Aladdin (2019): An Arab-American’s Perspective (Guest Post by Sarah Crickard)

Sarah Crickard is a Catholic wife and mother living among Ohio’s beautiful and infinite cornfields. When she is not working with low-income seniors as a caseworker, she enjoys writing fantasy, sewing, running and posting pictures of her food on Instagram. She is fluent in Arabic and sarcasm. Instagram: @SarahCrickard

Much to my loved one’s annoyance, I have had a very public and long-winded problem with the 1992 Disney movie Aladdin for…ever. So much so that when I finally went to Disneyworld at the tender age of 26 I had to get a picture of myself “fighting” with Jasmine, and my husband truly wondered if I might get us kicked out of the park if and when we ran into that particular princess. It was on the “do not play” list among my middle school and high school friends because they all wanted to avoid having to listen to my analysis of the movie’s many flaws for several hours.

Disney announced their live-action remake of Aladdin, scheduled to come out on my birthday in 2019 (Oh, the irony). I don’t have much time to go to the movies, so I waited for the film to become available for purchase, and bought a digital version to watch at home. And watch it I did…last night. So clearly I have to write up my thoughts right now. I’ll begin with my problems with the original, the 90s version. Once we get those out of the way I can get to raving about how much I loved the remake.

Aladdin is set in the imaginary kingdom of Agrabah. If I had a nickel for every time someone stressed to me that it was an imaginary place, as an excuse for the film’s overall cultural insensitivity…I’d have a lot of nickels. The movie opens with “Arabian Nights“, a musical narration of the setting. The song makes it very clear that this is an Arab country, even if it’s an imaginary Arab country. The song also contains gems like “Where they cut off your ear If they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” In Disney’s defense, when the song was poorly received in 1992, they re-released the song without these lyrics, but my family had already purchased the original on VHS and these are the lyrics I, and many, grew up with. 

The song essentially starts off the movie with two points: It’s hot and sandy here because this is the middle east, and the people are barbarians. This, while we are given aerial shots of a very Taj-Mahal-like palace, and women in saris walking the streets. The rest of the movie continues like this with random references to Islam and Arab culture sprinkled throughout in the hopes that no one will notice that what they’re looking at really looks a lot more like India than the Middle East. If Disney set out to make up a fake culture, they utterly failed. What they did end up doing is poorly representing two distinct and rich cultures by mashing them together and portraying them entirely in stereotypes. The 2019 remake also doesn’t seem to distinguish Arab and Indian culture, but I’ll talk about why it’s okay in the remake in a moment.

The issues continue as we meet our two main characters Aladdin and Jasmine. These were supposed to be the Arab prince and princess I could look up to as examples as a young Arab-American girl growing up in a very white mid-west. 

Aladdin, instead, is kind of stupid. He is smart enough to escape the blundering mooks that serve as guards but is immediately bested the moment he faces a semi-competent nemesis in Jafar. In fact, all his victories seem to happen simply because everyone around him got a little stupider while he was there, or because he has a magical servant who can actually snap his fingers and fix it. Aladdin’s arc is simply one of a man who starts off a liar and thief, and then in the last five minutes of the movie learns to tell the truth. This lesson is learned very quickly and without much in the way of consequences. He basically apologizes for lying once and is given a bride (who comes attached to a future kingship). 

Jasmine is even more of a letdown. She’s introduced as some sort of feminist icon, who wants to be free to choose her own future. Her struggle throughout the movie is that she does not want to marry for political gain, but for love. At first pass, this seems good, but if we really think about it, she only reinforces the problems she is facing. She rebels against the notion that she should marry in order to give her kingdom greater security but instead wants to find someone who gives her butterflies. This culminates in her choosing the man who’s been lying to her for the duration of the movie. So she uses her “freedom” to make, arguably, a very silly choice. The 2019 remake addresses both of these characters’ flaws as well as the cultural setting they are living in. 

