Some Disney fairytales like Tangled, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Frozen are set it quaint, fictional towns that resemble actually places. Disney's new movie Aladdin is no exception. Hopefully, you don’t need a map to determine that Aladdin And Jasmine's Agrabah doesn’t actually exist. But, dialogue and visuals suggest that Aladdin's Agrabah may be based on an amalgamation of Southeast Asia and the Middle East. But is it a fair portrayal of those cultures?
With the release of the new live-action Aladdin directed by Guy Ritchie, Agrabah is back on the big screen. And while the new version has been updated, it's important to remember that the made-up country in the original 1992 film is often criticised for being a collection of stereotypes decided upon by a group of white dudes and Ritchie’s Aladdin has already stirred up a few scandals of its own, from casting to claims of "tanning" white extras during the filming process (Disney later released a statement that tanning Aladdin actors was only done in a "a handful of instances when it was a matter of specialty skills, safety and control"). So, there's a lot here that's not great, but let's dig into some of the facts of how Agrabah came to be.
Before the new film and the revival of interest, in 2015, co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker of the 1992 Aladdin sat down with E! News to debunk a few theories about the film, including its location. During the interview, Musker said that the movie’s composers, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, had originally decided Aladdin would be set in Baghdad, Iraq, but they were forced to change that.
“We kept it Baghdad in our first treatment, and then the Gulf War happened — the first Gulf War. Roy Disney said, 'This can't be in Baghdad.' So, I took letters and did a jumbled anagram and came up with Agrabah,” Musker told E! News. Watching Aladdin, it seems that Agrabah has more influences, particularly South Asia and the Middle East. When the narrator opens the film, he says, “Welcome to Agrabah, city mystery, of enchantment, and the finest merchandise this side of the River Jordan,” and multiple characters mention Allah in the movie. Conde Nast Traveler also notes that the palace where the Sultan and Jasmine live resembles the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. (Agra, plus Baghdad, maybe equals Agrabah?)
As for the new Agrabah, ahead of its 2019 release, Ritchie’s Aladdin was filmed in England and the deserts of Jordan, Entertainment Weekly reports. Production designer Gemma Jackson told EW she created Agrabah to be a port city where “everything comes and goes on ships, which gives Agrabah quite a good connection to the rest of the world.”
So, while both Aladdin films are up front about the fact that the city is not a representation of one region or country, there are some problems with how the people who live in these widespread areas of the world are depicted.
For starters, there's Aladdin's opening song, “Arabian Nights,” which was already controversial in the '90s, when the movie was released. The original lyric from the song described Agrabah's region as a place “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face.” The original song also includes the characterisation that the region is "barbaric, but hey, it's home" (the new Aladdin changed the opening so that when Will Smith sings “Arabian Nights” he says “chaotic” instead of “barbaric”). It is also not subtle that Jafar has darker skin and villainous characters speak with slight accents while Jasmine and Aladdin have lighter skin and American accents.
The new Aladdin has also been plagued with criticisms since details of the film were first announced, and many of those comments claimed the filmmakers saw South Asian and Middle Eastern people as interchangeable. The announcement that Naomi Scott was playing Jasmine was met with some backlash because Scott is of mixed British and Gujarati Indian descent, according to the Huffington Post. In an interview with EW, Julie Ann Crommett, Disney’s Vice President of Multicultural Engagement, explained the casting choice. Like production designer Jackson, Crommett said Aladdin includes multiple cultures from the Middle East and South Asia and Agrabah reflects these regions. In response to Scott’s casting, Crommett said,
“There are South Asian individuals who associate with Aladdin and with Jasmine as well, and I think there was a sense of we should reflect some part of the community in the principle cast so that we’re actually being inclusive of who sees themselves and identifies with this text ... What we’ve done intentionally with Naomi’s character as part of the plot is that her mother is actually from a different land, and it’s very clear in the movie that her mother is from a different land that’s not Agrabah and that’s drawing on a lot of her motivations in terms of how she sees the future of Agrabah as a welcoming place that embraces people from other places because her mother was from somewhere else.”
Based on Crommett’s explanation and the fact that Agrabah is not a specific place, Scott being cast as Jasmine does seem like a fairer portrayal of the princess. Plus, the lyric change in “Arabian Nights” prove that the creators behind Ritchie’s Aladdin did make some conscious efforts to ensure the film is not as offensive as the original. It should also be noted that Aladdin is the first live-action Disney film to feature non-white leads, and while it's wild to think it took this long, it is a step in the right direction.