There’s a point in the live-action version of Aladdin where Nasim Pedrad’s handmaiden describes the Genie’s romantic ploys as clumsy in a charming sort of way. That pretty much sums up Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the animated classic. The film is undeniably awkward in places and pales in comparison to its 1992 predecessor. At the same time, it possesses much of the appeal you’d find in an Aladdin stage show at a Disney park. You know what you’re watching isn’t on the same level as the animation film, but the original’s essence is still present and every actor involved gives it their all. Even if it doesn’t always work, dedicated Disney fans will have a hard time denying its charms.
Unlike Tim Burton’s Dumbo, which took a familiar story in a few new directions, the basic setup here doesn’t stray too far from what one would expect. Mena Massoud plays the titular street rat with a heart of gold. Although he comes from nothing, Aladdin’s quick wits and charisma catch the eye of Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), but only a prince can marry into Agrabah’s royal family. Aladdin is led astray by the villainous Jarfar (Marwan Kenzari), who convinces him to retrieve a mysterious lamp from the Cave of Wonders. Just as Aladdin proves to be a diamond in the rough, he finds that the lamp is more than it seems as a Genie played by Will Smith emerges.
The true magic of the original film resided in Robin Williams’ groundbreaking voiceover performance as the genre. Williams’ infinite array of impressions were tailor-made for the limitless possibilities Disney animation offered. In this live-action version, though, the Genie is given the CGI treatment and… yeah, it was clear from the trailer that his design needed more time in the incubator. No matter how hard the filmmakers try to convince us that these are state-of-the-art effects, the audience never sees anything more than a blue puppet with Smith’s face pasted on. Over the course of 10 years, how did we go from the Na’vi in Avatar to a Smurf on steroids?
As distracting as the Genie is whenever motion-capture is involved, Will Smith shines when he’s allowed to be in his human form. Smith wisely doesn’t try to replicate what Williams created, instead going for a magical hipster persona. He has a ball with the role, inventing a Genie that’s his and his alone. This is among Smith’s funniest performances since his days on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. In the same vein as Williams, the humor doesn’t come at the expense of the story’s heart. The Genie shares a natural chemistry with Aladdin, although the real love story is between Al and Jasmine.
Actually, the one aspect of the film that’s a step up from the original is Jasmine’s character arc. While Jasmine remains a feisty, passionate heroine, this remake also delves deeper into her political aspirations. The film depicts her as an intelligent woman who can extinguish a hostile situation with diplomacy and wisdom. In order to make her voice heard, however, she must break through several barriers first. Jasmine also gets the best song in the entire film, a rousing power ballad entitled Speechless. A collaboration between Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and returning composer Alan Menken, this empowering solo shatters the glass ceiling as Naomi Scott brings down the house.
In addition to original music, all the songs from the animated film are present as well, from Prince Ali, to Friend Like Me, to A Whole New World. They’re well-performed for the most part, although Smith struggles to hit the high notes on Arabian Nights. The musical numbers often come up short is in the choreography department, though, which isn’t surprising since Ritchie doesn’t come from a musical background. Without the freedom animation, the visuals feel restricted and the songs don’t pop off the screen like they once did. Where the songs come off as slow, the pacing of the story can occasionally be rushed, which is ironic since this film has an extra 38 minutes added to its run time.
For all the ups and downs the new Aladdin has, its colorful sets, lively performances, and refreshing new additions are admirable. If you were a fan of Disney’s live-action takes on Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, and The Jungle Book, Aladdin will fulfill you desires. Personal, the film is enjoyable enough to justify a trip to the theater, even if the animated film remains on a pedestal. That being said, with new versions of The Lion King, Lady and the Tramp, and numerous other Disney classics on the way, it may be time to remake something that really needs a new perspective. *Cough* Game of Thrones Season 8!