitants of Agrabah as Indian actors were cast as Arabic characters. Clearly, there’s a long way to go in terms of their representation of Arabic culture because it still seems more like a quagmire of Indian, Egyptian AND Arabic culture.
We’d love Disney more if they were able to tell us, and our material cultural traits apart. From the looks of it, we’re just glad they finally started on this path.