With Aladdin Guy Ritchie directs a live-action retelling of a Disney’s 1992 animated classic that’s high on spectacle, yet short on actual magic. In the fictional city of Agrabah we happen upon a homeless young man, Aladdin (Mena Massoud), in trouble with a street vendor but during his escape bumps into a beautiful young woman claiming to be the handmaiden of the princess. While attempting to be a good samaritan and giving two young children some bread, she also finds herself in trouble as she doesn’t have any money to pay for it.
Aladdin offers his assistance, and the two begin a mad-dash escape through the crowded marketplace, Aladdin on his own, while he sends his monkey friend Abu with the young woman. After just narrowly escaping, Aladdin takes the beautiful woman who calls herself Dalia to what he calls his “home”, which in reality is little more than an abandoned rooftop where he’s able to pull up a sheet and relax, surrounded by the few things he either found…or stole.
In the meantime, another prince makes his way through the city to the palace in the hope of being suitor for the elusive Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott). Seeing the entourage, the young woman tells Aladdin she must return to the palace and returns just in time to meet the prince because – surprise! – she’s actually the real Princess Jasmine. The disguise was a was to escape the palace walls and her father’s harsh rules of keeping her safe inside following the untimely death of her mother.
While the story is set in a time long ago, Princess Jasmine is very much a millennial woman who feels her voice should be heard just as loudly as that of her male counterparts. Translation: she refuses to marry someone who will treat her as simple arm candy. Even more daringly, she dreams of changing not only her father’s mind, but her culture, so that she might become the next Sultan of Agrabah.
Those familiar with the animated original will be familiar with most of this new version’s plot and overall story beats, though expect changes some will either find refreshing and others less than appealing. Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the nefarious Grand Vizier of Agrabah, is also scheming ways to become Sultan, and what better way to claim leadership than by magic? Hearing tales of a magic lamp hidden deep within the mysterious Cave of Wonders, Jafar reckons that calling forth a magical genie can be the end-all to end all his problems and claim the mantle of leadership for himself.
Unfortunately for someone as evil as Jafar, only one considered “a diamond in the rough” can possess the lamp, and this is where a street urchin like Aladdin comes in. Captured by the palace guards, Jafar sends Aladdin into the Cave to get the lamp, and when Aladdin inevitably gives it a rub we’re introduced to the real star of the show – the bluish, buoyant and very magical Genie (Will Smith), who quickly informs him that three magical wishes await. And what could a lovestruck young nobody wish for more than to be the one thing he feels would capture the heart of a princess than to become an actual prince?
There’s no way around stating the obvious: Will Smith is no Robin Williams, and that comparison simply can’t be avoided. Smith never really finds his way with being the Genie, regardless if he’s colored blue or not. Try as he might, Smith simply lacks the facial gymnastics required to play such a visually comedic and charismatically huge role. His singing was strong, especially as many of the most memorable numbers like “Friend Like Me” have been tailored to Smith’s better hip-hop sensibilities (even if they did sound slowed down in post-production).
The best actor in this ensemble, by far, was Mena Massoud’s Aladdin, who really embodied the role and hits the comedic moments perfectly, eliciting several laughs in awkward, yet endearing ways. Prince Ali first meeting Princess Jasmine is probably my favorite part of the movie, as Massoud plays the awkward lovable character so perfectly. Naomi Scott’s Princess Jasmine was quite beautiful, as expected, but her chemistry with Massoud never felt as strong as portrayed in the original. I wondered if this was because of the awkward writing, which almost felt trapped between the needs of the original story and the aims of remaking a cartoon with real people.
Take the scene he Aladdin – as the wish-granted Prince Ali – comes up to her balcony riding the magic carpet in the famous “do you trust me scene?” Jasmine hardly thinks about it before saying yes, though replies with a suspicious “what did you say?”. But in this version Aladdin hadn’t asked her this before, but simply said “trust me” earlier in the marketplace. This small, but critical interaction was designed to arouse her suspicion that Aladdin and Prince Ali may be connected, but here it becomes just one instance where it becomes impossible to differentiate between directly comparing the original to this remake, as even the film’s creators seem to have stumbled in their effort.
This modernized Princess Jasmine also has a stunning voice, though the newly-crafted song “Speechless” came across more like a political message than something her character would actually sing. Speaking of new, Jafar’s storyline was scaled back significantly to accommodate a newly created romantic subplot arc for the Genie, who finds himself attracted to Jasmin’s handmaiden Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), which plays as the B-storyline in the film.
Guy Ritchie, known almost exclusively for British gangster films like Snatch and newer Sherlock Holmes updates, seemed like an odd choice to rework an animated classic… and those suspicions were correct. Even moments that appear to be 1:1 recreations of the original appeared uninspired, such as the iconic “magic carpet ride” scene between the two leads. Given Disney’s near unlimited resources I expected far better visual effects, but these “magic” moments felt flat and really stretched out – not unlike a dusty old raggedly carpet.
Aladdin isn’t the first Disney classic to get the live-action remake treatment, and it certainly won’t be the last…though it’s definitely one of the lesser efforts. 2017’s Beauty and the Beast version was much better, and I even enjoyed the recent Tim Burton Dumbo redo as well. Just from trailers the upcoming remake of The Lion King also looks incredibly promising. There’s a lot more coming, too, and we’ll keep seeing them as long as they keep performing well at the box-office.
Walking out of the theater, I was left with the strong impression that Will Smith would have actually made an amazing Jafar and the Genie instead played by someone better suited for the role. Who that individual might be, I don’t know… it may just be impossible to replace Robin Williams (at least in our hearts and minds). The politics Disney interspersed throughout this new Aladdin felt forced and took away from the magic of the romance that was so crucial to the original story (at least the original Disney story), and even by the most charitably objective standards this remake fails to live up to the imagination and wonder of the 1992 animated original. The song may promise us “A Whole New World”, but the movie is mostly the same-old, same-old…and poorly handled.