Aladdin is a jubilant and energetic Disney retelling that mostly succeeds in updating the animated version, even if it never feels quite as magical.
Disney's live-action remakes of its animated features are practically their own subgenre by this point, complete with narrative tropes and recurring visual techniques. And while the trend kicked off with Alice in Wonderland in 2010, it wasn't until Cinderella that these productions started to follow a recognizable formula. Indeed, the latest addition to the pile, Aladdin, tries to reimagine and "fix" the 1992 animated version in most of the same ways that Dumbo, Beauty and the Beast, and so forth attempted to "correct" their predecessors before it. However, in this case, that formula works a lot better than some people have been expecting. Aladdin is a jubilant and energetic Disney retelling that mostly succeeds in updating the animated version, even if it never feels quite as magical.
Storywise, the live-action Aladdin mostly follows a similar path to Disney's animated movie. However, director Guy Ritchie and his cowriter John August (who frequently collaborates with Tim Burton) make some changes that allow the first act to flow faster and more efficiently in this new version. Specifically, following the "Arabian Nights" musical prologue, the film moves right ahead to Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meeting a disguised Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) on the streets of Agrabah, then incorporates her into the "One Jump Ahead" number. This allows the remake to playfully introduce Aladdin's life as a thief in the same way the animated feature does, but at the same time dive head-first into Aladdin and Jasmine's romance and establish the connection between the pair. It makes for unexpectedly economic storytelling, all in all.
As a result, the remake wastes little time getting to its best part: the scenes with Aladdin, Jasmine, the Genie (Will Smith), Jasmine's handmaiden Dalia (Nasim Pedrad, playing an original character), or all four at once. This is also where the film really finds its groove, thanks to a combination of sturdy writing and great casting. Massoud hits all the right notes playing the quick witted, yet sensitive, street urchin here, and his chemistry with Scott gives their courtship that needed spark (even when they're not singing and/or dancing their hearts out). Scott is equally good as Jasmine, and the film's efforts to modernize the character by making her more politically active and informed works better than other recent attempts to update beloved Disney heroines (see also: making Belle an "inventor"). And while Dalia is very much a supporting character, she serves as a nice foil to Jasmine, and their friendship helps to further flesh out the latter's personality.
But of course, much like the animated film, the live-action Aladdin belongs to the Genie as much as its namesake or anyone else. Smith, as one would expect, brings his usual mix of swagger, charm, and emotion to the role, but this serves to set his take on the character apart from Robin Williams' iconic performance in the animated movie. In fact, his interpretation only really falters when he stops doing his own thing (rapping "Friend Like Me", dispensing romantic advice like he's starring in Hitch 2: Arabian Boogaloo) and tries to emulate Williams' shtick as the gigantic, blue, cosmically-powered being. Speaking of which: the finished CGI effects used to transform Smith into his genie form are far better than early marketing material suggested, and the film's visuals in general are pretty lavishing, thanks to Gemma Jackson's effervescent production design and the plesant colors of Michael Wilkinson's costumes. Aesthetically, there are times when Ritchie's bad habit of uneven framing and rough editing rears its head here, but his trademark slow-fast-mo style largely benefits the film's chase sequences and gives them some extra flair.
This brings us to Aladdin's biggest problem - namely, its villain Jafar (Marwan Kenzari). While the remake aspires to give its antagonist greater depth by fleshing out his motivation for going after the Genie's lamp and revealing his backstory, it ends up making him less interesting than his overtly wicked and flamboyant, yet also more memorable animated counterpart. The goes double for Iago (voiced by Alan Tudyk), who's portrayed in a grounded fashion that robs the fowl sidekick of much of his personality. At the end of the day, these flaws reflect the main issue with the remake: even with all the flashy spectacle and Bollywood-style numbers one could ask for (including "Speechless", a fine little addition that Greatest Showman's Pasek & Paul wrote with Alan Menken), the film's attempts to make this classic fairy tale feel more realistic ultimately hinder it and prevent it from soaring to greater heights.
Altogether, though, Aladdin makes for one of the more enjoyable live-action Disney remakes so far, and its updates to the animated version (especially, its removal of the ethnic stereotyping and more brazenly racist elements) largely work in its favor. Yes, this is still the filtering of Middle-Eastern folklore and culture through the lens of a big, shiny American blockbuster, but so was the animated movie, and the representation provided by the new version is sorely needed as ever in the current Hollywood landscape. Filmgoers who've grown tired of the Mouse House's remake formula might have a harder time getting onboard for this one than others, but those who love the animated feature may be pleasantly surprised by how much they like the retelling too. It might not be a whole new world, but it's far from a lifeless rehash.
Aladdin is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 128 minutes long and is rated PG for some action/peril.
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- Aladdin (2019) release date: May 24, 2019