Reassessing Remakes: Analyses of Diversity and Representation in Live-Action Remakes Compared to Their Animated Counterparts by Jazzlyn Cotton

The trend of remaking animated films in live-action has become increasingly popular in the past decade. When looking at Walt Disney Productions, for example, the remakes of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Jungle Book have been box office successes. There are no signs of this trend slowing down, with live-action film adaptations of The Little Mermaid and Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender series expected to release within the next two years. Star power seems to play a big role in the overall commercial success of such remakes. Not only are audiences re-immersed into the world of their favorite childhood films, but they experience it through some of the world’s most renowned actors, who bring their own interpretations of the characters (e.g. Angelina Jolie in Maleficent, Will Smith in Aladdin [2019], Beyonce in The Lion King [2019], etc.).

To reflect the social concerns of the world today, many live-action remakes focus on issues such as racial and gender discrimination. These are often attempts by studios to be more inclusive of non-white, non-heteronormative communities, though financial gains are usually prioritized over socially progressive messaging. In the remakes, there tends to be more sensitivity towards race and gender, and focus is put on “authentic” casting and “realistic” storytelling that can accurately represent the experiences of the communities being represented (or implied).

In live-action remakes of animated films, how do the reimaginings of the characters re-situate the films in regards to non-essentialist representations of race, ethnicity, and gender? Are live-action remakes a way to start including more diverse characters in a socially progressive manner? How does a studio retain cultural specificity in animation or live-action without presenting an essentialist depiction of that culture? In other words, how can creators make more diverse films without including racist or sexist stereotypes and tropes? This paper strives to examine the ways in which live-action depictions of previously animated stories and characters represent the peoples they seek to portray.



In order to understand gender, racial, and ethnic representation in live-action remakes, it is important to first look at the diversity, or lack thereof, that exists within the animation industry. Disney, the animation powerhouse, has a long history of essentializing and stereotyping non-white, non-heteronormative communities. For example, Aladdin (1992), one of Disney’s most controversial films to date, had an almost entirely white voice acting cast for their Middle Eastern characters. In addition to this, the film faced immense backlash upon its release for its representation of Arab peoples and culture, which will be further discussed later on. A similar issue was raised with The Lion King in 1994, due to most of their characters being voiced by non-Black voice actors, even though the film is set in Africa and based on African cultures. Moreover, many Disney animated films are narratives that have been adapted to valorize Western ideals—such as individualism and first-wave feminism—as much as, if not more than, the ideals of the cultures they seek to portray. According to Amany Elmogahzy, this is Disney’s own version of multiculturalism, which follows an “American assimilationist narrative” in which non-white leading characters are burdened with issues that are a result of their “specific cultural traditions.”[1] The characters must then work to resolve these issues by breaking free from their non-Western cultures. This is most prominently seen in Mulan (1998), in which Mulan’s success was dependent on her dishonoring her family, rejecting Chinese society, and adopting Western ideologies. As seen in these cases, Disney’s animated films often gravitated towards representing the flaws of other cultures rather than embracing their differences from Western societies.

Still, some progress has been made in regards to diverse representation in animation. For example, Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender series from 2005 based its world on traditional Japanese, Chinese, Nepali, Indian, and Native American cultures. The creators, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, also worked to give accurate depictions of the fighting styles respective to each culture by studying the movements of in-person martial artists. Thus, the animation of tai chi, Shaolin kung fu, hung ga, and baguazhang is detailed and precise. Moreover, the show made huge advancements towards including portrayals of overwhelmingly underrepresented communities.[2] Its sequel, The Legend of Korra, continued this positive trend, even going so far as to include LGBTQ+ representation by incorporating the network’s first on-screen same-sex couple between two of the main characters, Korra and Asami. Likewise, other animated productions that include socially progressive gender and sexuality diversity include Adventure Time, Steven Universe, and even Disney’s own Doc McStuffins—all of which have explicitly shown independent female characters as well as same-sex relationships to avoid a limited spectrum of gender expressions and heteronormative sexual orientations.

