ByEleanor Tremeer, writer at
MP staff. I talk about Star Wars a lot. Sometimes I'm paid for it. Twitter: @ExtraTremeerial | Email: [email protected]
Eleanor Tremeer

We all know the story of Aladdin, a sun-baked fairy tale to while away those warm Arabian nights. Set in the fictional Middle-Eastern city of Agrabah, this thrilling tale features an exciting cast of characters, from the regal Jasmine to the evil Jafar, from the magical Genie to that lovable rogue, Aladdin himself. None of these characters are white. Yet when it came to the live action adaptation of 's animated classic, apparently the prospect of an entirely non-white cast was just too much for Disney execs to bear — so they invented a whole new character, just so that a white guy could be in the movie.

Did Aladdin Really Need A White Character?

Aladdin is no stranger to racial controversies, as before the main characters were cast it was reported that Disney was struggling to find good actors of the correct ethnicity. Granted, this was just hearsay, and soon after this report Disney swiftly announced the casting of Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Naomi Scott as Jasmine.

For a moment, it seemed like this movie was out of the woods when it came to controversy. But everything changed last week, when it was announced that Into The Woods alum Billy Magnussen has been cast in an all-new role for Guy Ritchie's Aladdin. An apparent foil for Aladdin, it seems that Magnussen's character will be vying for the affections of Princess Jasmine, as the role has already been named "Prince Anders".

Yet, this seems rather superfluous. The original Aladdin movie was a trail-blazer because it featured no white characters whatsoever. Just as the European fairy tales refused to feature any people of color as main character — yes Frozen, I'm talking about you — movies like Aladdin, Mulan, and even the recent Moana feature only characters of color. So now, imagine what this would be like to see on the big screen: A Disney fairy tale populated by only people of color, with no white people to be seen. That truly would be groundbreaking.

This seemed to be a dead cert for Aladdin, until the casting of Billy Magnussen proved that the prospect of an entirely non-white fairy tale is still just over Hollywood's horizon. We have to wonder if Disney chose to create a new character just so that a white character could appear in the movie. Was it because they were concerned that white audiences would feel alienated by Aladdin otherwise? Or, conversely, is this actually tokenism — throwing in a white character to make the movie more diverse?

That last option is certainly entertaining, and it would actually mirror Disney's other recent live action adaptations. Cinderella featured the black British actor Nonso Anozie as the Captain, while Beauty & The Beast featured two women of color in the form of Audra McDonald's Madame Garderobe, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw's Plumette.

Disney's token characters? 'Cinderella's the Captain, Garderobe and Plumette in 'Beauty And The Beast', and Billy Magnussen in 'Into The Woods'. [Credit: Disney]
Disney's token characters? 'Cinderella's the Captain, Garderobe and Plumette in 'Beauty And The Beast', and Billy Magnussen in 'Into The Woods'. [Credit: Disney]

However, both Madame Garderobe and Plumette spent precious little screen time as human, appearing as a furniture throughout the majority of Beauty & The Beast's run time. Similarly, Anozie's Captain only appeared in a few scenes of Cinderella. It seems that Aladdin's Prince Anders will have a much larger role as a major supporting character, and may even be among the main cast.

And honestly, that leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. People often tout historical accuracy as the reason why people of color are excluded from European fairy tale movies, animated or otherwise. But when it comes to adding white characters to a fairy tale that is Arabian in origin, it seems that this argument goes out the window.

In truth, both are historically accurate: thanks to international trade routes, the Europe and Arabia of the past were far more racially diverse than we might expect. Yet, while people of color are excluded or reduced to tokenistic bit-roles in European fairy tales, it seems that Disney will bend over backwards to add in a major white character in a Middle-Eastern fairy tale.

Tell us in the comments: Do you think it was necessary to include a white character in Aladdin?


Latest from our Creators