Recently, audiences have seen Disney remaking many of their animated classics, with decidedly varying results. I wasn’t expecting much from the new live-action version of the 1992 animated classic Aladdin, directed by Guy Ritchie. He seemed an odd choice to direct, and the film’s marketing did not do him any favors. And it’s released on Memorial Day weekend, which is typically where the lesser Disney projects go to die (John Carter, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Tomorrowland, etc.). I am pleased to say that Aladdin is not the dumpster fire fans were dreading. It’s a whimsical and mostly enchanting spectacle that hits far more often than it misses.
Aladdin (Mena Massoud), a lowly street urchin living in the desert kingdom of Agrabah with his monkey sidekick Abu, lives a life of stealing from strangers and moving quickly from place to place. One fateful day, he has a chance encounter with Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott). They become friends and could be more, but due to outdated laws, Jasmine must marry a prince. Jasmine’s evil uncle Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) takes Aladdin into a cave where he meets a Genie (Will Smith) who will grant him three wishes, and could make all his dreams come true. But, alas, he soon learns the lesson as old as time – be careful what you wish for.
My pet peeve about these movies is they’re often based on musicals and are turned into movies that strip most of, if not all the music, and the music can be one of the most iconic aspects of the original property. Only in Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast, and now Aladdin (also with an Alan Menken score), have the musical numbers been treated properly in the newer versions. When Mena Massoud breaks into his first musical number, the audience knows immediately they’re dealing with someone from the theatre world, and he’s very good. His performance at times relies on his reactions to the wackiness going on around him with the genie, and that sounds limiting, but he’s having a lot of fun and he has a genuine screen presence that bodes well for his career in the future.
Naomi Scott, soon to be seen in Elizabeth Banks’ remake of Charlie’s Angels, is perhaps even better than Massoud. Specific tweaks are made to the character of Jasmine to make her feel more modern, and she plays these changes in a way where nothing feels forced. Her Jasmine is pretty much perfect, and there’s really nothing negative to note about her performance. And oh yes, she has a new song. ‘Speechless’, the film’s only new tune, written by La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, a song you should definitely expect to see Scott perform at the Oscars next spring.
After the initial criticism and backlash of the character design of Will Smith’s Genie, it was strange how natural Smith was in this role. In the beginning of the film, the CGI of the Genie is a bit wonky, but it gets better as it progresses. There’s a lot of dazzling visual trickery involving the way the Genie slips in and out of frame, and it’s ultimately pretty impressive. However, the casting directors are certainly doing Smith no favors by setting him up with two Broadway-caliber singers, their presence illuminating how he’s never been much of a singer, but it hardly even matters. The summer movie star Will Smith is finally back and the Collateral Beauty/Seven Pounds Will Smith is now blissfully a thing of the past.
Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar, however, is deserving of some criticism. His performance is not as threatening as it needs to be, and then way too over-exaggerated in the last third. We also have Saturday Night Live’s Nasim Pedrad playing a new character for the remake, Dalia, a handmaiden to Jasmine. She doesn’t have much to do, but she’s lovely and has excellent comedic timing. Same goes for Billy Magnussen, who plays Prince Anders, a bumbling possible suitor for Jasmine.
Guy Ritchie, well-known for action fare like the recent Sherlock Holmes films, seemed like a strange choice from the start for a live-action Aladdin. There is some of his signature quick-cut frenetic action, but other than these moments it definitely feels like this film could have been made by anyone. He directs the musical numbers with considerable flair. The big songs pop as well as they need to, and it’s all very safe and successfully plays on the viewer’s nostalgia. The people who grew up with and loved the original Aladdin will eat this one up.
My favorite thing about the new Aladdin is how unabashedly cartoonish it is. It very often feels like an animated film brought to life, exactly as it should. As a result, it never feels too serious and the lighthearted and whimsical nature is almost always intact. The film loses its way a bit for me in the third act when the climactic tension with Jafar goes on a bit long, but I’m quickly reminded this is all stuff that happened in the original animated version. This isn’t like Dumbo, where the writers add a ticking-clock in the final act for no apparent reason.
In the end, I didn’t care how blatant a retread and cash-grab the new Aladdin is. It plays it narratively safe for the most part, but we’ve got some glowing and energetic performances, beautiful costumes and production design, and well-executed musical numbers. For a film that was almost written off by fans and critics alike after the awful first trailers, I’m pleased how much there is to like in the new Aladdin. Could the musical numbers be more polished? Sure. The film is not without its flaws, but I would say it does everything it needs to do. It hits every nostalgic note just right and sends the viewer off with a smile.