3.5 out of 5 stars.
“A Whole New World,” the duet between Aladdin and Princess Jasmine is one of many favorite music numbers that appear in “Aladdin,” the new live-action remake of the animated Disney classic of the same name. It isn’t a great descriptor for the film itself, which in many aspects is inferior to the original version (as is the case with all of the live-action remakes we’ve seen from Disney of late). But even though we’ve seen a version of the same material before, that doesn’t mean that it can’t still be immensely enjoyable, and once the film gets past a rough patch in the beginning—well, that’s exactly what it is.
Directed by Guy Ritchie, the film follows Aladdin (Mena Massoud), a poor thief living on the streets of Agrabah with his monkey Abu, and Jasmine (Naomi Scott), the princess of Agrabah who is forced to remain in the palace and is being pressured to marry so their kingdom can form a strong alliance with others. She has a chance encounter with Aladdin, who is immediately smitten with her, but while attempting to meet her again, he is abducted by the Grand Vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari). Jafar wants Aladdin to retrieve a lamp for him from the Cave of Wonders so he can release the Genie (Will Smith) and use him to become the Sultan himself, but Aladdin ends up possessing the lamp instead, and chooses to use Genie’s powers to try to impress Jasmine.
“Aladdin” plays on many of the same themes of the original movie, namely being yourself, but also introduces some new ones. The material is updated to be more modern and more inclusive. Jasmine doesn’t just want to marry for love; she wants to be the Sultan of Agrabah herself, so she can do what is best for the people she cares about so deeply. In fact, the only all new song in the movie is a power ballad for Jasmine titled “Speechless,” in which she sings about her desire to be heard in a world where the only ones who possess power are men. The film also depicts its characters wearing more modest clothing compared to the animated version, and—most importantly—doesn’t whitewash its cast, which is almost entirely made up of actors of African and Middle Eastern descent.
That cast, by the way, is overall pretty great. Massoud won the role after a worldwide search, and both he and Scott embody their characters to a tee. They nail the music numbers, and their chemistry is immediate. On the other hand, while Kenzari does his best with Jafar, he doesn’t come off as evil as he should be. He more just quietly schemes until the end of the movie, although we do get a few snippets of backstory that add an interesting dimension to his character.
The hardest task, however, fell to Will Smith. The Genie in the original “Aladdin” immediately became an iconic character thanks to Robin Williams’ voice work. Nothing can compare, and Smith doesn’t try to. He puts his own spin on the role while keeping the spirit of the Genie intact. He’s quick with the jokes, nails the more serious scenes, and also has great rapport with Massoud. Sure, his singing is a bit rough, but when he transitions over to rapping, he does just fine, and whatever else he lacks, he makes up for in charisma.
It does take some time before all the right elements are put into place and “Aladdin” really starts to feel like it’s working. Some of this comes down to the very odd choice of Guy Ritchie as the director. Ritchie, whose specialty is action, has never directed a movie musical before, and it shows. In a few of the more action-heavy scenes, namely the number “One Jump Ahead” in which Aladdin and Jasmine are chased by palace guards through the streets of Agrabah, it’s evident that Ritchie is trying to add a bit of flair in both the editing and the way he composes his shots that just really doesn’t work for a film that isn’t an action movie first. There are also a few plot points that either seem too rushed (like Aladdin’s sudden transition from selfless to selfish) to unnecessary (like a romance between Genie and Jasmine’s handmaiden Dalia, played by Nasim Pedrad, that comes out of nowhere.) Some of the traditionally more exuberant numbers, particularly the Genie’s “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” also feel a little restrained, but that may not be entirely due to Ritchie’s direction. The original film was animated, and there’s a lot you can get away with in animation that just doesn’t look or feel right in live action. In fact, animation usually has to be exaggerated to get its intent across to the audience, but if you exaggerate live-action too far, it just looks silly.
And unfortunately, some of the visual effects in this movie do look silly. Smith splits his time in the film between his human form and his blue Genie form, and frankly, the latter just looks too cartoony to take seriously. Even the abundance of visual effects in the film’s climax don’t look great. But the film is visually appealing in other areas; the costumes are spectacular, and the sets—green screen or not—are both fitting and beautiful.
“Aladdin” is far from perfect, but it’s also far from the train wreck so many people were expecting it to be. When it comes down to it, these Disney live-action remakes may primarily exist for the studio to make money, but they also pose a unique challenge. Hew too closely to the original, and they’ll be called out for doing the exact same thing all over again. Stray too far, and fans will be irritated at the changes made. It’s a tough balancing act, but it’s one that “Aladdin” overall manages pretty well.
Runtime: 128 minutes. Rated PG.