Since announcing a live action remake of the classic – and fan favourite – Aladdin, Disney has struggled to cast it’s lead characters, especially the film’s titular hero. Following the recent announcement that Mena Massoud will play Aladdin, Naomi Scott as Jasmine, and Will Smith as the Genie, entertainment writer Gurnesha Bola examines Disney’s relationship with representation and why exactly it took the studio so long to make the choice.
Live-action Disney remakes are coming thick and fast. Cinderella and Beauty & the Beast set a successful precedent and so it was inevitable that more were to follow; The Little Mermaid, Mulan, and The Lion King are all currently in the works. However, ever since first announcing an Aladdin remake back in October 2016, the film has been far from a ‘happily ever after’ for Disney, the film’s director Guy Ritchie and producer Dan Lin. Now, after 9 months of searching for the film’s iconic hero, we finally have our next Disney star: Egyptian-Canadian Mena Massoud. British-Indian actress Naomi Scott will play Princess Jasmine.
The Hollywood Reporter first broke the news that the upcoming remake was struggling to cast its leads. Set in the fictional Agrabah, the original film is populated with Middle Eastern characters. In March an open casting call was released for Middle Eastern actors, aged 18-25, acting and singing necessary, dancing a bonus. Since the process began an estimated 2,000 actors have been auditioned. So, with such a rich array of choice, why has it taken Disney so long to cast its lead?
On the face of things it seems the problem is finding a triple threat. In actuality however it appears that the problem is likely to stem from the film industry’s problematic (to say the least) relationship with diversity. After auditioning more than 2,000 actors from across the globe they still couldn’t find the right fit? After holding auditions across Asia, where actors are usually required to be triple threats because of the tradition of including music and dance in major productions (looking at you Bollywood), they couldn’t find anyone suitable?
The dialogue around representation in film is at an all-time high, but Middle Eastern actors, like Asian actors, seem to have been given a back seat. According to a study of the top 100 films of 2015, 49 had no Asian characters, and 0 leading roles went to Asian actors. The problem is not exclusive to film. According to a study by The University of California, only 3-4% of roles in scripted and cable shows went to Asian actors in the 2014–15 season. Recently, key members of the Hawaii Five-O cast quit the show in protest of being paid significantly less than their white male counterparts. And do we really need to bring up The Ghost in the Shell? It seems the debate is still as pertinent as ever.
The Disney studio has always been focused on finding a younger, unknown talent. Perhaps their problem with casting Aladdin was due to the risk of the unknown. Many of the countries which have hosted auditions have successful film industries bursting with diverse acting talent – but these actors will be newcomers to western cinema or newcomers altogether, and this is a big budget (big deal for Disney) film. A familiar face would have been a safe bet, but fan backlash has taught us again and again that what audiences really want is the right actor for the part – we’ve gone way past the ‘ethnic minorities aren’t marketable’ myth. Aladdin, the street smart, charming, leading man, is a fantastic opportunity for Disney to invest in an emerging actor; thankfully they have, eventually, delivered.
Of course Disney has also been under the pressure to get it right. Aladdin is one of only a few mainstream animated films that was set in the east, in a foreign culture. This is a film which resonated with many children on a personal level – finally characters who kind of looked like them. The world was always going to scrutinise the casting choices.
With shooting imminent (originally planned for the beginning of July 2017, now pushed back to August because of the continuing casting search) it will be a quick turn around for Massoud. Here’s to hoping that Disney continue to think carefully about the rest of the cast and film, and that this is a lesson for the entire film industry: representation matters.
Words: Gurnesha Bola