In the first photos we saw from the live-action Aladdin remake, Will Smith looked normal. His hairdo was ridiculous, and his goatee was especially long, but this was to be expected, given his role as the genie. There was nothing out of the ordinary, really, beyond the feeling of confusion at Disney remaking a beloved cartoon that’s not even 30 years old. (This is part of a trend, with similar live-action remakes of The Lion King and Dumbo soon to be released.)
Then came Sunday night, when during the Grammys we were shown a new trailer for Aladdin, which is out May 24. At the end of the minute long clip, was a very different, more concerning depiction of Smith as the genie — blue, shirtless, buff, and apparently floating. As Dani Di Placido wrote for Forbes the character simply looked like Smith in “blueface,” rather than whatever the best case scenario for “Will Smith as a blue genie” might have been. Look at it!
Now, an easy reaction is to imagine how the blue could’ve been applied more artistically. Maybe they could’ve distorted the actor’s face to make him appear more cartoonish; maybe the blue could’ve been a paler shade, rather than the bright tone that leaps off the screen. However, here’s something else to consider: Why are genies thought of as blue to begin with? Was Smith rendered in blue out of fealty to historical accuracy, or just the audience’s familiarity with the character? Because whoever would’ve been upset by the film deviating from the genie made famous by Robin Williams in the 1992 cartoon is surely looking at this and laughing.
Some background: Genie is a Latin word derived from genius, suggesting a guiding or tutelary spirit. These spirits are linked with djinn, an Arabic term derived from a word that means “to be hidden or concealed.” Djinn are mythical creatures made by God out of fire or vapor with roots in pre-Islamic Arabia, and later appear within the Qur’an. These shape-shifting spirits are typically thought to live in an imaginary realm, and are often held responsible for miraculous events.
Most importantly, however, they’re not exclusively blue. “There's a bit of ‘color coding’ of the various orders/types of djinn — blue, green, red, yellow, black may suggest different levels of power and different characteristics — but I wouldn't overemphasize this or assume consistency across place and time,” Madeleine Dobie, a professor of French and Comparative Literature at Columbia University who contributed to the book Arabian Nights in Historical Context, told The Outline. “My understanding is that Disney’s Aladdin is largely responsible for painting genies blue.”
The genie in the original Aladdin cartoon is based on the story titled “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp,” originally found within The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights). The Aladdin story has no written Arabic source manuscript. It first appeared in French and then English in the early 18th century after French orientalist Jean Antoine Galland, the first European “translator” of the book, wrote the story based on oral stories he was told.
There have been various written iterations of the story for adults and children in European and American culture. The first film adaptation came in 1917 with Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp, a black-and-white film starring child actors and Elmo Lincoln as non-colored genie. In 1940, the British live-action film The Thief of Baghdad depicted the genie in (larger) human form, but played by African-American actor Rex Ingram. Twenty-six years later, I Dream of Jeannie featured “The Blue Djinn,” a character played by Syrian-born Michael Ansara who was painted blue and wearing a blue turban — possibly the first blue genie shown on screen, as far as our research goes.
Did this make blue genies the default shade? No. The 1967 Hanna-Barbera animated television series Shazzan starred an olive-skin toned genie wandering around a mystical world; a terrifying green genie was released from a lamp in the 1987 horror film The Outing. Then, of course, Disney adapted the Aladdin story into cartoon form in 1992, made the genie blue, and brought in Robin Williams to play the character we all know and love.
“What we are dealing with in Aladdin is what I'd call an ‘orientalist hybrid’ reflecting a European take on Islamic folklore,” Dobie said. Were the original genies blue? Sometimes, yes. Were they exclusively blue? No. Now, 27 years after the original cartoon, we have a genie that should be due for a fresh live-action take. Instead, we have Will Smith looking like a Smurf, which satisfies nobody. Some traditions are made to be broken.