Disney has a heavy slate of live-action remakes for 2019 but probably the most controversial has been “Aladdin”. Based on one of the studio’s most popular Disney Renaissance films of the 90s, the “Aladdin” remake is only the latest in a line of notorious live-action adaptations that have made fans ask, “who really wanted this?”. The fact that the Genie remains one of the most popular Disney characters and an iconic role for the late Robin Williams didn’t help either. Early trailers led to backlash when it was assumed that the Genie wouldn’t be blue but then when we saw what he would look like…well, let’s just say some people should be careful what they wish for. Needless to say, this is a movie with a lot to live up to and had to face a lot of scrutinies regardless of its quality even before it hit the big screen. So, was this remake worthy of all the fuss or does it deserve more credit than fans might be willing to give it? Let’s find out. This is my review of the live action “Aladdin”.
Based on the 1992 Disney classic of the same name itself inspired by the folk tale from “One Thousand and One Nights”, “Aladdin” follows the titular “street rat”, played by Mena Massoud, as he meets and falls for Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), the daughter of the Sultan of Agrabah. Aladdin feels unworthy of Jasmine’s hand and is coaxed by the evil Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) into entering the mysterious cave of wonders to retreive a magical lamp, with the promise of riches that would impress the princess. Jafar’s plan backfires however as Aladdin meets a magical Genie (Will Smith) who offers him three wishes. Aladdin uses this opportunity to turn himself into a prince as Jasmine can only marry royalty by Agrabah law. As Jasmine and Aladdin grow closer Jafar hatches a scheme to usurp rule over Agrabah with the Genie’s power while Aladdin must decide if he’d rather live a lie for love or tell the truth and earn Jasmine’s heart the old-fashioned way.
Going into this film it’s important to get one thing out of the way very quickly. This is not as good as the animated film and it should not be held to the standards of its predecessor. No matter who you talk to this was never going to be considered a superior effort and honestly after seeing the final product I don’t think it was ever meant to be. With that in mind, I went in just hoping for a good movie. While it’s near impossible not to compare the two, and I will do that several times in this review, I simply wanted to see the story done justice. There was no way this live-action version was ever going to meet the lofty standards set by the original and I do honestly believe a lot of people hate it just because it exists. But it does exist. You’ll have to live with that. The question is now, is it any good? Well, yes and no. I decided to review this film sing the film version of “comparative perspective” with the understanding that this movie has to be appreciated on its own accord while also looking at whether or not it does justice to the legacy of the property. As you can tell by the synopsis above it follows a lot of the same story beats as the original bringing many of the classic tunes from the animated feature to the big screen in live-action as well as numerous iconic scenes. However, there were some surprisingly deep and timely changes made to the story that help this remake stand on its own.
The original “Aladdin” did put the focus on how the access to wishes nearly turns Aladdin into a greedy man with his own interests, but this live-action film owns that theme a little more. It’s pretty much the basis of Aladdin’s relationship with Genie who is so used to power-hungry masters he’s shocked to be serving someone who does think of himself but has a kind heart and good intentions nonetheless. When Aladdin does inevitably let the power go to his head it creates a nice roundabout idea of how having too much doesn’t always make you happy. The animated film and the live-action feature both tackle this moral conundrum but to different extremes. The most shocking, and in my opinion welcome, change to the narrative however is the role of Jasmine who goes from being a simple love interest to a strong-willed woman who wants to lead the people she loves dearly as Sultan, which is a position normally restricted to men. Naomi Scott is a delightful breath of fresh air in this film and owns her character’s place in the story as a not-so-subtle feminist jab at how women are often seen as unfitting to lead and should stay in their place. The villain Jafar’s connection to the princess further drives home this idea of women being subservient to men which can make the moral a little heavy handed at times, but I enjoyed it all the same. It makes Jasmine just as integral to the story as Aladdin. She’s not just a flirt or a target of affection, she’s her own person with a personality and a drive to do what’s right and her demand for a man that respects her beyond her beauty is much more strongly presented here than in the original where she also had some strong traits but these were more explored in the sequels and television spinoff. I also loved how her story arc wrapped up in the end, putting a very different spin on the final resolution of the original film that feels more appropriate for a character as respected as her.
Then, of course, we have the Genie, probably the most talked about and despised part of this film long before it was even released. A lot of people didn’t enjoy early photos showing Will Smith without blue skin and then when it was revealed he’d be blue the CGI in the trailers had people crying foul again. While I’ll get to the CGI in a bit I have to say even I was skeptic about Smith taking on the iconic role made famous by one of my favorite actors, Robin Williams. Man, was I wrong. Smith is just as fun and energetic as his predecessor and while nobody will ever be as good as Williams you can tell Smith went in wanting to have fun and do respect to the zany, often random Genie that everyone knows and loves. One of the film’s biggest flaws is that it starts off really slow, rushed and boring trying to cram in as much of the first act of the animated film as possible in the first half hour. Once the Genie arrives on the scene though the movie wakes up in a big way. Smith injects the same show-stopping energy and charisma into this picture that Williams brought to the original animated movie. Like his predecessor, Smith brings this live-action adaptation to life in more ways than one. Until he arrived I was seriously wondering what I had gotten into but after the Genie’s appearance, I was hooked and invested for the entire rest of the film. It seems like Smith’s sense of humor and personality bleeds into every other actor bringing more life and energy to the story as a whole. Even Smith’s rendition of “Friend Like Me”, while different from Williams’ original, is catchy as hell and possesses its own fun charm. I was clapping along with the beat, along with everyone else in the theater. It was just so much fun to see this song come to life in a new way. It’s not Robin Williams but I’ll be damned if I still didn’t have fun watching what Smith brought to the role.
