Disney’s live-action conversion machine rolls on, with the next project up for conversion being Aladdin. The beloved musical is being directed by Guy Ritchie, which sounds like a nightmare. And it’s already proving challenging as a massive worldwide casting search for Aladdin has yielded no results, and production has been pushed back from July to August. They’ve burned through recognizable names like Riz Ahmed and Dev Patel, but apparently want an unknown to play Aladdin, and they’re having a hard time finding an actor of Middle Eastern or Indian descent who can sing and act. That’s weird, as India has a whole film industry famous for its musicals, and also, what’s wrong with Riz Ahmed?
The fear is, naturally, that they’ll give up and just cast a spray-tanned white guy. I don’t think they will—they can’t, and they must know that—but it says something about the film industry that this thought even occurs. Diversity has been such a hot-button issue for years, and Disney seems to understand that, going to China to cast live-action Mulan and doing this huge search for Aladdin and Jasmine (for whom, apparently, they’ve already got a short list). But when it comes to stuff like this, to putting in a little extra effort to not just hire the same people, film people are quitters.
Patty Jenkins is paving the way for women to direct superhero movies, but for several years the reason they weren’t hiring women for those gigs is because one time Kathryn Bigelow, who has been vocal about her complete disinterest in making superhero movies, said no. So they assumed no women wanted to make those movies, because one woman didn’t. I’m afraid of something like that happening here. That they’ll throw in the towel and say, “Well we searched around the world and didn’t find anyone so we’re just going to give it to Brad from Central Casting.” Let’s be honest—we can all see this happening.
Of course there are Middle Eastern AND Indian actors who can both sing and act (Riz Ahmed…?), but if it’s such a huge mountain to climb to find one that appeases Disney, maybe just get a good actor? Emma Watson’s singing didn’t ruin Beauty and the Beast, but she wasn’t great, and could be the case study for bringing back dubbing in movie musicals. If this is so hard, if you really can’t find a guy who can do both, settle for the acting and hire a singer later. Dub it—no one is going to care. They used to do it all the time (see also: Audrey Hepburn, My Fair Lady), and back in the cartoon days, there were actor/singer splits voicing characters (Irene Bedard voiced Pocahontas, but Judy Kuhn did all the singing). This is not an unimaginable solution.
For now, they’ve brought on a couple consultants to help sort through the auditions: Marc Platt, a producer on La La Land and Mary Poppins Returns, and Chris Montan, a veteran of Disney’s animated musicals. This seems like dubbing is not the solution they’re going with, but they will continue digging until they find the right guy. To be fair, Disney is no stranger to massive, involved casting processes—Marvel and Star Wars stuff regularly does this, and they went through a time finding Lily James for Cinderella.
Huge casting searches have pretty much always worked out for Disney, and I assume it will work out again. There’s just that niggling fear that their commitment to inclusive casting only goes as far as the press release. That won’t go away until film is more inclusive in general, and it’s no longer a big deal to cast diverse leads. Also, I just have to ask one more time—what was wrong with Riz Ahmed?