How do live-action remakes compare in regards to diversity and character portrayal? There are noticeable differences that tend to occur, such as people of color playing characters that were originally white or voiced by white actors. This is seen with Will Smith’s take on Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin, for example, or Halle Bailey’s role of Ariel in the upcoming remake of The Little Mermaid. As seen in the character of Jasmine in Aladdin (2019) and Belle from Beauty and the Beast (2017), there is also an effort to provide a more expansive representation of female characters. Both Jasmine and Belle take on a much more feminist and independent approach in their stories compared to their animated counterparts, which will be discussed in further detail later on. Additionally, live-action remakes tend to give more background and depth to their female characters. In Maleficent, for example, she now takes on the role of caring a mother-like hero with a complicated past for Aurora rather than the simply evil queen that is depicted in the original Sleeping Beauty (1959), in order to remove the sexist trope that the strong prince must rescue the damsel in distress.[3] However, a maternal hero can still be seen as a heteronormative and gendered portrayal. Moreover, Jasmine in Aladdin (2019) is given a new desire to become Sultan, rather than just simply being free to marry whomever she wants.

In this essay, characters from three animations will be analyzed, along with their live-action counterparts: Aladdin, Mulan, and Avatar: The Last Airbender. By examining how cultural and gender representation are changed from animation to live-action, an understanding of how Western creators essentialize, or attempt to avoid essentialism, will be reached.




To begin, it is important to look into the creation of Aladdin’s characters to fully understand them and the criticism towards them. Namely, Aladdin and Princess Jasmine were both notably different from the others in the original animation. Described as looking like “white American teenagers” by film critic Roger Ebert, both characters were noticeably lighter in complexion compared to their antagonists, and lacked any sign of Middle Eastern culture (e.g. accents) outside of their wardrobes.[4] Even so, the Disney animators focused on a rather exotic look rather than an authentic one. For instance, Princess Jasmine was created with Western standards of beauty in mind, wearing garments that emphasized her physique to appeal to heteronormative audiences rather than the traditional robes actually worn by women in the Middle East. Supervising animator Glen Keane admitted that the goal was to satisfy American audiences without “sacrificing an Arabian look.”[5] Of course, the “Arabian look” was not meant to respectfully and positively portray Middle Eastern culture, but instead fulfill the stereotypical expectations that Westerners have created in regards to that community. This is evident in the film’s design of the villains. Jafar and the other antagonists were drawn with darker skin tones, large noses, and heavy accents—a stark contrast to the protagonists. Needless to say, the association with lighter Westernized characters as “good” and darker foreign characters as “evil” reinforces the damaging belief that Western beauty standards are admirable while the aforementioned characteristics stereotypically given to Aladdin’s villains should be looked down upon. These racially insensitive aspects of Aladdin’s character creations led to a vast amount of backlash from Arab communities across the world. Keane’s response to the criticism, Elmogahzy states, was that giving the film a genuine and traditional portrayal of Middle Eastern culture may have displeased American audiences.[6] The justification for whitewashing two non-white characters, Aladdin and Jasmine, further implies that alienating actual Middle Eastern audiences was not seen as an issue while prioritizing the satisfaction of white, heteronormative American audiences.

It is also important to note that the sexist tropes in the animated Aladdin were greatly overlooked, if not purposely enforced. Jasmine’s previously mentioned wardrobe, for example, reflects the tendency for Hollywood to fetishize Arab women. A stereotypical portrayal of Arab women in American entertainment includes “scantily clad harem maidens with bare midriffs” to allude to sexuality rather than represent an aspect of their culture or intelligence, which is evident in Jasmine’s case.[7] In fact, Jasmine resorts to using her body to seduce Jafar in order to help Aladdin, suggesting that sexuality is a critical factor in the role of young women, according to Zirger.[8]

