Movie Review: Aladdin
By Matthew Huntley
June 5, 2019
Guy Ritchie’s live-action “Aladdin” is a bona fide reimagining. It is, in many ways, similar to its beloved, animated counterpart, but more importantly, it’s also different, and this latter quality relieves our temptation to question whether or not it was necessary. That’s a refreshing trait to have during this recent age of Disney deciding to remake all of its animated classics. And whereas misfires like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Dumbo” tainted our memories of their originals, “Aladdin” circumvents that possibility by focusing on being its own entity and creating a new experience altogether. The result isn’t perfect, but I was pleasantly surprised that while watching this rendition, I recalled its predecessor less and less and instead concentrated on what the filmmakers presented in front of me.
For the record, I have seen the animated “Aladdin” (1992) at least a couple hundred times, first as a fan then later as an employee at a DVD testing facility. It came out during my formative years and was one of those reliable “go to” movies that never seemed to get old or boring. But even if you can’t recite the dialogue or sing the songs word-for-word like I can, odds are if you’ve seen it at least once, it stuck with you. It had the power and charisma to immediately enchant viewers with its bright colors, catchy tunes, and energetic action and humor, the latter of which was delivered in ample supply by the inimitable Robin Williams, who voiced the jolly blue genie.
Given my fondness of the animated version, you can imagine my skepticism going into this live-action, highly-digital “Aladdin,” with Will Smith, of all people, as the genie. Ritchie and his team, however, seem keenly aware of any fanbase apprehension that might exist, and rather than try to live up to what came before it, they made a movie that assumes it’s not a remake and ask viewers to watch and judge it on its own merits. I wasn’t expecting this kind of approach, but I certainly welcomed it.
The basic tale you probably know. A street urchin named Aladdin (Mena Massoud), parentless yet resourceful, spends his days lazing about the city of Agrabah with his best friend and monkey Abu. Aladdin steals things like bread to stay alive, but he’s kind and compassionate nonetheless, and one day he rescues Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), who’s wandering the city in disguise as a means to break free from palace life. Their encounter is, of course, love at first site, but neither admits it. Plus, Jasmine is under pressure from her father, the sultan (Navid Negahban), to marry a prince, as both the law and tradition dictate, but she yearns to be a noble leader for her people first and has no interest in marrying for anything but love.
Meanwhile, the sultan’s evil vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), schemes to get his hands on a magic lamp that resides in the Cave of Wonders. He knows it contains a genie who will grant him three wishes, which he hopes to use to become the world’s most powerful, evil sorcerer.
So the story goes, Aladdin comes upon the lamp instead and wishes for Genie (Smith) to make him a prince, in hopes he’ll be able to woo the princess. This all builds toward the story’s greater moral message about being true to oneself and not letting superficiality and antiquated customs compromise one’s integrity.
In between the usual fairy tale plot points are those timeless, one-of-a-kind songs by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, including “Arabian Nights,” “One Jump Ahead,” “Friend Like Me,” “Prince Ali” and “A Whole New World.” Many of these have been re-worked, either rhythmically or lyric-wise, from the animated film and they’re not simply better or worse for it, just different, and the composers and lyricists have wisely adapted and updated them specially for this presentation.
And you know what? The new versions of the songs work—most of the time. You’d think that because they’re so well-known our brains would have trained our ears to only hear them a certain way, but our senses adapt. Granted, the numbers aren’t always as catchy or captivating as we’d like, and I’ll admit Smith’s opening rendition of “Arabian Nights” had me cringing at first, but as soon we accept the movie isn’t going to simply regurgitate the original, we stop wishing for we want to hear and only process what we do hear, and we enjoy it.
One bonus song we get is “Speechless,” which Jasmine sings to herself as she expresses her will to not let the men in her life control her destiny. This moment was a delight because it allowed the otherwise routine Jasmine character to have a scene all to herself, which the animated film lacked.
In fact, both leads have more dimension this time around. The screenplay by John August and Ritchie gives Aladdin and Jasmine individual and combined scenes that allow them to develop beyond the mere archetypes of hero and princess. The casting of Massoud and Scott, fresh and smooth-faced, helps because they’re relatively unknown actors and we’re therefore not prone to see them in any certain way based on their previous roles, and even though it takes a while, their performances and characters eventually grow on us. This comes after my heart sank a little bit at the beginning because the narrative seemed to rush their introductions and I assumed Aladdin and Jasmine would simply get upstaged by the supporting characters and the film’s flashy ornamentations. But that’s not entirely the case and the story becomes just as much about them as its other players.
This includes Genie, who’s given more of a role to play besides the giant blue comedian with a thousand faces. We get to see him in corporeal form as he pursues a romance of his own with Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), Jasmine’s loyal handmaiden, who also establishes her own presence.
I’ll admit I had (and still have) many misgivings about Smith playing the genie. Even though he eventually won me over, I don’t think he was the best choice for the role. Whereas Robin Williams’ inherent talents infused the genie with energy and conviction, I think it’s the special effects that do most of the work for Smith. As talented as he is, he doesn’t seem to have the range required for this particular character. I’m not sure who would have been better suited, but I believe it was someone else.
That being said, one benefit of casting a veteran music performer like Smith and the film being live action is the dance choreography, especially during the numbers “Friend Like Me,” “Prince Ali” and an unexpected, punchy scene that takes place at a party. In it, the genie works his magic to make Aladdin, fronting as Prince Ali, to perform a high-spirited dance routine that’s a mix of street, break, hip hop and Bollywood. Moments like these are not only what set the movie apart from the original but also give it its own earned zest and personality.
As much praise I’ve awarded “Aladdin,” the film didn’t always sit well with me, and there were a handful of times when the presentation felt cheesy, over-the-top, and, frankly, embarrassing, because it’s not always easy watching gimmicks and hijinks that were originally conceived for animation suddenly conform to live action, especially when it came to the spontaneous behavior of the genie. For instance, during “Prince Ali,” it was easy to accept Williams’ animated character transform into a full-figured woman and gawk at Prince Ali as he paraded through the bazaar. It’s not so easy to watch Smith do the same thing. But I suppose that’s one of the costs of going from animation to live action—what seems perfectly apposite for cartoons can render awkward for real people.
In spite of its shortcomings, though, at an unexpectedly long 129 minutes (compared to the original’s 90), “Aladdin” works more splendidly than not as a cheerful, boisterous romp. In a perfect world, editor James Herbert would have tightened up the narrative a bit and the filmmakers would have been more selective with what they chose to port out from the animated film. But the movie is playful, endearing and lively just the same. It’s also refreshing in the sense it’s cast is so diverse and the Arab characters actually look Arabic. Ritchie and his team have done a commendable job of remaking a classic in such a way so that we now have two different versions of “Aladdin” to think back on with affection. They’re not exactly equal in value but at least they’re separate.