'Aladdin' remake redefines a Disney princess with Naomi Scott’s Jasmine
By JOSH ROTTENBERG | Los Angeles Times | Published: May 24, 2019
LOS ANGELES -- Growing up in England, Naomi Scott, like so many other young girls, fell in love at an early age with Disney’s animated heroines - particularly Mulan, Pocahontas and Jasmine from "Aladdin." But while those three are officially part of Disney’s juggernaut princess line of media franchises and toys, alongside the likes of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Belle and Ariel, it wasn’t their ostensible princess-y trappings that enthralled Scott. It was something deeper.
"I just gravitated toward the characters as opposed to the princess side of it," Scott said on a recent afternoon in a Beverly Hills hotel suite, wrapped in a white bathrobe at the end of a long day of interviews to promote Disney’s new live-action remake of "Aladdin," in which she plays Jasmine. "At the end of the day, that’s what girls will gravitate towards: that person, that human."
The 26-year-old Scott wasn’t even born when 1992’s "Aladdin" hit theaters, one of a string of hits that fueled Disney’s ’90s animated renaissance. Now the actress and singer finds herself bringing three-dimensional life to a character she once pretended to be as a child, images of whom countless girls have had plastered on their walls and bedsheets. It’s a lot to wrap her head around.
"Jasmine was my favorite, so I can’t really reconcile those two things," Scott said. "You have to have a healthy respect for what came before, but I still see those things as separate. It's more a case of being able to create this human version of her. That’s the way I saw it."
In fact, Scott’s new take on Jasmine stands apart from the original version in ways that go beyond simply the storytelling medium. Whereas the original film’s Jasmine was mainly concerned with choosing a spouse, Scott’s version dreams of breaking with archaic patriarchal traditions and ruling her kingdom of Agrabah. This is a Jasmine for the era of female presidential candidates and the #MeToo movement, reflecting broader societal shifts in gender norms and expectations over the past 27 years.
Scott sees the character’s evolution as a natural progression. "It doesn’t feel like we’re shoehorning something in," she said. "In the original movie, as great as it is that she's fighting for the choice of who she wants to marry, that’s where her ambition kind of stops. In this movie, she’s more ambitious and she looks outside herself. She’s trying to protect her kingdom against this evil dictator [Jafar]. It’s showcasing that you can lead and you can have love. You can have both, girls, and the two aren’t mutually exclusive."
In recent years, as Disney has sought to leverage its animated back catalog with new live-action versions, the studio has found that depictions of gender roles that were accepted in decades past may now induce cringes. But figuring out how to strike the right balance, delivering audiences a fix of nostalgia while also reflecting today’s heightened awareness around issues of identity and power, is far from simple.
"Obviously we deal with gender and how these stories have changed throughout history quite a bit, whether that’s 'Cinderella,' 'Beauty and the Beast,' 'Aladdin' or 'The Little Mermaid,' which we’re working on now,' " said Sean Bailey, Disney’s president of production. "You’ve got some real issues you have to dig into and discuss at great length."
With the "Aladdin" remake, those discussions began early in the development process, as director Guy Ritchie, screenwriter John August and the rest of the creative team looked for ways to blow some dust off the story and make it feel more in tune with today’s audiences.
"We watched the original movie and said, 'In these times, does it feel outdated?’ And there are times relationship-wise that it does feel a little out of date," said producer Dan Lin. "We felt like we had a real opportunity to make Jasmine really be a strong female leader in this movie that maybe she wasn’t so much in the original movie."
According to a 2016 study by linguists at Pritzker College and North Carolina State University that analyzed the gender breakdown of dialogue in numerous Disney movies, male characters delivered some 90% of the lines in the original "Aladdin." (Much of that disparity was no doubt accounted for by Robin Williams’ famously motor-mouthed performance as the Genie.)
To help address that imbalance and further flesh out Jasmine’s more empowered character, "Aladdin" composer Alan Menken, in collaboration with the songwriting duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, wrote a song for Scott to perform, a soaring power ballad called "Speechless" in which Jasmine expresses her desire to unleash her voice.
"We were really inspired by a line in the original movie where Jafar very misogynistically says, 'You’re speechess, I see. A fine quality in a wife,’ " said Pasek. "In the world that we live in, so many people need to reclaim their voice - or claim it for the first time - and be outspoken about who they are and what they believe in. It was a really exciting opportunity to put that message into the voice of Jasmine."
Crafting the song’s lyrics in mid-2017, months before the Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct scandal broke, Pasek and Paul couldn’t have foreseen how they would soon resonate with the zeitgeist. "The song was written before the Time’s Up movement," said Paul. "I think it’s just confirmation that this has been an age-old struggle for people who have felt marginalized and continue to be."
Highlighting the perils of reimagining a beloved classic, the new "Aladdin" has faced multiple criticisms on the road to the screen. After the film’s first trailer dropped, many faulted the look of Will Smith’s Genie, while others complained about the casting of Marwan Kenzari as the villainous Jafar, deeming the actor too good-looking and insufficiently menacing.
The casting of Scott as Jasmine has not been free of controversy either. Though Agrabah is a fictional country, some took to social media to decry the casting of Scott, arguing that the actress, who is of Gujarati Indian and British descent, was taking a role that should have gone to a Middle Eastern actress.
"All these Arab actresses on the planet and they cast half-white, half-Indian Naomi Scott as Jasmine," wrote one Twitter user. "Indian isn’t middle-eastern, Hollywood."
Scott, perhaps best known to American moviegoers from her role in the 2017 reboot "Power Rangers," says dealing with the intense scrutiny that goes along with a high-profile project like "Aladdin" has been "a good learning curve."
"You have to just be comfortable with knowing in yourself what you’re doing and not allow outside voices to get into this part," she said, pointing to her heart. "I’m very proud of this movie and how diverse our cast is and what it represents and the message of the movie. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I didn’t look too much to the left or right or listen to what people were saying. You can’t get into that habit, can you?"
Even as she waits to see what audiences make of her fresh take on Jasmine, Scott is already looking ahead to another breakout role later this year as one of the stars in Elizabeth Banks’ "Charlie’s Angels" reboot and cultivating a parallel career as a singer-songwriter. Not unlike Jasmine, she has ambitions that won’t be stifled or contained.
"I love the breaking down of walls that someone like Donald Glover does," Scott said. "I’m definitely not someone who wants to stay in a box. If you put me in it, I’m probably going to break it down anyway. So you might as well just let me run free."