The upcoming live-action remake of Aladdin has proven to be one of Disney’s most divisive and potentially risky projects. Much has been written on Disney’s current state of affairs, from its growing power in Hollywood following the acquisition of Fox, to the might of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Much of what fills up the headlines about the studio these days comes from acquired properties like Marvel and Star Wars, but Disney's own brand remains strong thanks to the past decade of so of live-action remakes of their most iconic animated movies.
2019 alone sees the release of three of these live-action remakes: Dumbo, directed by Tim Burton, the upcoming hyper-realistic CGI take on The Lion King, and Aladdin, which opens in theaters this week. Out of these three, it’s Aladdin that has shown itself to be the most controversial remake on the slate, and indeed one of Disney’s bigger risks in 2019.
As of the writing of this post, Aladdin is projected to make somewhere between $70 - 90 million on its opening weekend, according to Deadline. However, it still has a major hill to climb to become a true success, one that is arguably far steeper than its fellow 2019 live-action remakes. Here's why Aladdin's path to release has been so rough.
All Disney Live-Action Remakes Are Controversial
The live-action remake of a beloved animated title has become a surprise financial boon for Disney. While the practice wasn’t new for the studio – technically, the trend was pioneered in 1996 with 101 Dalmatians – it became Disney's go-to business strategy in 2010 following the unexpected success of Tim Burton’s re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland. Despite tepid reviews, that film went on to make over $1 billion and was the second highest grossing movie of the year.
It didn't take long for Disney to commit to this model in a major way, from Maleficent, which retold Sleeping Beauty from the villain's point of view, to Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Christopher Robin, and Dumbo. Of the ten films that fall under the categorization of a Disney live-action remake - starting with 101 Dalmatians and ending with Dumbo - the worldwide grosses have totaled over $5.4 billion. To put that in perspective, that’s more money than the Fast and Furious franchise has made. This trend is in no danger of stopping either: The studio’s long-awaited streaming service, Disney+, will launch with a remake of Lady and the Tramp; the photo-realistic remake of The Lion King looks set to be a major box office hit, and remakes of Mulan, Lilo and Stitch, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Little Mermaid are all planned.
What remains curious about these live-action remakes is that. while they are proven money makers, they are seldom critical darlings and have proven fatigue-inducing for even the most ardent Disney fans. The first signs of trouble on the horizon came with this year’s Dumbo. Helmed by Tim Burton and with an estimated budget of $170 million, the film has barely managed to gross $111 million domestically over the course of eight weeks. While the total gross equals around $344 million according to Box Office Mojo, that's nowhere near what Disney was expecting this film to make, and it will certainly be written off as a costly disappointment. That made some wonder if the live-action remake trend was dying, which doesn’t bode well for Aladdin.
The problems with this formula stretch well beyond its box office potential. The highly specific model that Disney follows for these remakes force them into extremely restrictive molds that prove tricky for the filmmakers in charge. These movies act more as brand-strengthening projects than independent projects, hence their often direct copying of scenes, dialogue, and aesthetic from the original property. That can make for an immensely unsatisfying film, as seen with 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, which was so identical to the original in most ways that watching it felt like an exercise in redundancy. Not all of these remakes have been bad – The Jungle Book was a gorgeous re-imagining that added enough new dynamics to a familiar story to justify its own existence – but they have to toe an extremely fine line that often leaves everyone feeling unsatisfied. Fans want what they’re familiar with and what will appeal to their nostalgia, but there’s also a growing fatigue with remakes. How do you make something that will satisfy Disney, fans, and critics alike?
Aladdin has a steeper hill to climb than many of these remakes due to the historical and cultural stereotypes it must deal with. The original film was a Middle Eastern story told by white guys, but so is the remake, and while it was controversial even in 1991, the conversation around representation and inclusivity has greatly evolved since then. Clearly, this is a property that is of great value to Disney (on top of the film, there is a successful Broadway musical adaptation currently running), so there is an incentive to get this right. However, the basic live-action formula – stick to the source material as closely as possible – impedes that process. It’s an impossible bind, although it’s also one Disney have made much harder for themselves.