How does the 2019 live-action remake compare? To start, Aladdin (2019) made noticeable differences to the character of Princess Jasmine. The obvious sexualization of her that appears in the animated version is all but removed. In regards to wardrobe, her neckline was modified to now cover her “shoulders and cleavage,” and a bodice hides her midriff.[9] This wardrobe was also increased to include various gowns, which, Zirger states, allows Jasmine to “deviate from the stereotypical harem maiden image.”[10] Thus, the exotification assigned to Middle Eastern women is diminished in the live-action remake compared to its purposeful existence in Aladdin (1992). Moreover, the princess is portrayed with greater confidence in the 2019 film, often standing up for herself in powerful ways unlike her animated counterpart. For example, Jasmine expresses to her father multiple times throughout the film that she wants to become the next Sultan rather than marrying one—a sentiment that is in opposition to the male-only Sultan tradition of her culture. Later on in the story, after the constant dismissal from both her father and Jafar, Jasmine performs “Speechless,” an original song added to the live-action soundtrack. The lyrics include the lines: “‘Stay in your place’ / ‘Better seen and not heard’ / Well, now that story is ending / ‘Cause I, I cannot start to crumble / So come on and try / Try to shut me and cut me down / I won’t be silent.”  Hence, Aladdin (2019), in order to do away with the sexist and offensive nature of its animated version, takes a rather socially progressive approach to Jasmine’s character. In fact, the controversial scene in the original Aladdin where Jasmine seduces Jafar is completely left out of the live-action remake. Such changes to the character, therefore, alter the overall trajectory of the film’s story arc by including these feminist themes. The plot is no longer exclusively about how Aladdin will marry Jasmine; the story also focuses on how Jasmine will become the first female Sultan and, ultimately, change her culture’s traditions. However, while the modifications seem progressive, it is important to note that the live-action Aladdin still follows Disney’s aforementioned version of assimilationist multiculturalism with regards to the character of Princess Jasmine, where her success is dependent on her breaking free from the burdens of her non-Western culture. Still, giving the character a powerful ballad and storyline can be viewed as inspiring for young female audiences, who are most likely to identify strongly with characters on-screen.[11]

Furthermore, Aladdin and the villains of the film were also given less stereotypical characteristics. For instance, there is no obvious contrast in skin complexion to differentiate between the protagonists and antagonists. Jafar and his guards are not exceptionally darker than Aladdin and Jasmine. In addition, the live-action remake removes the sinister eyes and bulbous noses that characterized the villains. In regards to Aladdin (1992), Roger Ebert noted that all the characters “should resemble one another,” and the live-action remake seemingly works to erase these controversies by ridding the film of the detrimental racial stereotypes that initially offended many Middle Eastern and Arab-American audiences.[12]  Nevertheless, the Westernization of the main characters—mainly Aladdin, Jasmine, and the Genie—is not entirely removed. These characters are still the only ones in Agrabah with American English accents, for example.

Lastly, one of the most notable differences between Aladdin (1992) and Aladdin (2019) is in the character of the Genie. Genie in the live-action Aladdin is played by Will Smith, who lends a significant amount of star power and brings a more hip-hop interpretation to the character. His first song, “Friend Like Me,” is even changed into a hip-hop mix from its previous big musical show tune. The original animated character, voiced by Robin Williams, was based on the likes of Black jazz artists such as Fats Weller and Cab Calloway. Thus, choosing to recast Genie from a white voice actor to a Black actor is another apparent way of further distancing Aladdin from its previous criticisms. Additionally, it attempts to avoid controversy regarding the character’s mannerisms and way of speaking by casting a Black actor. However, this perpetuates the stereotype of the Black minstrel character that has a long history in Hollywood. The same stereotypes used for comic relief are still present, but now it is a Black actor enacting them as a means to avoid criticism of racial insensitivity. Additionally, the issue of casting Will Smith, who spoke with African-American Vernacular English, as an enslaved character did not go unnoticed. The decision to have a Black Genie dependent on his “masters” for freedom, in addition to the stereotypes of the character, was met with some criticism due to its offensive likeness to African-American slavery in the United States.[13]



Perhaps seeking to avoid the extensive criticism of Aladdin, the casting directors of Mulan (1998) focused primarily on bringing in Asian voice actors for this Chinese-based animated film. However, as Elmogahzy points out, it is likely that the film’s casting choices were motivated by Disney’s desire to improve its relationship with China following the Chinese government’s strong disapproval of Kundun (1997), a film about the Dalai Lama’s life while Tibet was occupied by China.[14] The studio, in efforts to repair this schism, primarily focused their marketing campaign on appealing to Chinese audiences. During the film’s release, the studio’s marketing manager Laura Folta boldly stated, “Our positioning is: This is a project with great pride to the Chinese people.”[15] The decision to market to a specific community, however, contradicts their claim that the film would focus on honoring the culture of their Eastern audiences.

