Once upon a time, it was far from uncommon for characters from other cultural backgrounds to be transformed into white people when stories made the transition to the big screen. Alternatively, it was once considered no big deal to have white actors actually play people of other races (that idea has aged particularly well). However, today culturally sensitive casting is considered necessary, and it's called out when a production drops that ball.
Disney's new Aladdin dealt with some of that criticism itself. While the movie has a fairly diverse cast, in this case, that was exactly the problem. Specifically, Naomi Scott who plays Jasmine, is a British born actress of Indian decent, and some believed the role should have gone to an actress of Middle Eastern heritage.
However, Mena Massoud, who plays Aladdin, feels the controversy is overblown, because ultimately the story of Aladdin, being fictional, is a combination of several cultures. According to Massoud...
It’s a funny thing that’s happening online. The Middle Easterners want Aladdin to be a Middle Eastern story, and the Indians want Aladdin to be an Indian story. The truth is, it’s really a folk tale from the 1800s, and Agrabah is a fictional place that’s a culmination of India and Asia and the Middle East. In fact, in the original folk tale, Aladdin was actually of Chinese descent. So what we wanted to do with this was represent as many different cultures from that part of the world as possible.
It is true that while the story of Aladdin is a folk tale from the Middle East that goes back centuries. In that story, the character of Aladdin himself is said to be from China. To that end, even Mena Massoud's casting as the main character would be out of step. Clearly, the actor feels that the new movie's objective, to spotlight a diverse cast with backgrounds from numerous cultures, was a choice that worked, and was justified by the film's fairy tale setting.
Hell, the new Aladdin even has [Billy Magnussen](https://www.cinemablend.com/news/1699909/the-live-adaptation-of-aladdin-is-adding-a-brand-new-character?pv=search) show up as an utterly unexplained white dude. It seems that wherever Agrabah is located, many different races are within a horseback ride of the castle.
Mena Massoud goes on to tell the New York Times that the new Aladdin had cultural advisors on set at all times because the production wanted to get those aspects of the story right; he never felt that anything in the movie wasn't being properly respectful, in fact, quite the opposite...
They had a team of cultural advisers on set. And no, to answer your question. It’s the most represented and the most respect, culturally, that I’ve ever felt in my career. My first professional gig was on a show called Nikita, and I played Al Qaeda No. 2. At that time I had to take those roles because I just wanted to get my foot in.
Certainly, playing the lead in the live-action Aladdin is a step up from playing random terrorist characters. It's unfortunate that such roles are often all that exist for actors of Middle Eastern decent.
People are certainly going to have differing opinions on how best to handle casting on movies like this. Mena Massoud's perspective won't work for everybody, but most will likely agree that Aladdin is a valuable step forward in many ways, even if it isn't perfect.
And perhaps Aladdin will also help be a step forward to fix the larger issue. Certainly, as it turns out, wide audiences have no problem seeing movie casts like the one Aladdin put together. The film broke the box office with an impressive $116 million at the domestic box office over the long Memorial Day Weekend. The movie has already grossed over $250 million globally.