Aladdin, when we meet him in the 2019 version, is being chased by guards just like in the original. We’re shown immediately that this new Aladdin is able to outrun the guards, not because they are bumbling idiots, but because he’s smart. When he realizes he is going to be caught, he creates a decoy, and promptly escapes in the other direction, leaving the guards puzzling over where he’d gone. Then, he and Jasmine have a discussion about the fact that Abu, Aladdin’s pet monkey, steals indiscriminately, while Aladdin himself only steals what he needs. Jasmine’s bracelet goes missing and she believes Aladdin has lied, although we can see it was really Abu who took it. Aladdin then sets out to return the bracelet and prove he’s not a liar. This, among other things, is a drastic departure from the 1992 Aladdin who really did just steal and lie because he didn’t seem to know any better. Our 2019 Aladdin steals and lies, but he spends the movie grappling with his own greed, eventually choosing the right thing multiple times in the last half of the movie, even when it gets him into worse situations.

Jasmine, too, is much improved. We’re shown that her desire to marry is balanced by a desire to rule. Isolated in the palace, she’s spent her life studying politics and maps. She wants to marry for love, not so that her loving husband can rule her kingdom, but so that she can rule with someone supportive by her side. We are shown that all the men in her life find her annoying. Then Aladdin steps in and believes that she is capable of making good decisions with or without his help. These two character arcs are worlds better than the 1992 version and give us two real people we can struggle and feel with.

The other improvement is the wider setting of the movie. In the 1992 version, we see silly things in the background like “Hakim’s discount fertilizer” a cart of manure that Aladdin flings a guard into. Aladdin also comically injures a sword swallower, snake charmer, and a man on a bed of nails. The cultural notes in the background all serve for comedic moments, and there’s no concern given to what snake charmers, sword swallowers, spice merchants, camels, etc. mean to the people in this culture. 

I’ve been to an Arab Bazar in Bethlehem and it was the single most dazzling experience of my life. This is captured in the 2019 version of “Arabian Nights” which has been rewritten as a celebration of the mingling of Eastern cultures in trade centers. Lyrics like “Where you wander among every culture and tongue. It’s chaotic, but hey, it’s home” the song tells us that this a fantasy land before going on “As you wind through the streets at the fabled bazaars with the cardamom-cluttered stalls. You can smell every spice while you haggle the price of the silks and the satin shawls. Oh, the music that plays as you move through a maze in the haze of your pure delight. You are caught in a dance, you are lost in the trance of another Arabian night.” 

I began to cry (and my husband will attest it takes a lot to make me cry) when the movie opened on these lyrics. I turned to him and said “This. This is a celebration of my part of the world.” “Arabian Nights” is still the musical orientation of the movie’s setting, but this time we’re told that Agraba is a place where cultures come together and mix. It’s an imaginary kingdom where the best of India, the Middle East, and the East, in general, can come together in a dazzling display of human creativity. The movie continues as a showcase of this as we see traditional and modern dancing, spectacular costumes, and beautiful architecture. None of the cultural notes are played for comedy. This is why the 2019 version is able to get away with mixing together cultures. It is a celebration of the East and not a sloppy mockery of it.

I grew up feeling very out of place. I knew from a young age that “Arab” was a large part of my identity, even though, at first glance, I don’t necessarily look like a person of color. In the 90s and then even more so starting in 2001, Arab was not a very popular thing to be. I was proud of my heritage, and I never wanted to be anything else. The problem was showing others that. I often interacted with people who felt I should be apologetic for what I was or at least try to be a little more discrete. I grew up in the habit of being a translator for my family members. I became used to the looks of disgust when someone would tell me, a perfectly ordinary American child, something and I would turn to my grandmother and repeat it in Arabic, then relay the response. It was clear to me from a young age that my hair and skin were too dark, my language sounded too angry, and that my beautiful culture made people uncomfortable.

1992’s Aladdin being Disney’s “Arab movie” only reinforced that we were the wrong sort of people. I have always known this to be untrue, but there’s something especially painful about seeing that lie in technicolor on the big screen. The 2019 remake has taken that lie and transformed it into a celebration, and I for one, am here and ready to party. 

Now excuse me while I rock out to the song Speechless for the hundredth time today. 


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