Still, the production team for Mulan (1998) cast Chinese-American, Japanese-American, and Filipino voice actors for the vast majority of their characters. Chinese-American actors Ming-Na Wen, B.D. Wong, James Hong, and Freda Foh Shen voiced Mulan, Li Shang, Chi Fu, and Fa Li respectively. The Filipino actress Lea Solanga, who voiced Princess Jasmine’s singing in the animated Aladdin, voiced Mulan’s singing in this animated film as well. The characters of General Li, the Emperor, First Ancestor, Ling, and Chien-Po are respectively voiced by Japanese-American actors James Shigeta, Pat Morita, George Takei, and Gedde Watanabe. The only non-Asian actors to voice characters in Mulan (1998) were Eddie Murphy as Mushu, Miguel Ferrer as Shan Yu, June Foray as Grandmother Fa, and Harvey Fierstein as Yao. Fierstein, it turns out, initially declined the offer in order to “provide chances for Asian actors” to get cast in roles they deserve.[16] This directly reflects the common issue of whitewashing seen within the film and television industry, even today, and the role that white actors play in it. Back in the 1990s, however, this was relatively undisputed as seen with most of Disney’s animated films such as Aladdin and The Lion King (1994), where most of the characters were voiced by white actors. Fierstein, taking an unusual stance for the time period, did not accept the offer until he was assured by Disney that Asian actors were being cast in the majority of the roles.[17] Nevertheless, the awareness of whitewashing in previous decades has led to the increase of its criticism today, allowing for industry leaders to lean more towards diversity in casting.” Still, while casting many Chinese-American voice actors, Disney’s decision to cast as many pan-Asians as possible with little intent on prioritizing Chinese actors continues to endorse the stereotype held by some Western audiences that all Asians, regardless of culture or country of origin, are the same.

The issues related to white Westerners recreating a traditional Chinese tale still remained despite their efforts to be more “authentic.” Like Aladdin (1992), Disney’s form of multiculturalism in the animated Mulan is especially apparent: Mulan brings honor to her family and country only after “rejecting all facets of her Chinese identity and embracing more Western ideals.”[18] According to Disney’s portrayal of ancient Chinese culture, Mulan’s role in her society as a woman is to be obedient, marry, and have children—all of which she refuses, as it goes against her “true” nature. So, she decides to leave for the Chinese army dressed as a male soldier as a substitute for her aging father. This story, of course, is also an example of how Disney markets feminism: by “rejecting domestication” and “appropriating masculine attributes and roles,” Mulan is able to represent the Western idea of first-wave feminism as she challenges gender roles and expectations, dismissing the traditionally and socially acceptable feminine trends.[19] This could be the company’s way of appealing to young (Western) female audiences as they look for characters to identify with. On the other hand, the film emphasizes (and criticizes) the patriarchal nature of her society with constant disapproval from men about women fighting alongside them. For example, after an angered Li Shang dismisses Mulan upon finding out she pretended to be a male warrior named Ping, Mulan replies, “You said you trust Ping. Why should Mulan be any different?”[20] The implication here is that Mulan is just as worthy as the male warriors of respect—despite being shown in the first half of the film as initially weaker and unskilled in comparison until she spends extra time training to fight like them. Her story is not only based on her rejection of her cultural traditions, but it also forces her to become like the male characters in order to prove herself as honorable.

It is important to note that the film made considerable changes to the character compared to The Ballad of Mulan, the Chinese folklore it is based on. In the original short poem, Mulan’s decision to go to war in place of her father is solely based on fulfilling her role as a daughter while still upholding Chinese customs. The Ballad begins with her weaving—a traditionally feminine role in her culture—before leaving to buy a horse and saddle for the war she will partake in. There is no mention of her hiding as a male soldier or rejecting Chinese traditions. At the end of the poem, her only wish from the Khan (Emperor) is to return home to her family, where she puts on her old gowns and applies her makeup. This greatly surprises her fellow soldiers, who never suspected she was a woman. The Ballad of Mulan ends with the question: “But when a pair of hares run side by side, who can distinguish whether I in fact am male or female?”[21] In this story, unlike Disney’s version, Mulan is able to challenge the idea of gender norms without abandoning Chinese practices. Why she is depicted, then, in almost total dismissal of her previously embraced customs in order to endorse a socially progressive agenda is an important question to ask when looking at Disney’s motives behind Chinese representation in the animated film.