But even while giving “Aladdin” credit there’s a lot to criticize. The CGI for starters is not very impressive. The Genie is probably the most convincing CGI character and that’s not saying a lot while icons like Iago, Abu and Rajah are forgettable and don’t even try to be convincingly real. The city of Agrabah itself also feels boring. While there are a lot of neat set pieces in the film the animated version of this city feels more alive and colorful whereas the live action version feels bland and uninspired. I’ll give credit for some amazing vocal work on the songs with classics like “One Jump Ahead” and “A Whole New World” included but these songs often feel cut and pasted into the story for the sake of having a musical number. They’re not cohesive to the scenes and feel random. Even the original song for the soundtrack, “Speechless” sung by Naomi Scott, while beautifully done, feels like it’s randomly inserted and the action just stops to make sure it’s included making it feels out of place. The only songs that really feel cohesive to the narrative are Will Smith’s tune with “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” bringing a lot of energy and much needed joy to the film although even then Smith’s rendition of “Arabian Nights”, the opening number, just didn’t land for me. There’s a lot about this movie that feels thrown in to see if it would stick and sadly a good deal of it doesn’t. There’s a lack of polish all around although I respect that Director Guy Ritchie, already out of his comfort zone with this movie, and his co-writer John August tried to create something that felt all its own while also respecting what people loved about the original film.
But by far the worst aspect of this movie for me was Jafar. The main villain was one of the most forgettable and bland live-action interpretations of a Disney character to date in my opinion and it took a lot of the fun out of the conflict for me. Marwan Kenzari plays the Grand Vizier/sorcerer and normally I like this actor. I don’t know if it was the writing, direction or the lofty expectations set by the animated version but this live-action Jafar is nothing more than a whiny child trying to get his way with no complexity. His cliché motives barely delve any deeper into his character than the original version did. I just found most of his story and character to be incredibly downplayed or phoned in to the point where at times I even forgot there was an antagonist in this film at all. For comparison, while Will Smith was able to inject his own charm into the Genie to try and at least respect the legacy left by Williams, Kenzari comes nowhere near living up to Jonathan Freeman’s original take on Jafar. To be fair he’s not the first person to poorly portray a Disney villain in live action, but while past performers at least tried to do something unique or original to keep their character’s relevant Jafar feels lifeless and is more annoying than threatening.
Before I conclude you’ll notice there’s one thing I haven’t talked about much in this review…Aladdin himself. You’d think him being the namesake of the movie would make him the centerpiece, right? Not really. While the character was overshadowed by the Genie in the animated film he at least remained the focus of the story and felt like a hero we can root for. In this new version though Aladdin takes a backseat as he follows the same beats as the original version while the Genie once again steals the show and Jasmine gets more development. That’s not to say Aladdin is ignored, but he’s also not front and center a lot of the time. He helps drive the action but by the end of the film his story is more typical while other characters are given much more development and experience more evolution. This to me is simply a product of this film’s “remake” status. I don’t think Mena Massoud does a bad job in the titular role. He’s not the most gripping actor in the world, but he does provide charm and owns the hilarious male cluelessness especially in his attempt to impress Jasmine’s. But I think he’s so similar to the animated version he just blends into the crowd while other characters are either hamming it up or pushing their stories in new directions. To me, it’s a take it or leave it kind of character. He does the trick if you liked how he was presented in the original, but other than a passing reference to his parents Aladdin gets essentially the same development here and never really steal the spotlight. He’s not forgettable but not incredibly memorable either. He just kind of is.
No matter how well this movie ages or how many compliments I might give it there will always be people who are destined to hate the live-action “Aladdin” simply because it exists, but if you give it a chance you might find that it has its own merits. It starts off really slow but once the Genie comes in this movie manages to find life and provide plenty of effective humor and entertainment. It’s a mostly middle of the road movie that won’t impress anyone looking for a masterpiece but provides plenty of escapism and joy for those with an open mind to embrace it. The music is fun and energetic at times while feeling disconnected at others. We get memorable performances by Naomi Scott as a much more developed Jasmine and Will Smith as a surprisingly charming Genie while Jafar is one of the worst things about the film and Aladdin himself is just kind of there most of the time. The visuals aren’t that impressive but the energy and humor hit most of the right notes and the story offers a few new surprises that build on and even complement what the original film was trying to say to its young audience. For me personally, I had a lot of fun with this movie as a viewer but as a critic, I felt it left a lot to be desired in terms of polish, flow, and presentation. The end result was an experience I don’t regret and that I genuinely enjoyed, but also left me remembering how great the original classic was to begin with. With that in mind maybe the one thing naysayers can thank this film for is reminding the world that the 1992 classic exists.