Guy Ritchie Was A Strange Choice For Director
There are certain things you can trust director Guy Ritchie to do. If you need a story of sardonic Cockney gangsters and their rough and ready world of criminality, Ritchie is your man. If you need a sleek, hyper-stylized action film that blends retro aesthetic with a frenetic pace, he’s an excellent director to have on call. However, when you need a reliable studio hand to follow the rules and make a vibrant family musical, he’s probably not the name at the top of your list.
Ritchie’s hiring for Aladdin was always a baffling choice for Disney. The directors hired for prior live-action remakes have typically been those sturdy leaders who work well within a studio context and aren’t likely to “auteur it up” across a valuable intellectual property. Even Tim Burton, whose style is so distinctive, didn’t get to dramatically change the material he worked with when he worked on Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo. These are Disney movies first, and directorial exercises second. That’s not a great sign for Guy Ritchie, who works best when he’s allowed to make distinctly Guy Ritchie-esque movies. His last movie, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, was a disappointment in large part because it was torn between being A Guy Ritchie Movie and a more conventional Hollywood franchise origin story.
Given that Disney has the power to hire basically any director they want for films like this, it seems curious that they’d pick someone whose style is utterly at odds with the source material, as opposed to the pretty safe decision to give Dumbo over to Tim Burton. Ritchie has as many box office failures as he does successes, which would usually be discouraging for a major studio that plays it very safe. It’s also tough to ignore how much of an opportunity a film like this would have been for an Asian or Middle Eastern director, rather than another team of white guys, especially given how problematic the material remains after close to three decades.
White Extras Were Put in Brown Make-Up to “Blend In”
Concerns about an insensitive approach to the material were only exacerbated when news broke about how white extras on the film were put in brown make-up to “blend in” to crowd scenes. This is sadly nothing new for Hollywood – indeed, blackface is as old as the medium itself – but to do so for a 2019 release with this major a release is flat out ridiculous. Disney's official response to the issue did little to quell the justified anger:
"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."
Given how rare it remains to see a majority Asian and Middle Eastern cast in a mainstream Hollywood blockbuster, this wasn’t an excuse audiences were willing to swallow. After all, the biggest film industry on the planet is in India and there are most certainly plenty of qualified people of color who could fill those roles without having to be darkened to fit another race. Disney has long faced questions about its attitudes towards diversity and racial sensitivity, and this did not help matters.
Everything About Will Smith's Genie
Perhaps the element of Aladdin that has inspired the most cynicism from fans has been the casting of Will Smith in the role of the Genie. On paper, Smith is actually a solid choice for the part, which was voiced to iconic effect in the original film by Robin Williams. He’s an instantly recognizable star with an on-screen person beloved by millions, and he had the potential to make the role his own rather than copy Williams to inevitably weakened effect. The part calls for a big actor being big in the role, and Smith can provide that.
However, cynicism only built when the first images of Smith in the role were revealed, and then the reveal of him in big blue mode inspired further derision. The CGI just looked weird and the overall design exacerbated fans’ fears of the entire project. CGI has made exceptional advancements over the decades, but it hasn’t quite reached the level where it can make a giant blue Will Smith look anything less than odd. Indeed, the CGI seen so far from clips and trailers looks, at best, a little shaky, which highlights another big problem Disney’s live-action remakes have: the endless striving for realism robs the stories of their inherent magic.
That’s a major necessity that Aladdin has struggled to convey in its trailers. It doesn’t feel magical, even when you ignore the controversy and cynicism surrounding it. A film like this, based on a beloved animated title, should be a much easier sell for Disney and yet it’s been a struggle for them. It could pay off marvelously come opening weekend - early responses have been surprisingly positive so far - but we'll have to wait and see if audiences will be won over as well.
- Aladdin (2019) release date: May 24, 2019