Another interesting character to take note of in Mulan (1998) is that of the dragon Mushu, voiced by Eddie Murphy, a popular Black comedian. His inclusion is not only an evident way to Americanize the story, but the comic foil also comes with deliberate racially insensitive stereotypes. Co-director Tony Bancroft even admitted in an interview that Mushu was meant to juxtapose the selfless Mulan. He stated, “What better contrast than to have a selfish character like Eddie’s ‘Beverly Hills Cop’s’ black streetwise, con artist personality?”[22] While obviously racist in its own right, Bancroft’s statement also admits the intentional minstrelsy of Mushu. By incorporating Black American tropes and stereotypes as a means of contrasting selflessness and bravery, the creators of Mulan (1998) managed to create a caricature that insinuates that Black Americans must lack these characteristics. His removal in Mulan (2020) was perhaps a means of avoiding this criticism, along with the strong criticism from Chinese audiences that the “miniature dragon trivialized their culture,” as it was seen as a mockery.[23]

In the live-action remake, much of the animated film’s story is changed while still maintaining many controversial elements. In addition to hiring a mostly white crew (director, casting director, costume designer, etc.) and including historically inaccurate architecture, Disney continued to evidently create a very Americanized version of Mulan.[24] In fact, even some Chinese audiences believed that Mulan was portrayed as “a brave new American woman” who “fights hard against the whole society of male superiority” in pursuit of “freedom and equality in China.”[25]  The live-action film focuses much more on Mulan’s desire to escape her patriarchal society rather than The Ballad of Mulan’s original purpose of telling a story based on Chinese values. She rejects her culture’s idea of femininity by embracing a tomboy style, mocking the use of makeup, and behaving rambunctiously throughout her young years. Using the term ‘chi’ to describe a “mystical energy that males are pre-dispositioned to possess,”[26] the film further makes her innate masculinity exceptionally clear when her father tells her, “Your chi is strong, Mulan. But chi is for warriors, not daughters.”[27] In The Ballad, however, the character of Mulan strongly values her traditionally feminine habits and traits. Disney removes these in order to market American individualism and values of first-wave feminism, enforcing a very binaristic concept of gender. That is, women must be like men in order to prove their equality.

These aspects of the live-action Mulan have multiple problematic implications. In addition to mystifying the concept of chi from a Western interpretation, the live-action film also implies a weakness in traditional Chinese femininity by forcing Mulan to reject those customs in order to prove herself to the men around her. This erases the themes made in The Ballad, wherein she embraces her culture and customs while also proving herself to be an exceptional warrior without any disapproval from her fellow soldiers or emperor after her gender was revealed. In other words, her identity as a simple woman was not hidden or erased; the men she fought with never realized her gender because of her skill. It is important to note, furthermore, that her reasoning for joining the war in the original tale was to uphold filial piety—“the guiding principle of the parent-child relationship [that] demands sincere respect and moral obedience of children to parents.”[28] Disney, however, recreated her to be unwilling to accept these traditions to promote a “post-colonial and feminist view into the Americanized Mulan image,” as Chen and Tian mention.[29] Thus, her role as a national heroine is altered to be an individual on a journey of self-awakening who must escape the seemingly sexist and restrictive patriarchal society of ancient China. As Chen and Tian point out, this is an example of how Disney attempts to force American values on the rest of the world in intentionally imperialistic ways.


Avatar: The Last Airbender

The popular Nickelodeon series, Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008), created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, has been applauded for its sole focus on Eastern and Indigenous cultures as well as its inclusion of disabled characters and non-conforming gender representation.[30] Taking place sometime in the nineteenth century, the show was inspired by Japanese anime, Chinese kung fu cinema, and Eastern philosophies—all of which were evident throughout its episodes.[31] In fact, the nations seen on a map in the opening title sequence reconstruct the American perspective of the East. In other words, by placing all of the lands across the world rather than in one area, it “remaps geographical assumptions; the Asian-inspired cultures are central, not a faraway Orient.”[32] The four societies within the world of Avatar are based on the four elements (water, fire, earth, air), each representing different styles of East Asian martial arts and various cultures. For example, the Water Tribes are based on the Inuit, Yupik, and Sirenik tribes, the Fire Nation on imperial Japan and China, the Earth Kingdom on China with some Korean influences, and the Air Nations on Tibetan and Nepali Buddhism and Hinduism.[33] When deciding on how each nation would bend elements (manipulate them telekinetically), the creators used tai chi choreography for the Water Tribe’s fighting styles, Northern Shaolin kung fu for the Fire Nation, hung ga for the Earth Kingdom, and baguazhang for the Air Nation.[34] The convergence between different Asian and Indigenous communities provides “an opportunity to defamiliarize racializing and colonizing processes” wherein the audience gets to experience an “alternative vision of modernity,” as Yao points out.[35] Moreover, at its core, the animated series is not only about embracing their various traditions and values, but putting an end to an imperial war brought on by the Fire Nation that has led to genocide and an endorsement of “otherness.” This aspect of the American show is often seen as a metaphor for criticizing the United States’ history of colonialism.

