Disney has been busy making live-action versions of beloved animated classics, and perhaps none has been as closely watched — and criticized — as “Aladdin.”
The latest blowback started after the Hollywood Reporter reported Tuesday that Billy Magnussen is joining the cast to play a new character that wasn’t in the 1992 animated version.
Much of the scrutiny over how Disney would handle remaking “Aladdin” has centered around casting choices, fueled by increased attention on whitewashing in Hollywood and the representation of racial minorities and women on screen. First came reports that director Guy Ritchie was hoping to snag Tom Hardy to play Jafar. Stories emerged that Ritchie and the studio were having trouble finding leads of Middle Eastern or Indian descent during a worldwide casting search — sparking skepticism among fans and critics who took such claims as preemptive excuse-making for casting white actors.
Disney avoided the likely firestorm when it cast Mena Massoud for the title role. The Egyptian-born Canadian actor, a relative newcomer, is joined by Marwan Kenzari as Jafar and Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine. The biggest star, Will Smith, will play Genie.
Filmmakers previously added another new character to their live-action remake — Mara, a handmaiden and friend to Jasmine — but that didn’t draw much negative attention, probably because the original “Aladdin” only had one notable female character, so adding another would help lessen that disparity. Plus, Mara is played by “Saturday Night Live” alum Nasim Pedrad, an Iranian-American actress.
But the news of Magnussen’s addition was met by critics on social media and some sites, who viewed the move as Disney going out of its way to find a way to add a white actor to the cast.
Details about Magnussen’s role are slim, including how big or small it is. But the outcry comes a week after Ed Skrein relinquished his role in the “Hellboy” reboot following a whitewashing controversy. Skrein said in a statement that he wasn’t aware of his character’s Asian heritage.
“It is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people, and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the Arts,” the white British actor posted on social media. “I feel it is important to honor and respect that.”
The original “Aladdin” was loosely based on a story in “One Thousand and One Nights,” a collection of medieval Middle Eastern folk tales. “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” wasn’t in the original Arabic-language versions, but later added by a European translator who related the tale he had heard from a young Syrian.
There’s some debate as to the ethnic origin of the characters and the setting in the source material of the Aladdin story (the names and identities of the characters seem to indicate they were Muslim and from the Middle East, while the story mentions a city in China).
But the animated Disney version used brown characters and a backdrop resembling the Middle East. White actors voiced most of the characters. The final product was criticized for using ethnic stereotypes. Disney even changed lyrics to its opening song after protests from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Remaking “Aladdin” presents an opportunity for Disney to atone for those past mistakes. And the company has shown it’s capable of doing so: It received praise for how it made “Moana,” from casting Pacific Islander leads to consulting with an Oceanic Trust of scholars to get the story culturally right. The result was a critical and commercial success that was lauded as an example of how to tell excellent, diverse stories. It’s far too early to tell whether the same will be true of “Aladdin,” but Disney can be assured that the public is paying attention either way.