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Live-Action Aladdin Is Disney's Biggest 2019 Risk

posted on: Feb 17, 2019



Live-Action Aladdin Is Disney's Biggest 2019 Risk

After the trailer premiered to overwhelmingly bad responses, Disney’s upcoming remake of Aladdin remains its riskiest bet of 2019. Live-action remakes have become as defining a part of Disney’s business model as their beloved animated originals and their enviable array of acquisitions. While the 1996 live-action remake of 101 Dalmatians technically kick-started the trend, it didn’t become their greatest cash cow until 2010, when Tim Burton’s reimagining of Alice in Wonderland grossed over $1 billion worldwide. Since then, this model of taking the most iconic animated films from Disney’s decades-long library and remaking them in live-action for a new generation has become a veritable money printing machine. In 2017, the remake of Beauty and the Beast overcame tepid reviews to gross over $1.26 billion worldwide, and is currently the 14th highest grossing film of all-time.

In 2019 alone, Disney will release no fewer than four of these remakes. July will welcome the release of Jon Favreau’s remake of The Lion King, and while arguments are still to be had on if such a film technically qualifies as live-action, it’s a film everyone is predicting will make a lot of money. The Disney Plus streaming service will hopefully launch this year with a new version of Lady and the Tramp, starring Thor: Ragnarok‘s Tessa Thompson. Next month sees the release of Dumbo, with Burton back on remake duties for the company. And then there’s Aladdin.

Directed by Guy Ritchie and co-written by regular Burton collaborator John August, Aladdin seemed like an inevitable choice for a live-action remake. The 1992 original was a major hit, becoming the highest grossing film of that year, and it helped to cement Disney’s revival in the ’90s following a dark period where they contemplated bankruptcy and shutting down their animation wing altogether. While films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beastreaffirmed their status as creative icons, Aladdin gave them a new comedic edge that appealed to all ages, in large part thanks to the now iconic work of the late Robin Williams as the Genie. The music is instantly recognizable, the jokes hold up, and thanks to the still-running Broadway musical, the property is more vibrant and popular than ever. In abstract terms, Aladdin seemed like another sure fire hit in the making.

Unfortunately, the film has been unable to escape the negative buzz and controversy surrounding it. From scandals over extras in brown-face to casting choices to that trailer with blue Will Smith, Aladdin has proven to be Disney’s riskiest venture of 2019.

A new teaser trailer for Aladdin released during the Grammy Awards, and almost immediately the responses were bad. The trailer itself doesn’t reveal much beyond the Cave of Wonders scene and the first look at the Genie, but what fans saw did not inspire much hope. The CGI seemed off, the style oddly cheap looking, and Smith’s brief appearance as the Genie instantly became the stuff of memes. The YouTube clip for the special look trailer, which has over 7.2 million views, has over 94,000 downvotes compared to 59,000 upvotes.

If the purpose of the teaser trailer was to alleviate those early fears created by the first look at the live-action Aladdin characters, it didn’t work. Even in the face of critical cynicism, Disney’s live-action remakes have been able to drum up immense enthusiasm from their extremely loyal fanbase. That should have been easy enough with Aladdin given that it remains a popular property and one with a lot of nostalgic value for a certain demographic. Further trailers could change minds, but for now, Disney is dealing with a steep uphill climb.


Live-Action Aladdin Is Disney's Biggest 2019 Risk

Aladdin was already a controversial film when it premiered 27 years ago. With an all-white writer and director team, many questioned if Disney had the skill and sensitivity to tell a narrative set in the Arab world. Lyrics were removed from the opening song “Arabian Nights” following complaints from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. The lyrics were changed from “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face” in the original release to “Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense” for the home video release. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee also opposed Aladdin‘s whitewashed depictions of its heroic leads, Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, in heavy contrast to the caricature of the villain, Jafar.

A remake of the film would offer Disney a rare opportunity to rectify these problems and give a major, seldom seen chance to tell a vibrant story about Arab and Middle Eastern characters in a blockbuster. In that sense, the live-action remake mold seemed smart. However, similar controversies followed the new Aladdin‘s casting from the get-go. The addition of a new character, played by white actor Billy Magnussen, was seen as an unnecessary attempt to make the story more palatable for white audiences. The choice of non-Arab, non-Middle Eastern and half-white Anglo-Indian actress Naomi Scott for the role of Jasmine sparked further conversations around colorism and the lack of leading non-stereotypical opportunities given to Middle Eastern actresses.

Things got worse when, in January 2018, it was reported that Aladdin extras were being covered in brown make-up to “blend in” with crowd scenes. This act of literal brown-face was widely condemned, and Disney’s response that the act – which stated it was “a requirement and only in a handful of instances when it was a matter of specialty skills, safety and control” – didn’t do much to quash the outcry. That choice blew away a lot of residual goodwill for the movie and the hopes of many Middle Eastern and Asian Disney fans who had hoped the film would be a big step forward for diversity on the big screen.