Each of the main characters of Avatar represent a different nation. Aang is the last remaining airbender monk after his people went extinct in the war, Katara and Sokka are siblings from the southern Water Tribe, Toph is a blind earthbender, but known to be the best there is, and Zuko is the prince from the Fire Nation, initially manipulated into thinking his nation’s views were justified. Throughout their journey together, they learn about each other’s cultures as well as delve into the traditions and subcommunities of each land. Aang, for instance, teaches about his practices as a monk, heavily coinciding with Tibetan Buddhist philosophies. He wears orange saffron robes, has a completely shaved head, prioritizes peace and healing, and meditates frequently in yogic poses. Alignment of his chakras becomes a constant discussion after he meets Guru Pathik, a heavily Hindi-inspired character who spends his life meditating and practicing yoga. Aang’s storyline thus focuses on how his duty to end the war conflicts with his spiritual beliefs. Katara and Sokka are shown wearing traditional Inuit garments, such as hooded parkas, as well as fur boots, mittens, and trousers. All of their tools, such as Sokka’s boomerang, are handmade from the materials in their environment. In battle, the men of both Water Tribes wear animal-inspired face paint and clothing—similar to the Inuit tribes they were inspired by. The siblings are also often seen hunting and gathering for the team. Regarding Toph, her recurring theme when she is first introduced is to prove her skill despite her blindness, even to go so far as to compete in earthbending fighting rings. Quickly becoming known as one of the greatest earthbenders by using her feet to sense minute vibrations in the earth, her blindness starts to be portrayed as a necessary asset rather than a weakness. Still, this could be seen as a way of romanticizing disabilities by perpetuating the false belief that when people lose one sense, they become stronger in the other senses. Moreover, it is also important to note that Toph is not the only character in Avatar portrayed as differently abled; Teo, an Earth Kingdom native living in a community that settled in one of the Air Temples, is a paraplegic who helped invent useful wheelchairs. Lastly, Prince Zuko, along with other characters of the Fire Nation, showcase the history of firebending as well as their militaristic nation. When training Aang to firebend, for example, Zuko takes him to find the Sun Warriors, the original firebenders thought to be extinct. These people were evidently based on Mesoamerican empires, using Aztec architecture and clothing with Incan and Mayan influences. Moreover, the team also learns about the imperialistic culture of the Fire Nation from Zuko and Fire Nation colonies, who describe how the empire teaches its history in schools to manipulate its people into thinking their invasion of the other nations is justified and resourceful (another common comparison to the United States and other imperialistic nations).

It should be noted as well that the portrayal of women in Avatar does not often force them to prove their strength as equal to men. Rather, it is understood from the beginning of the series (with Katara) that female warriors and fighters are just as essential as the men. There are cases when Katara, or the all-female Kiyoshi Warriors, meet male characters who underestimate their power. In such cases, their skills are showcased immediately, and end with a changed perspective from the men. Moreover, female characters are often seen in leadership roles without the need of men to defend them, as was the case with Katara in her team, the Kiyoshi Warriors, and Zuko’s sister Princess Azula.[36]

These reimaginings of the world as centralized on Asian-Indigenous identities have mostly been regarded as inclusive and socially progressive for an American-based show. This is especially considering that in Hollywood today, Native Americans only share 0.1% and Asians 4.1% of all television roles.[37] Many Natives, due to the lack of Indigenous representation in media, connected to and saw themselves in the Water Tribe characters, even though it was a fictionalized version of their culture.[38]  Still, Sullivan points out that there was disappointment following the creators’ decision to not include “Inuit input throughout the show’s production” and mainly cast white voice actors. This leads into a question of why certain communities are not given the opportunity to tell their own stories or play the characters that are supposed to represent them. In the live-action remake, The Last Airbender (2010), the whitewashing of the animated Asian-Indigenous characters is even more evident, resulting in an immense amount of backlash from fans who demanded for less “racebending” and more Asian representation in entertainment.[39] The creators of the film casted three white actors to play Aang, Sokka, and Katara, while Zuko was played by Indian-American Dev Patel. On top of the live-action film lacking the humor of the animated series, removing the character of Toph, rushing through the series’ story, and incorrectly pronouncing the characters’ names, the issue of race was its biggest controversy, with many still referencing it “as an example of racial miscasting to this day.”[40] Considering the animated series focused on attempting to remove the “otherness” that the Western world has long placed on Eastern and Native cultures, The Last Airbender not only negates that, but reinforces the notion that there is no need to effectively represent Asians and Indigenous peoples in media—even if the stories are about them.



