Arab Americans Shifted the Narrative on Disney’s Aladdin Remake [Alt-Disney]

Ayoub, Chris Kim (Disney), and Ragab. Photo by Gabriel San Román

In the past, the Disneyland Hotel would’ve made an unlikely venue for a reception honoring Jack Shaheen, a critic of Arab stereotypes in media. The late professor of mass communications and author of Reel Bad Arabs tangled with the Mouse over the animated film Aladdin and its “Arabian Nights” ditty, as did the late Don Bustany of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). 

But on a recent Friday evening, the Disney-owned hotel is where ADC members gathered to pay homage to Shaheen’s legacy. Disney hosted a fireside chat at the reception about how this year’s live-action remake of Aladdin afforded all involved an opportunity to revamp relations. 

“One of the last projects we had the opportunity of working on with Shaheen was actually Aladdin years before the film was put into production,” said Abed Ayoub, ADC’s legal and policy director. 

Shaheen contacted ADC with the news that Disney planned the remake. “We were a little bit nervous,” Ayoub admitted. “This time around, things went a little different. Disney was very welcoming. They opened the doors for conversation and dialogue.” 

And they hired Sila Consulting to ensure they got things right. Rhonda Ragab, Sila’s chief operating officer, spoke about her integral involvement in the film, from providing input on the script and casting to skin tones for merchandise dolls. 

“We are very critical consultants,” said Ragab, a UC Irvine grad. “Before the film was even shot, we had a panel with five experts from the region. Shaheen was supposed to be speaking on that panel, but unfortunately, he passed away before that.”

Disney employed a Multicultural Audience Engagement team to work with Ragab’s firm. The test case proved successful. A community advisory council formed, with Ayoub playing an active role. Now with Aladdin’s recent home release, the conversation is much different than it was with the animated version in 1992. 

“It’s amazing to see yourself reflected in media,” said Ragab, who hopes creatives supplant the work of consultants one day. “The film wasn’t perfect from a cultural perspective, but a lot of strides were made. In the spectrum, it’s huge.”

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