It’s a much more high-stakes piece of marketing than you might expect.
Until now, the teaser trailers for Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin, out May 24, have been greeted by audiences with a lot of wincing and a side of curiosity. The first teaser, which debuted in October, contained a lot of pomp but very few glimpses of the verisimilitude (and copious CGI magic) we’ve come to expect from Disney’s live-action spectacles so far (see: Beauty and the Beast and The Jungle Book). It mainly showed off a lot of sand and rock.
The second teaser was better, in that it offered a slightly better idea of what to expect from the remake. But it also gave rise to bafflement and skepticism when Will Smith’s genie turned out to look like little more than Will Smith in blue body paint. It also didn’t help that photos from director Guy Ritchie’s set made live-action Aladdin look like a strangely low-budget experiment — a long way from the dazzling, colorful mythical city of Agrabah that Aladdin fans remember from the 1992 animated classic.
But now, finally, Disney’s first full-length trailer for the film has given audiences a proper look at Aladdin’s world, and it’s starting to resemble the fun, snappy tale of adventure that fans know and love. The genie, especially, seems to have more punch, pizazz, yahoo, and how! — while Mena Massoud’s Aladdin gets to show off some of his wry street-rat wiles.
And crucially, the remake is starting to feel like less of a mess than it’s seemed to be so far. That’s saying a lot, given how many hurdles this particular project has to overcome.
Granted, it’s still just a trailer, so it only works so well as a barometer for the film as a whole. But it suggests that the movie is trying to mitigate Aladdin’s weighty cultural baggage. And that’s an important step.
The full Aladdin trailer is a more high-stakes piece of marketing than you might expect
For a whole lot of reasons, Aladdin’s first full trailer has a whole lot more riding on it than just the need to show off the film’s visual effects. The production has been mired in controversy since well before the cameras started rolling.
For one thing, the tale of Aladdin itself is born from a hodgepodge of cultural influences characterized by a European colonial view of Asia. Aladdin had no known source before French writer Antoine Galland stuck it into his 18th-century translation of 1001 Nights, claiming to have heard it firsthand from a Syrian storyteller who may or may not have existed. The original “Aladdin” story was set not in the Arabic world, but in China, and was gradually transformed into a Middle Eastern tale by European and American storytellers — especially in Hollywood.
No Hollywood production did more to create this change than Disney’s 1992 animated Aladdin. Perhaps in response to its alleged roots as a Syrian story, the animated film transplanted the fictional city of Agrabah from China to somewhere along the Jordan River. But Disney also gave the film several architectural and cultural flourishes that seem to hail from Hinduism and India — like basing the Sultan’s Palace on the Taj Mahal.
The 1992 film trades in a lot of Orientalist stereotypes: Its mythos reeks of mystical exoticism, with Agrabah explicitly described as a “city of mystery.” A song lyric characterizing the locals as violent was notably changed but still describes the land as “barbaric.” Its heroine longs to escape an oppressive and controlling culture and family. And it humanizes its heroes by essentially Westernizing them in a land full of exotic Others.
Then there’s the tense sociocultural context in which this new live-action film is appearing. At any other time, Aladdin might be little more than a dose of multiculturalism, but it has emerged at a moment when global politics are deeply fraught, progressives have fought hard for ethnically diverse and authentic cinema, and extremists have demonized and attacked the very idea of multicultural representation. All of these factors — plus the fact that Disney is a global powerhouse whose films can shape cultural perceptions for generations — make Aladdin potentially one of the most important films of 2019.
So the remake has carried a lot of baggage and faced enormous expectations to grapple with right from the start. And the choice of Ritchie as director — great when it comes to snappy street action but less so when it comes to nuanced portrayals of race — didn’t exactly inspire a ton of confidence.
Then came one casting controversy after another. An early report that Ritchie and Disney Studios were having trouble casting the lead role, in part because of alleged difficulties finding Arabic and Asian actors who could sing, drew outrage from fans. Then the production was criticized for casting British actress Naomi Scott, who has ethnic ties to India’s Gujarat state, as Jasmine, instead of a Middle Eastern or Arabic actress. And then news that the film had added a new white male character to the cast, played by Into the Woods’ Billy Magnussen, raised more eyebrows.
To top it all off, reports that Disney had been “browning up” some actors on set sparked flabbergasted reactions and drew a swift response from Disney noting that “great care was taken to put together one of the largest most diverse casts ever seen on screen” and that “diversity of our cast and background performers was a requirement and only in a handful of instances when it was a matter of specialty skills, safety and control (special effects rigs, stunt performers and handling of animals) were crew made up to blend in.”
After drawing ire from fans for nearly two years at this point, Aladdin’s first full trailer needed to prove that Disney is doing more than making empty promises: It needed to demonstrate that great care has indeed been taken by the production to not further exoticize the story’s characters and setting; that the film isn’t full of brownface; that Agrabah’s bazaar will look and feel like a Middle-Eastern bazaar without turning its merchants and their customers into mere props for a farcical overturned street-cart romp.
For the most part, the trailer seems to deliver. It doesn’t provide a significant glimpse at any of Aladdin’s supposedly browned-up extras, focusing instead on the Genie, Aladdin, Jasmine, and Hot Jafar (that’s totally his official name now, after the social media response to the animated character’s unexpectedly handsome live-action counterpart). But the 1992 film’s offensive character stereotypes appear to be downplayed: Jafar seems less like a lecherous caricature, Jasmine slightly less like a prisoner.
Again, it’s just a trailer; we can’t know for sure what the movie will do until we get to see the whole thing. But it does hint that there may be some ways in which the act of transforming Aladdin into a live-action story is beneficial, infusing the story with a little more complexity than the original could.
The trailer points toward a few ways that the live-action remake could succeed
One unexpected benefit of transforming Aladdin into a live-action story is that it seems more real and thus more modern. When the overall tone is more modernized, Aladdin and the Genie don’t stand out as much as wisecracking exceptions in a land full of unfriendly citizens. That will be a key element for the remake to iron out and a deciding factor in its success.
Thankfully, it seems like the new film might be on its way there. For instance, though the casting of both Aladdin and Jasmine was somewhat criticized, there’s a huge benefit to seeing people of color playing these characters, let alone acting out a love story that Disney fans have adored for decades.
Another unavoidable aspect of this story is that most of the 1992 film’s magical elements are about exoticized foreign loot: the magic carpet, the cave of wonders, the genie’s lamp, the genie himself. The trailer shows that each of these elements will be present in the new film, and when it finally hits theaters, there will likely be an interesting reckoning with the role of colonialism in shaping our modern love of Aladdin, the artful plunderer.
But the trailer also showcases some magical elements that aren’t inherently stereotyped: Will Smith riding a flock of ostriches, Jafar’s sidekick parrot Iago transforming into a giant terrifying bird of prey, a trumpet-playing Abu, and of course, all the built-in improv-style magic tricks that come with the Genie himself.
It’s difficult to say whether all of this will ultimately improve on the original film, or make up for the misgivings many people have about the remake. But so far, fan reaction to the latest trailer seems positive, with lots of praise for the remake’s apparent faithfulness to the (non-offensive) parts of the animated original, begrudging mind-changing about Will Smith’s casting as the genie, and tentative excitement that the remake will feel like an entertaining, worthwhile exercise when all is said and done. As well as, of course, more appreciation of Hot Jafar.
Still, Aladdin has a lot riding on its magic carpet. We’ll have to wait and see whether the film will ultimately wind up repeating its predecessor’s tired storytelling stereotypes, or manage to move one jump ahead.