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Yet another Arabian night
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 20 - 06 - 2019

Though orientalist painters from the 18th and 19th centuries — Antoine-Jean Gros (1771-1835), David Roberts (1796-1864), Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904) and Gustav Bauernfeind (1848-1904), for example — were fascinated by Arab cities like Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad, their observation was mostly based on nudity in the harem, the market, especially the slave market, and landscapes. Interiors and architecture were definitely among those cities' most distinct manifestations of beauty, but such artists and their contemporaneous authors and scholars, as the late Edward Said famously showed, were only really interested in the exoticism of an imaginary Orient of their own invention and subject to their cultural as well as political control. One major source for this distorted perspective was The Thousand and One Nights, of course. The film industry naturally inherited this attachment since its earliest stages, employing it in a range of genres in films like The Thief of Bagdad (1924), Chu Chin Chow (1934), The Thief of Bagdad (1940), Arabian Nights (1942) and A Thousand and One Nights (1945). Confusing the Middle with the Far East, what is more, a film like The Thief of Bagdad (1924) features Asian actors even though the settings were Arab.
Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine
In Disney's new mega production Aladdin, a live action remake of the animated Aladdin (1992) with the same storyline and songs — directed by the English filmmaker Guy Ritchie, who is known for such action thrillers as Snatch (2000), Sherlock Holmes (2009), Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011) and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) — there is no such confusion. The cast is in fact picked very carefully: Marwan Kenzari, the Dutch actor of Tunisian origins known for his role as Ashraf Marawan in the controversial Israeli film The Angel directed by Ariel Vrome, as Jafar the vizier; Navid Negahban, the Iranian-American actor, as the sultan; the English actress Naomi Scott, whose mother is ethnically Indian, in the role of Princess Jasmine; Nasim Pedrad, another Iranian-American, in the role of princess's assistant; the Turkish-born German actor Numan Acar as the head of the sultan's guards; and of course Mena Massoud, the Egyptian-Canadian, as Aladdin. On a budget of nearly $200 million — as opposed to $28 million for the animation, which brought in over 600 million — this is a lavish production.
Navid Negahban as the Sultan and Marwan Kenzari as Jafar the vizier
In the 1992 film, Robin Williams' voice as the hilarious genie — perhaps the first funny genie in the history of cinema — was an innovative and effective touch. Using the same comedic approach, this time the genie is played effectively by Will Smith. Before the opening credits, a poor sailor (Smith) is on a boat with his wife and two children, and he starts telling them the story of Aladdin. The protagonist is a poor young man called Aladdin living a country called Agrabah, who meets the princess while she is in disguise at the market and falls in love with her without knowing who she is, and the antagonist is the vizier Jafar who later exploits Aladdin for the sake of a magic lantern. This is neither a class-differences story nor a political parable, however. It is pure entertainment with plenty of romance, magic and adventure including a desert trip in search of the lantern in the Cave of Wonders, and it is told through song and dance as much as anything. It is clear the filmmaker and his crew were inspired by 18th- and 19th-century orientalist painters, also benefiting from Bollywood spectacles. Much of the film is already known to whoever is watching it, but Ritchie manages to make it gripping using a combination of sentimentality and nostalgia. The acting is mostly good but, especially in terms of comedy, it does not compare favourably with the 1992 film. For one thing, the new film omits two of the animation's funniest characters: the flying carpet and Jafar's parrot Iago.

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