Animation enables stories to go beyond the mundane everyday and capture wonder and amazement in nearly limitless ways. Walt Disney surely knew this, and he and his legacy of films stand as a testament to that quality. Long after his life and death, the company bearing his name has delighted generations and continues to do so; one film in that legacy is Aladdin, which has proven to be one of the most memorable and uniquely energetic of all. Much of that is indisputably due to the incredibly talented Robin Williams and the opportunity that film allowed for his comic sensibilities and charm to run amok as the acerbic, morphing Genie. Joining that instant classic performance with a distinct setting, infectious melodies, and kinetic animation, and it is a film that would make many think a remake to be unnecessary, if not bordering on some level of film sacrilege for Disney to “re-do” it all again. Yet, here we are: the inevitable Disney live-action remake, this time with another distinctive personality inhabiting the role of the Genie. Will Smith brings the charisma that made him a household name to the mix, but is that enough to make this tale worth telling again?
As if anyone needed the plot detailed, don’t expect much to be different from the tale told in 1992 (and centuries prior): the “street-rat” Aladdin (Mena Massoud) lives in the marketplaces of Agrabah, a kind-hearted thief doing his best to survive with his monkey pal, Abu, and allowing others to do the same. As fate would have it, he meets this kingdom’s princess, Jasmine (Naomi Scott, continuing to impress me here following my first seeing her in Power Rangers). She longs for freedom from the demands of palace life, which strangely connects the two of them. Meanwhile, Aladdin finds himself the latest recruit for the palace vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), who has sent many hopeless men to their death in search of a lamp. While it would seem that Aladdin is left for dead, the lamp he finds unlocks the near-limitless power of the Genie (Will Smith), and while it can’t ensure the love of Jasmine, it can put him in her long line of regal suitors and make him a notable possibility. Still, power of that magnitude attracts those hungry for it, and a promise to free a friend is easy to break when doing so could give one all they’ve ever wanted.
That synopsis isn’t so much a spoiler as it applies equally to the known-to-all original animated film, as well. Still, the filmmakers knew you would be singing along and predicting the plot, so it’s where the film charts its own course that proved most interesting. As such, I won’t go into particulars. An additional primary cast member named Dalia should have tipped us all off to changes, and I will say that Nasim Pedrad is one of the very best things about this movie. I never felt she was properly utilized on Saturday Night Live, but even if she wasn’t known from that, she makes a name for herself in her comic delivery. Almost every scene she was in, I found myself laughing. In addition, with a runtime over two hours, many character motivations are fleshed out, and we are also treated to a new song and subplot from Jasmine. I will say that it comes at the expense of some pacing issues, but that tends to be the case.
Before going further, let’s address the elephant in the room: Will Smith. It was well-covered online that people took issue with anyone following Robin Williams in the role. Maybe it came down to the special effects in trailers for some or some dislike of Smith even, but whatever the reason, the venom was strong, even with only pictures and limited footage to go off of. Having watched the film, I’ll say this: all is well. Nothing in this film takes away from the legendary performance of Williams, and the film goes out of its way to make distinctions between the two performances. When you have the same songs and plot, sure, there is the thought this will all be a copy-cat cribbing of all we loved before; still, I was drawn into what Smith did here. I’ve watched most of his movies, and his performance here is distinct for himself. Of course, it relies on his patent charisma, but his body language is distinct here and thoughtfully done. The animators tried to visually keep up with the zany speed of Robin Williams‘ vocals, but here, Will Smith keeps us interested in admittedly strange ways. He wisely knew people would have daggers out for him in any mimicry, so he does it all on his own terms. It made the film all the better for it, and it largely nullifies all that pre-emptive hate for the film.
Alongside Smith is the titular hero, Aladdin. Mena Massoud plays him with effortless charm, and while he is a relative newcomer, he made for a great leading actor. I hope to see him in more in years to come. Naomi Scott is given even more to do as Jasmine in a largely expanded role that makes her as much of a heroine as Aladdin is the hero. Also, while I knew she could do action scenes from Power Rangers, this girl can sing! Aladdin and Jasmine share some of the best chemistry I’ve seen in a while, and I found myself wrapped up in their romance. I already confirmed how impressed I was with Nasim Pedrad, but I can’t say the same for Marwan Kenzari as Jafar. There isn’t necessarily anything terrible about his performance, but following one of the most dastardly performances, visually and vocally, in all of Disney history, it just never fully comes together here in making an impact. Iago is subtly voiced by the always great Alan Tudyk, but you might not know it, as Iago is done in a much more realistic manner here than the full conversing we got with Gilbert Gottfried.
One of the biggest strengths I can say is the world we see. The costumes and set design all pop with truly beautiful colors, which we obviously got with the animated film. Still, seeing it all in live action made it even more magnificent, to be quite honest. Love the film or hate it, you can’t say that they cut any corners in these areas. Alan Menken returns here to build on his work in 1992, and while some songs received additional lyrics (or even some edited for cultural sensitivity), he is allowed an opportunity to delight with the familiar while surprising the audience with slight variation. He nails it, and the cast makes it all work. Guy Ritchie is a very capable director, but he hasn’t impressed me much in recent years. This film put him back in my good graces after I couldn’t even finish 2017’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. He creates an Agrabah worth caring about, and the way he stages the street pursuits worked very well, whether in tight close-ups or aerial shots. Apart from that, he captures some of the best awkward comedy I’ve seen in some time. I couldn’t imagine a better film coming out of the cast and crew assembled.
Yet, that’s the problem people have, isn’t it? There isn’t a real need for these live-action versions, other than nostalgia trips and extending Disney‘s marketing arm with “sure-fire winners”. I get that, but I’m also realistic about it all: I don’t expect these to stop anytime soon, expressly because of those reasons. Because of that, I try to not get caught up in the blind hate of it all. Judging this film on its own merits (which is what I’m supposed to do, right?), I have to say I was thoroughly entertained in the spectacle of it all, as the action, look, feel, and song and dance numbers held my interest throughout. Unexpectedly, it is one of my favorites of these live-action remakes, but like most of these, I’ll see whether or not I’m ready to dive back into it in a year or so. With the energy that this film exudes, there is enough going on well here to make me optimistic.
Content-wise, the live-action aspect makes some of the action scenes more impactful than the animation did. Scariness was more a factor in the animated film than here, as the film ditched some scenes that could have been incredibly creepy if done in live-action. Sexual content is only in relation to a handful of tastefully done kissing scenes. I can’t recall any language, aside from the non-cursing insults like “street rat” etc. Sorcery and magic are part-and-parcel for this story, so know that going in. I thought that this film highlighted the key messages of not allowing circumstances to change who we are on the inside, of the neverending desire for more power and wealth, and of the importance of keeping our word, as well as an added empowerment message for women. These are strong messages, and the film landed them all effectively.
All-in-all, Aladdin was a pleasant surprise. I was expecting a colossal failure, to be quite honest, so I’m glad to say I was disappointed, but only in that regard. Will it supplant my love of the original? Probably not, but I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t entertained, even as the film went on a little too long. A truly beautiful film with laughs and incredible sights and sounds galore; maybe it was unnecessary, but it isn’t unnoteworthy. Made as even more of a musical than it was before, fans of Hollywood song and dance would be missing out by writing this off. Grab the kids or grandkids, and give it a shot. I’m glad I did.