Aladdin is a Diamond in the Rough with Some Real MagicMay 22, 2019
All photographs courtesy: Disney
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Written by: John August, Guy Ritchie, Alan Menken (songs), Howard Ashman (songs), and Tim Rice (songs), Benj Pasek (songs) and Justin Paul (songs)
Starring: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Alan Tudyk
Many people point to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) as the inaugural film in the House of Mouse’s obsession with live-action remakes of their classic animated films. The trend actually began in 1996 with 101 Dalmatians, followed by a sequel in 2000. Aladdin makes the eleventh time Disney has gone to the live-action well. It’s a trend that has reaped great profits for the studio while producing extremely uneven results for movie-goers. Aladdin, in particular, has been the target of fan-hatred over the idea of Will Smith reprising the character into which Robin Williams breathed so much improvisational life.
Let’s begin by tackling the obvious. Robin Williams voice work as the Genie in Disney’s animated version of Aladdin is one of the all-time greats in the film world. It’s as iconic as any animated character in the history of the genre. For this reason alone, many, myself included, were highly skeptical of Will Smith (Men in Black, Hitch, Hancock, Suicide Squad) taking on the role in the live-action remake. Here’s the thing: Smith not only pulls this off, he pulls it off with all of the charm and charisma we’ve come to expect from him in most of his roles. Smith somehow achieves a near-perfect balance, recreating some of the animated magic that worked for Williams in the original while bringing a fresh (yeah,yeah…I know…bad pun) interpretation to the character. Yes, it’s an adjustment to seeing Smith in the role and there are times when the Genie felt a little bit like the matchmaker from Hitch, but by the time he finished singing “Friend Like Me,” I was sold.
It helps that Smith is surrounded by a charismatic and competent cast. Mena Massoud’s (Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan) is nimble, athletic, and always ready to flash a megawatt smile as the street rat, Aladdin. As Princess Jasmine, Naomi Scott (Terra Nova, Power Rangers) brings a strong presence to a role that features a much stronger character arc than the animated version. Unfortunately, the casting faltered in their choice for Jafar, the villain. Marwan Kenzari (The Mummy, Murder on the Orient Express) is suitably slimy and oily, but he just seems far too bland to measure up to the wonderful cartoon Jafar. And then there’s the evil sidekick Iago, Jafar’s wise-cracking parrot. He’s voiced by Alan Tudyk (American Dad, A Knight’s Tale, Firefly). The Aladdin production team has talked about wanting to make the animals more “natural”, but to not give Gilbert Gottfried another crack at voicing Iago just seems unnatural.
Then there’s the director: Guy Ritchie (Snatch, Sherlock Holmes, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) seems an odd choice. He seems more suited to stylized British gangster movies than a live-action/cartoon musical. But Ritchie manages the action and music with just the right touch. The action scenes pop. Some will probably complain that the musical numbers don’t have that classic “movie musical feel.” I think that’s more by design than Ritchie’s inability to stage the songs. Aside from the opening “Arabian Nights” song from the original, all the other major songs are there…and they are very satisfying. And don’t worry about the big “Prince Ali” number. It’s dazzling. New to the live-action Aladdin, Jasmine is given a couple of solo songs of her own to match the stronger character arc.
The dramatic choice I truly loved about this movie is Ritchie and company’s decision to give the Genie a slightly darker shade that’s more related to the original “djinn” of Arabic mythology. This version of the Genie is just as likely to ruin your life by exploiting the “gray area” in your wish as he is to make you happy. As the Genie and Aladdin become friends, the big blue guy tries to help Aladdin understand that having your wishes granted could be the worst thing that ever happens to you.
I don’t mind saying that the original Aladdin is one of my all-time Disney favorites. This new live-action version isn’t going to replace the brilliant original, but it will likely appeal to a wider crowd of new viewers and have a longer shelf life. Ironically, I think it’s because of Williams’ dazzling voice work (and the matching animation) of the original. As wonderful as Williams is, his performance is filled with outdated cultural references that go way over the heads of people born in the late ’90s and beyond. Yes, loads of the visual and vocal jokes are timeless. But then you have many that will become more and more obscure with each passing year: William Buckley, H. Ross Perot, Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, Arsenio Hall, Arnold Schwarzenegger as a bodybuilder, Rodney Dangerfield, and Peter Lorre. I’ll always reach for the cartoon version of Aladdin first, but the live-action version will also find its way into my home movie collection.