Up until Aladdin, I have not been a fan of Disney’s ongoing program of recycling their animated classics into live-action family fare. They’re either grotesque-looking copy-paste jobs like Beauty and the Beast, or reimaginings that undermine and misunderstand the purpose and appeal of their originals, like Dumbo. Even halfway decent entries like The Jungle Book failed to answer the simplest but the most essential question: Why? The practical answer is of course simple—a dollar sign with a bunch of zeroes following it. But the artistic answer as to whether or not these live-action counterparts bring anything new to the table? That’s another issue. With Aladdin, we finally get a live-action remake worth the effort and budget, a rip-roaring action/fantasy/musical that manages to exist on a relatively independent and distinguished tonal field.
As much as the animated Aladdin was inspired by hefty Middle Eastern mythology as popularized by 1001 Arabian Nights, its aesthetic and pacing were closer to an old-school Disney cartoon and its tone and genre felt a lot more at home as self-referential and goofy comedy. That’s what made it damn near perfect for my generation who wore out the VHS tape because we couldn’t get enough of its seemingly effortless fun. Director Guy Ritchie and his team must have been aware of this. The basic story beats and the songs are of course transplanted, but at least an effort is put forth to serve a wholly invigorating and enchanting piece of family entertainment that provides something new to fans and newcomers alike.
True to its ambition of presenting an epic adventure, this Aladdin runs a whopping forty minutes longer than the 1992 version. Yet I’m happy to say that almost none of it is filler. The extra runtime is either used to flesh out the characters, or to add some action, dance and songs that enhance the experience. The character motivation and arc of 1992 Princess Jasmine was that she sought her freedom from the stifling orthodoxy of royal life. Here, Jasmine (Naomi Scott) still wants to be free, but she also has an undying desire to become a benevolent and peaceful ruler in a culture that will not accept a female sultan.
She’s given as much agency and focus as the titular character (Mena Massoud), the beloved plucky street rat who falls in love with her and decides to use a certain magic lamp with a certain resident genie (Will Smith) to become a prince so he can marry her. Of course, the palace’s evil vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) is also after the lamp. Will Jafar snatch the lamp from Aladdin and become the bloodthirsty tyrant of the land, or will Aladdin defeat him with the help of his buddies, the twitchy monkey Abu and the kindly magic carpet?
Of course the answer is clear for anyone with a passing knowledge of the animated film. But some changes, even tiny ones, give us new perspectives on the story. For example, instead of being introduced to Jasmine trapped in her palace, we first meet her the way Aladdin does, a princess undercover as a civilian. The unveiling of her true identity won’t surprise anyone familiar with the original, but I can easily imagine a kid who comes into the movie cold, in awe of the character’s reveal.
Disney pushed the production of Aladdin back after the whitewashing backlash suffered by titles like the live-action Ghost in the Shell remake, opting instead to take their time locking in a legit Middle-Eastern and Middle-Asian cast. As a Middle-Eastern immigrant myself, I’d be lying if I said the sight of such characters being portrayed by actors who match their ethnicity in such a giant budget Hollywood blockbuster didn’t make me feel a sense of due progress. Yet of course all of that is for naught if the talent can’t deliver. The cast of relative newcomers passes that test with flying colors. Massoud embodies the matinee idol presence required from the live-action Aladdin, and proves himself to be a fantastic dancer and singer in the process. Scott provides the heart of the piece, and stands out with a show-stopping solo musical number that wasn’t even in the original. Kenzari leaves behind the Vincent Price theatrics of the original and paves a new path with a slier and more sinister take.
Which brings us to Smith’s genie. It’s impossible to top the 100-jokes-a-minute singular power and vigor of Robin Williams’ voice performance, so Smith doesn’t even try. He wisely stays in his lane by letting his trademark swagger and cool magnetism inform the character. After the trailer was released, his blue motion capture CG representation as the genie in his true form understandably garnered some unintentional laughs. The audience hoped that the final effect would look better. Unfortunately that’s not the case. The body looks fine, but the face resembles an awkwardly applied Snapchat filter. I don’t know what the solution could have been, taking more liberties with the design of the character so it doesn’t have that eerie uncanny valley effect, using a mash-up of live-action and CG? In any case, it needed more work. Thankfully, he can turn into plain old Will Smith during scenes where the genie interacts with characters other than Aladdin, so we don’t have to cringe the whole time he’s on screen.
Ritchie is primarily known as the director of gritty and grimy crime comedies, and he usually brings that aesthetic to mainstream action like Sherlock Holmes. But he also helms witty and colorful fluff like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Aladdin is mostly in that camp. With music that breathes new life to beloved songs with an emphasis on percussion and horns, and production designer Gemma Jackson’s luscious world building that borrows from various Middle-Eastern cultures as added pedigree, Aladdin is the rare remake that actually gives us a whole new world.
Director: Guy Ritchie
Writers: John August, Guy Ritchie
Starring: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad
Release Date: May 24, 2019
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.