Part of Disney’s ongoing plan for complete pop culture domination has been raiding their vast catalogue of animated classic and slightly updating them for live action remakes. While the results have been mixed as finished films, the gambit has paid off mightily at the box office. The latest animated classic to be modestly revamped is Aladdin, with director Guy Ritchie helming the updated version of the 1992 smash hit. This new version of Aladdin, like the recent version of Beauty and the Beast, pulls off its modest ambitions, hitting the story beats and retaining the songs of the beloved classic amidst a gorgeous production design, but that doesn’t stop the film from feeling less like a movie and more of a corporate product.
The screenplay by Ritchie and John August retains much of the original’s story beats, though it has a rather unusual framing device, one I won’t dare giveaway here. However, in these opening minutes you wouldn’t be wrong for feeling a bit apprehensive as to what may be in store. Ritchie’s camera roams about Agrabah at night as a new version “Arabian Nights” plays. The streets are dark and the 3D presentation really gives this opening a murky look. Once the film gets to a bit of daylight does it begin to breathe a little bit as we follow “street rat” Aladdin (Mena Massoud). The young protagonist takes us through his desperate life on the streets with his pet monkey Abu, stealing what they need to survive. On the streets is where Aladdin encounters Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), who has snuck out of her royal palace for the first time in years and her attempts at generosity create a set of complications for herself and the newly acquainted Aladdin.
Jasmine lies to Aladdin about her identity, claiming to be a handmaid to the princess. Late one night, Aladdin sneaks onto the grounds of royal family’s palace to find this stunning handmaid. Though he makes future plans to see her again, Aladdin is apprehended by Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), who needs him to be the “diamond in the rough” required to enter a forbidden cave teeming with treasure. Within the cave, Aladdin finds the mystical lamp, rubs it a few times and – poof! – emerges the big blue Genie (Will Smith). With three wishes to grant, the Genie helps Aladdin in becoming a prince to court Princess Jasmine, though with each new wish come a set of more complications and always on the hunt for more and more power is the nefarious Jafar.
You have to give credit where credit is due, and Will Smith actually works out quite well as the Genie. The superstar unleashes his charms in a way we haven’t seen in years, and the fun he’s having in the role is infectious. Smith never attempts to recreate the manic energy Robin Williams brought to the role in the animated classic, placing his own stamp on the character and creating a Genie for a new generation. Especially considering the early looks at Smith’s character, I never would’ve suspected just how endearing he is in the role and yet he’s obviously the buoyant spirit at the heart of Aladdin.
The young duo of Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott avail themselves well with their respective characters, though they’re often hampered by a script that is focused more on hitting the preordained story beats instead of creating a level depth beneath the surface. Their singing and dancing is truly impressive, and I imagine Scott is going to emerge from this film as a star on the rise. Unexpectedly, though, is the hilarious arrival as Nasim Pedrad as Dalia, Jasmine’s handmaid, who is an entirely new addition to the story and rather unexpected romantic interest for Will Smith’s Genie. Pedrad has pitch perfect comedic timing and turns what could’ve been a thankless supporting role into a real scene-stealer.
And yet for everything that works about Aladdin, there’s a lot that doesn’t work. The film is entirely uninspired, obviously made more out of an interest for the corporate bottom line than any artistic endeavor. The classic songs composed by Alan Menken still work wonderfully but Ritchie has absolutely no instinct as a director of musical sequences. The big musical numbers are visually flat, Ritchie leaning entirely on his cast and production design team to do all the work. The camera mainly swirls around characters during musical sequences and the editing brings no dynamism to songs that should be rousing numbers.
Aladdin is very much a movie in the vein of Guy Ritchie’s recent works – it doesn’t live down to expectations but never really soars. The director injects a bit of visual wit into a few sequences but it’s mostly just the kind of adequate work that has defined Ritchie’s most recent films. Aladdin is a movie that leans heavily on its charismatic cast and the familiarity of its subject matter. It doesn’t always work but there’s just enough magic left in this story that it should enchant a whole new generation of children.
- Overall Score
Another unnecessary live action remake of an animated classic, Aladdin may feel more like a corporate product than a movie, but it’s able to earn enough goodwill thanks to its two young leads and a surprisingly spirited performance by Will Smith.