How has the portrayal of women and various cultural groups changed from animation to live-action? Have there been successful attempts to provide accurate representation without essentialism or Americanization? In the case of Aladdin, the intentional Middle Eastern stereotypes placed on the animated characters are all but removed in its live-action version. Needless to say, the implication in Aladdin (1992) that darkness in skin translates to evilness in character, or stereotypical features such as bulbous noses and strong accents are “exotic,” while Americanizing the two main characters was racially insensitive and offended many Middle Easterners across the world. In this case, it is clear to see how essentialism is the basis of many discriminatory ideologies.[41] The attempt to erase these racial controversies in the live-action film was successful, to an extent. Despite removing the exotification and sexualization of Jasmine and casting Middle Eastern actors, Disney’s assimilationist multiculturalism was still evident in Aladdin (2019) with Aladdin, Jasmine, and the Genie being the only characters to have American English accents. In addition, the Genie was still a case of minstrelsy despite being played by a black actor, perpetuating a long history of racial stereotypes. In these cases, the changes made from animation to live-action still included signs of essentialism and Americanization by incorporating a Western perspective (or “twist”) of the “other” Middle East.

Similarly, in the animated and live-action Mulan, the depiction of ancient Chinese culture was not only mystified but presented as sexist and restrictive, going against the essence of the original folktale in an attempt to endorse a Western perspective of first-wave feminism with no regard to the importance of cultural traditions. For Avatar: The Last Airbender, the show’s progressive attempts to be inclusive of Asian and Indigenous communities as well as people with disabilities was erased in its live-action remake due to the whitewashing of its cast and removal of its disabled characters, a common example of homogenizing Americanization in media.

Still, in Disney’s case, the aim for greater diversity in their productions is there. Is that enough? The steps taken thus far to be more socially inclusive and accurately represent various cultures and communities “serve as hopeful indicators” of positive progression for future productions.[42] However, the importance of intentions still remains. While there is hope that more positive representation of these communities’ stories will appear in future live-action remakes, it remains unconvincing that the industry’s motivations lie in social progression rather than in their bottom line. If the portrayals of these stories are not prioritized, how effectively will they be able to positively represent non-white, non-heteronormative communities? Moreover, colorism and whitewashing continue to be seen in film and television productions, as with The Last Airbender (2010), proving that work still needs to be done to diminish insensitive racial beliefs.

Looking ahead at future live-action remakes, such as Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Netflix’s adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, further attempts of inclusivity are evident. Disney, for example, casted Halle Bailey to be the first Black on-screen portrayal of Princess Ariel. Netflix, on the other hand, has cast only Native American and Asian actors to play their characters. So far, in these cases, it seems to be a positive step forward. However, it is important that the creators focus on how the people within the communities they seek to portray feel when watching. Is it enough to exist in a major film, or could more work be done to provide accurate and inclusive representation that doesn’t distill a culture into its essentialist tropes?


[1] Amany Elmogahzy, “A ‘Whole New World’: Race and Representation in Disney’s Live-Action Remakes of Aladdin, The Lion King, and Mulan,” Auburn University Electronic Theses and Dissertations, 2018,, 43.

[2] Darnell Hunt et al., Hollywood Diversity Report 2021, (Los Angeles: UCLA, 2021),

[3] Larissa Schlögl and Nelson Zagalo, “From Animation to Live-Action: Reconstructing Maleficent,” in Body and Text: Cultural Transformations in New Media Environments, edited by David Callahan and Anthony Barker (Cham: Springer, 2019), 157.

[4] Roger Ebert, as quoted in Elmogahzy, “A ‘Whole New World,’” 53.

[5] Glen Keane, as quoted in Elmogahzy, “A ‘Whole New World,” 54.

[6] Elmogahzy, “A ‘Whole New World,” 54.

[7]  J.G. Shaheen, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (Ithaca: Olive Branch Press, 2009), 28.

