Rewriting the Past Won’t Make Disney More Progressive

It’s 2019, and Princess Jasmine doesn’t want to be a princess any longer. In the Guy Ritchie-directed “Aladdin,” Disney’s latest live-action remake of one of its animated hits, Jasmine (Naomi Scott) has her sights set on succeeding her father as the sultan of Agrabah.

But she’s a woman, and her father won’t consider her for the job. It’s against tradition.

Cue the Broadway-style (em)power(ment) ballad: “I can’t stay silent,” the princess belts more than once in a new song written for the film, adding during the chorus, “All I know is I won’t go speechless.”

This is not the Jasmine of my youth, the one whose main preoccupation was marrying a prince of her choosing. This is Jasmine 2.0 — an ambitious, career-focused heroine whose belly button is never exposed.

This is supposed to be a good thing: It’s progressive and more inclusive!

Maybe Disney hoped that I — a millennial who grew up on a steady diet of Disney princesses and “Sing Along Song” VHS tapes — would latch on to Jasmine 2.0’s journey and appreciate the fact that she’s ostensibly evolved beyond her animated predecessor in the 1992 blockbuster. After all, as the studio’s executives have told us repeatedly, the company is committed to embracing industry trends and being more inclusive.

Yet sitting through reheat after reheat of animated movies from my childhood, I’ve found it difficult to take comfort in the unsubtle attempts to correct past sins. The shoehorned-in progressive messages only call more attention to the inherent crassness of Disney’s current exercise in money-grabbing nostalgia.

Jasmine isn’t an outlier. And Disney’s other pandering do-overs tend to be just as awkward and clumsy. Before the 2017 release of “Beauty and the Beast,” the film’s publicity team stumbled into an easily avoidable gaffe when the film’s director, Bill Condon, gave an interview in which he teased an “exclusively gay moment.” That turned out to be a deflating blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of LeFou and another man dancing together in the final scene — hardly exclusive, considering LeFou spends the majority of the movie flamboyantly signposting his attraction to Gaston.

Tim Burton’s steampunk take on “Dumbo,” released in March, introduces several characters that weren’t in the 1941 film, including Milly (Nico Parker), who serves just two purposes: Dumbo interpreter (I’d guess at least 75 percent of her dialogue is a description of whatever the poor baby elephant is doing or feeling at that moment) and “girl who would rock the male-dominated STEM world had she been born in the right era.” As written, she’s not so much a person as an avatar for surface-level girl power.

Even when cultural sensitivity is more smoothly integrated, it hardly justifies these Disney remakes. It’s great that Jon Favreau’s 2016 “Jungle Book” ditches the coded minstrelsy of King Louie, the orangutan nuisance modeled after Louis Armstrong, in the 1967 animated film. It’s nice that Ella (Lily James), in the 2015 “Cinderella,” is all about women helping other women. Emma Watson’s Belle is not only bookish, but also a clever inventor? Cool.

But the primary function of the remakes (aside from taking your money) is to reignite our passion for the originals. And for many people — especially those in my generation who were squarely in Disney’s target audience during the so-called renaissance of the late 1980s and early ’90s — those memories are intense, and not so easily buried. As the studio’s longtime animator Glen Keane once said when describing his approach to rendering the character Pocahontas, care must be taken: “The Disney version becomes the definitive version.” (Look up “Pocahontas” on Google Images, and the first thing you’ll see is not the historical figure, but the cartoon.)

Is it possible for the Disney version of the Disney version to become the definitive one? That’s probably not the point, though the studio has used this opportunity to signal to consumers that it’s no longer an entity that would thoughtlessly depict a Siamese cat playing the piano with chopsticks while singing about fortune cookies. A key part of the publicity campaign for the new “Aladdin” has involved assuring would-be viewers that it will not make the same mistakes as the old “Aladdin,” which featured a predominantly white voice cast and invoked uneasy stereotypes about the Middle East. (Among other issues, a lyric about cutting off ears was replaced for the 1993 home video release following protests — though the city of Agrabah was still described as “barbaric.” In the new “Aladdin” it’s now “chaotic.”) Some have argued Disney has made new mistakes this time around.

Disney has been more persuasively progressive, however, in its original films of the past several years. The superhero fantasy “Big Hero 6” seamlessly incorporated a multicultural voice cast into a futuristic setting known as San Fransokyo. “Frozen” has princesses (and a would-be Prince Charming), but it prioritizes sisterhood over romance. “Moana” features a Pacific Islander heroine, and “Coco” (from the Disney-owned Pixar) has a Mexican hero (and Hispanic voice actors); both stories manage to represent their cultures respectfully while still being accessible to global audiences. And, on the live-action front, the Disney-owned Marvel movie “Black Panther” was important for its depiction of the black diaspora.

These films don’t have templates to trace over in the way “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” do. Once they get all of the basic Disney elements in place (dead parents, faithful nonhuman sidekick and so on), the new creators don’t have to concern themselves with paying fan service.

That makes for better movies, more interesting stories and a stronger sense of Disney’s sincerity in its repeated claims of inclusivity. Yes, its filmmakers have fumbled on more than one occasion — the ill-conceived brown-skin Maui Halloween costume, the muddled racial allegory in “Zootopia” — but at least they’re starting from a clean(er) slate rather than trying to cut and paste diversity onto a work that’s already embedded in the collective consciousness and impossible to delete.

The inevitable remake of “The Little Mermaid” could depict Ariel as an entrepreneur who specializes in making body-positive clamshell bras, and it still won’t be enough to erase 30 years’ worth of impressionable children who have seen the original film and the unrealistic beauty expectations her rendering (as well as that of other Disney princesses) puts forth.

I grew up loving Disney movies and still do, in spite of their troublesome aspects. Part of growing up means learning that many, if not most, of the things you loved are problematic — then spending your adulthood trying to counter all the harmful lessons you might have unconsciously taken away from them. It’s good (and good business) for Disney to acknowledge the shameful parts of its past. But the best way to do this is by leaving behind the past and creating more films like “Coco” and “Moana” — definitive versions in their own right.

Aisha Harris is an assistant television editor on the Culture Desk. Previously she was a culture writer and editor for Slate and host of the film and TV podcast “Represent.” @craftingmystyle

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