Of the plethora of memorable and beloved Disney animated films released during the early 1990s, Aladdin has always been my favorite. So, it was with a mix of apprehension and mild disgust that I approached a screening of the live-action reboot, directed by, of all people, Guy Ritchie (Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword), and starring a sometimes-blue Will Smith as the genie made so iconic by the late Robin Williams.
But in all honesty, I was pleasantly surprised by the end result. It’s not that the film is good, exactly, but rather it’s not as bad as I’d spent months worrying it would be. (Ritchie impressively limits his trademark slow-motion sequences to a number that can be counted on one hand. None of them are essential, but he just can’t help himself.) Kids who are unfamiliar with the animated classic will most likely find it magical, and even adults will surely be charmed. It is a version of Aladdin, after all.
The story starts out a little differently than in the 1992 original. Rather than a somewhat stereotypical street vendor enticing you towards his wares with a sexy song about the hot Arabian nights, this Aladdin starts with two children admiring a beautiful, golden vessel from their dingy boat. Their father (Smith — spoiler: Genie becomes human when he’s set free), warns them that possessions don’t mean anything — what matters it’s what’s inside, and to prove it, he’s going to tell the story of the thief who fell in love with the princess.
“It’s better when you sing,” one of the kids says, at which point I convulsed with anticipatory laughter. And thus begins a Smith rendition of “Arabian Nights” that actually isn’t half bad. That’s a pattern repeated throughout the movie: A song or scene you love from childhood begins with a cringe, and then you settle into the new rhythm.
Ritchie and co-writer John August have taken some creative liberties with the story, sprucing it up for the modern era. Some of the lyrics have gone through sensitivity training (in “Prince Ali,” for example, “Sunday salaams” is swapped out for “Friday salaams.”). But it’s Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), who’s on the receiving end of the ultimate 2019 woke makeover.
No longer content to simply marry a prince so that Agraba can have a ruler after her father dies, this Jasmine has ambitions to become Sultan herself. She voices these in a new song, in which she vows that she “won’t go speechless.” (This is presumably in an effort to qualify for the Best Original Song category at the Oscars next year.) And good riddance to the midriff-baring bra and harem pants combo that seemed both uncomfortable and impractical!
Still, most of the story is pretty much the way we left it. Aladdin (Mena Massoud), the thief with a heart of gold and a penchant for vests (and parkour, apparently), is still one jump ahead of the breadline, and best friends with a monkey named Abu. Jafar (Marwan Kenzari, who makes this wooden villain hotter than he has any right to be) is still using his snake staff to convince the malleable Sultan (Navid Negahban) to do his bidding. Also consistent is his search for a diamond in the rough who can enter the Cave of Wonders and retrieve the genie lamp he requires to take over the world. He gets a bit more of a backstory as a former thief himself, which, sure! And along for the ride are Iago (voiced by Alan Tudyk, who is not Gilbert Gottfried), the iconic magic carpet (simply known as Carpet, and the true MVP of the movie), and of course, Genie (Smith), who gets a human love interest in Jasmine’s handmaid Dalia (Nasim Pedrad, low-key the funniest person in this movie).
Scott and Massoud (whose large grin and effortless charm are simply perfect) crackle in their interactions, which makes me understand why the film so rushes past the introductory plot to get to their first meeting. Scott pulls off some eye-rollingly earnest dialogue with an arched eyebrow and determined delivery that makes us root for her from the start. But the movie doesn’t give her all that much to work with, especially when her big musical moment is framed as a very low-budget ‘90s music video.
Still, The scene where Aladdin, magically disguised as Prince Ali of Ababwa, comes to very clumsily court Jasmine is a welcome, refreshingly funny addition, and their rendition of “A Whole New World,” is so good it almost makes you forget just how transporting the original was the first time you heard it. (As for the rest of the songs — lovely singing voices aren’t enough to offset the fact that the music feels a lot more forced than it ever did in the animated version.) Massoud and Smith aree a fun enough buddy duo, playing off each other with lighthearted wit and more than a few snazzy dance routines.
It’s Smith who has the hardest job of all. As Genie, he’s up against the vivid memory of Robin Williams, a comedian who had an unparalleled range and energy for voices, impersonations and near-constant jokes. Smith doesn’t make the mistake of trying to be like Williams, but he doesn’t quite get out from under his shadow either. As a result, he’s kind of in limbo — funny when the original Smith-isms shine through, and kind of lame when they don’t. (Also, he raps, but I’d rather not dwell on it.)
The costumes, courtesy of Michael Wilkinson, and set design by Gemma Jackson are absolutely magical, bringing Agraba to life as a melting pot of Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian cultures. Every single one of Jasmine’s many outfits is a highly covetable array of draped silks, gold-braiding, and glittering jewels. And even in the marketplace, where the poor can barely afford a bag of dates, there’s a feast of color around every corner.
And yet, it’s hard not to come away from the film feeling like it was a missed opportunity. It’s undeniably powerful to see so many people of color (Billy Magnussen as a bonus white man excluded) at the center of their own narrative. But putting such a tale in the hands of a straight white director man doesn’t exactly break the mold of storytelling. I wish Disney had been willing to take more of a risk for a much bolder, creative payoff. In fact, that’s really what’s missing from all these live-action reboots. Ultimately, they end up feeling like a poor imitation of something truly special, when they have the potential to add something totally new to the story.
Aladdin is fine, but it could have been great. And one giant scary parrot does not a classic make.