Will Smith gives a fun performance as the Genie in Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin, but only when he steps out of the shadow of Robin Williams. The announcement of Smith’s casting in Guy Ritchie’s take on one of Disney’s most popular films came in a wave of skepticism, both for the choice of Smith and for the mere existence of the remake in the first place.
The studio’s steady wave of live-action remakes has brought them billions of dollars in profits and a renewed sense of brand awareness for a younger generation, but little in terms of critical merit. The issue of redundancy was made all the stronger in regards to Aladdin because that film is so wholly defined by the scene-stealing work of Robin Williams as the Genie. On top of ushering in a new age of celebrity dominated voice performances, Williams' now iconic turn, chock full of fourth wall breaking jokes, pop culture gags, and frenetic slapstick energy, is completely inimitable. Given Disney’s tendency to have these remakes be close to shot-for-shot recreations of their source material, the possibility of Smith having to impersonate Williams proved problematic for many.
Fortunately, Aladdin manages to overcome a large amount of the pessimism surrounding it; this is one of Disney’s more vibrant and narratively interesting remakes. While it still falls into several of the traps predecessors like the Beauty and the Beast remake did by adhering too closely to the original movie, Aladdin justifies its own existence by fleshing out the story in ways that both make sense and add new layers to the familiar. At the heart of that are a series of charismatic performance but of course all eyes fall upon Will Smith as the Genie. Given how many column inches had been written to trying to understand the admittedly questionable CGI of Smith as a giant blue version of himself, it remains a delight to see one of the last remaining A-List movie-stars light up the screen with their exclusive charm in a way that only he can.
For the majority of the film, Disney let Will Smith give a great performance, but now and then they try to make him be Robin Williams, and that’s where the film falters.
Will Smith's Genie Is, Well, Will Smith
Will Smith has been an audience favorite since the early ‘90s, and even in terrible movies, he always manages to grab the spotlight and remind viewers why they love him so much. There are few leading men working today who could sell a moment so silly and yet so undeniably cool as Smith punching an alien in the face in Independence Day. It’s in that bled of unabashedly goofy and old-school roguishness where Smith is unbeatable as an actor, and for the most part, Aladdin is smart enough to play around with that.
All the things that audiences love about Will Smith are present in his performance as the Genie. He’s fast-talking with a quip for every situation. His frenetic energy allows him to bounce off the walls – literally, in this case – with boundless enthusiasm. He’s not afraid to be uncool and that somehow only makes him even cooler (something else very few actors working today can pull off). This Genie is still the showboating performer of the animated film but with a party boy edge that has echoes of the Fresh Prince, which makes him an appropriately fun wing-man for Aladdin himself. The film is so delighted to have Will Smith doing his thing that he even gets an end credits song (featuring DJ Khaled), harkening back to the days of Men in Black and Wild Wild West.
Aladdin 2019's Genie Gets An Emotional Character Arc
This time around, the Genie also gets his own romantic and emotional development separate from Aladdin and his desires for freedom. The Genie has always acted as a moral arbiter to Aladdin as his eagerness to impress Jasmine sent him down an ethically tricky road. The new film is smart in its fleshing out of this dynamic, having the Genie further explain not only why it’s morally questionable to do something like fake being a prince to impress a woman, but how such a thirst for power can sap you of your own self-worth and understanding of what really matters. It’s not only an issue of Aladdin pretending to be something he isn’t; it’s that the power bestowed upon him by the Genie will never truly satisfy him and chasing that will only destroy him (a lesson Jafar never learns). It adds a new layer of empathy to the Genie’s plight: All-consuming power is nothing if it’s all you have.
On top of that, the Genie now gets a love interest, played to hilarious effect by the underrated (and sadly underused) Saturday Night Live alumni Nasim Pedrad. The Genie finds himself as clumsily adoring and unable to communicate properly with the woman he likes as Aladdin is with Jasmine, creating a fun parallel between the two and highlighting how bound together they are by their mutual deceit.
Will Smith's Genie Looks Weird When Blue, But It Doesn't Hurt Aladdin
By and large, Smith’s big blue CGI Genie is still weird. It’s not as distracting or cringe-inducing as some of the trailers suggested, but it never stops looking odd. The technology for such things has drastically improved over the years but it’s just not quite there yet. Smith still looks oddly smooth and the touch of uncanny valley is ever present. Fortunately, the film and creative team make up for that shortcoming by using the CGI in interesting ways to play around with space and size. He’s putting on a show, as always, and is typically surrounded by big effects when doing so, meaning everything at least feels visually consistent. It also helps that the film is savvy enough to know that Will Smith is at his un-distilled best when he’s free of such machinations, so for much of the movie he is actually allowed to appear on screen as himself.
Will Smith Can't Pull Off Robin Williams-Style Jokes
Where Aladdin fails, and where the material fails Will Smith, is when it is forced to return to the source for those throwback moments and trailer-ready recreations. As with all of Disney’s live-action remakes, Aladdin is primarily concerned with building on a beloved brand and not straying too far from it because nostalgia has always done well for the studio and they’re not about to stop now. With Beauty and the Beast, that was shown in the attempt to recreate the musical numbers beat by beat, to diminishing returns. With Dumbo, it was evident in moments like the seriously weakened re-imagining of the pink elephants on parade. For Aladdin, the obvious issue is trying to both get out from the vast shadow cast by Robin Williams' performance and to pay tribute to it in a way that fans will appreciate. That’s no mean feat for Will Smith, and in those thankfully brief scenes where he is copying a Williams gag from the original story or channeling that same kind of frantic improv-style energy, it doesn’t work.
When Aladdin was originally pitched to Disney, the directors used Robin Williams as the model for the character of the Genie long before he had ever agreed to play the role. Eric Goldberg, who became the lead animator for the Genie, was tasked with creating an animation reel of the character set to old Williams stand-up routines as a way to entice him to join the project. Unusually for an animated movie, Williams was able to ad-lib much of his lines, which created a highly unique performance and a character that was wholly tailored to its actor from the very beginning. That’s the main reason anyone trying to copy Williams’ performance or that very particular kind of manic sidekick energy will inevitably fail: you cannot replicate that magic without understanding what made it so special to begin with.
It makes sense why Disney were keen to give Will Smith a handful of moments that pay homage to the late great Robin Williams, especially since that character is so indelibly tied to him in ways that audiences don’t want to let go of. However, the new Aladdin works best when it’s on its own terms, and part of that is in letting its major star do the thing that made him so beloved in the first place. If you hire Will Smith, you just need to let him be Will Smith.
- Aladdin (2019) release date: May 24, 2019