[8] Samantha L. Zirger, “Disney’s New Fairytale: An Analysis of Representation in Disney’s Live-Action Remakes of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin,” CU Scholar University Libraries, 2020,, 10.

[9] Zirger, “Disney’s New Fairytale,” 31.

[10] Zirger, “Disney’s New Fairytale,” 31.

[11] Greg M. Smith, What Media Classes Really Want to Discuss (New York, NY: Routledge, 2011), 38.

[12] Elmogahzy, “A ‘Whole New World,’” 53.

[13] MD Mohiul Islam and Nilufa Akter, “Disney’s Aladdin (2019), the Old Rum in the New Bottle,” Ultimacomm 12, no. 1, (2020): 82.

[14] Elmogahzy, “A ‘Whole New World,’” 46-47.

[15] As quoted in Russell Flannery, “Disney Targets Asian Audiences With Special ‘Mulan’ Marketing,” The Wall Street Journal, July 31, 1998,

[16] Elmogahzy, “A ‘Whole New World,’” 47.

[17] Elmogahzy, “A ‘Whole New World,’” 47-48.

[18] Elmogahzy, “A ‘Whole New World,’” 44.

[19] Steven Chen et al, “Marketing Feminism in Youth Media: A Study of Disney and Pixar Animation,” Business Horizons 63, no. 5 (2020): 664-666.

[20] Mulan, directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook (1998; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Animation), DVD.

[21]  Suyin Haynes, “Is Mulan Based on a True Story? Here’s the Real History,” Time, September 11, 2020,

[22] Elmogahzy, “A ‘Whole New World,’” 49.

[23]  Nicholas Rice, “Mulan Director Niki Caro Explains Why Mushu Was Left Out of the Live Action Remake of the Film,” People, September 3, 2020,

[24] Haynes, “Is Mulan Based on a True Story?”

[25]  Mengjie Chen and Yuan Tian, “‘Yellow Skin, White Masks’: A Post-Colonial Study of Disney Live-Action Movie Mulan,” Academic Journal of Humanities & Social Sciences 4, no. 5 (2020): 26.

[26] Sarah Zhang, “Mulan: How Introducing Chi into the Live-Action Movie Undercuts Its Message,” CBR, September 26, 2020,

[27]  Mulan, directed by Niki Caro (2020; Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Pictures), streaming.

[28] Chen and Tian, “‘Yellow Skin, White Masks,’” 28.

[29] Chen and Tian, “‘Yellow Skin, White Masks,’” 30.

[30] Ashna Choudhury, “Representation in Animation: A Great Power and a Greater Responsibility,” UC Berkeley: Department of Art Practice, 2019,

[31] Eduardo Vasconcellos, “Interview: Avatar’s Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino,” IGN, May 14, 2012,

[32] Xine Yao, “Arctic and Asian Indigeneities, Asian/North American Settler/Colonialism: Animating Intimacies and Counter-Intimacies in Avatar: The Last Airbender,” Journal of Asian American Studies 24, no. 3 (2021): 474.

[33]  Michelle Jaworski, “A Beginner’s Guide to ‘The Legend of Korra’ and ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender,’” The Daily Dot, June 26, 2014,

[34] Josh St. Clair, “The Real Martial Arts Styles Behind Avatar’s Fire, Earth, Water, and Airbending,” Men’s Health, November 2, 2021,

[35] Yao, “Arctic and Asian Indigeneities,” 474.

[36] Michelle L. Benoit, “Representation in Animation,” Communication Senior Capstones 5, November 11, 2021,

[37] Hunt et al.. Hollywood Diversity Report 2021.

[38]  Meghan Sullivan, “‘Avatar’s Representation of Inuit,” Indian Country Today, November 5, 2020, December 13, 2021.

[39]  Lori Kido Lopez, “Fan Activists and the Politics of Race in The Last Airbender,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 15, no. 5 (2011): 431.

[40]  Brad Curran, “What Went Wrong with The Last Airbender Movie,” ScreenRant, April 23, 2020,

[41] Hamid Fernana et al., “The Allure of Essentialism and Extremist Ideologies,” Anthropology Southern Africa 43, no. 2 (2020): 107-118.

[42] Linda Houwers, “The Representation of Gender in Disney’s Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast: A Comparative Analysis of Animation and Live-Action Disney Film,” Radboud University Theses, June 15, 2017,