Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin came out this past weekend, and Disney fans around the world waited with…concern. Between Will Smith’s casting as the genie, the cheap-looking green screen effects, and the bizarre choice of Ritchie after King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the 2019 Aladdin had an uphill battle to win and it ended up at a draw.
With the various successes and failures in the new film, it’s interesting to take a look back at the things the filmmakers decided to alter for this 25-year-later retelling and what they thought could stand the test of time from then to now.
(Spoilers for both the original and new Aladdin.)
The most shocking change, even from the trailers for Aladdin, was Will Smith’s genie going in and out of a human disguise at whim. While it’s easy to be cynical and say that the heavy use of human genie was just an attempt to have Smith’s un-doctored face in the film as much as possible, the change does foreshadow where the film eventually takes the genie (more on that later). The new film is far less interested in the genie’s magnificent power than the original, and is much more focused on making the character something relatable and sympathetic.
There will always be something awe-inspiring about seeing the giant cave in the shape of a lion’s mouth open to see the red fiery light inside. Between the original film’s towering design to its appearance in the first Kingdom Hearts (where the cave was the entire Aladdin level), the Cave of Wonders is one of the most striking images from the film, almost as much as the lamp.
The new film wisely maintains the prowess and design of the cave, so when Jafar brings Aladdin to it, the audience feels the same mystery and fear that they felt in 1992. Of all the things that needed to stay the same, this iconic image was one of the most important.
It would have killed the tone that Ritchie was going for to keep Iago, Jafar’s right hand bird, as the wise-cracking grumpy servant that Gilbert Gottfried made so iconic in the 90s. So, with Alan Tudyk now providing the voice, Iago is much more a grunt and a means-to-an-end than a character in his own right.
While this change is disheartening, and one of the changes that does not elevate the new film above its predecessor, it’s a necessary one for the type of movie the filmmakers were intending to create. Not worth a lot of complaining, but definitely not a decision that should be garnering praise.
It’s unclear how they managed to find an actor that looked exactly like how the cartoon Sultan looked, but Navid Negahban’s physical transformation aside, The Sultan was never a particularly complicated character in the original film. Still, his charming desire to do good was a key ingredient to making Jafar’s takeover so disheartening to watch.
In the new film, The Sultan is the exact same, a bumbling leader with good in his heart and just a weak enough spirit to fall victim to Jafar’s tricks. Negahban’s performance and the makeup work help turn The Sultan into an image that feels comfortable and familiar, as he is one of the characters that feels practically picked up from 1992 and placed down in 2019.
The only change in the film that could be considered flat-out bad, the final confrontation between Jafar and the people of Agrabah, despite huge flashy effects and a wonderful chase with the mutated Iago, is probably the weakest scene in the whole film. Where the original was a creative, exciting, colorful romp, the new climax is drab and quick, taking no time to revel in the madness and mysticism that made the original’s ending so powerful. While almost every other scene in the film benefitted from being longer and more thought-out, the final battle had to make up the difference, turning a raucous and unforgettable scene into something that’s hard to remember the details of even a few days after seeing the film.
While Billy Magnussen’s prince is one of the comedic highlights of the 2019 film, he’s actually repurposed from another prince that served the same purpose in the original. In both films, Jasmine rejects a political marriage to an arrogant prince, turning the ’92 film’s placeholder for colonialism into a hysterical doofus.
It’s easy to see this character, now notable and memorable, as something new added into the ‘19 film to spice up Jasmine’s character arc. But unlike many of the choices made around Jasmine, the other prince is a set-in-stone faction of this story, only a faction elevated through sharp writing and Magnussen’s lovely performance.
It’d be so easy to spend this entry talking about “Selfless”, the wonderful ballad by Dear Evan Hansen songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, but that showstopper (in both a positive and negative way) of a song is only a symptom of the drastic overhaul to Jasmine’s character that scribes John August and Ritchie brought to the table.
As opposed to 25 years ago, Jasmine here is older, wiser, and her desire to seize the world on her own is a blatant character motivation instead of an implied desire. In the new film, we see Jasmine boil with fury and command with kindness, and a lot of time is spent on her untapped potential as a wonderful leader. By focusing on the political ability of Jasmine, the movie pivots from “a good female character considering it was the early 90s” to a fully rounded hero, and arguably the most interesting character in the movie.
How do you bring an overly-expressive monkey and a faceless, voiceless rug to realistic live-action while keeping them the two most charming and funny characters in the film? While Iago got a lot of his charm and interesting ideas removed for the sake of realism, Abu and the Magic Carpet were able to flourish, keeping the non-verbal charm of the two characters consistent throughout the film. Both characters are the most consistent laugh machines in 2019’s Aladdin, bringing a sense of familiarity to the jokes as Abu tries to thieve his way out of every bind and the Carpet somehow says so much with just a flip of its tassels.
The new Aladdin begins on a boat with a human genie telling his children, that we find out he’s fathered with Nasim Pedrad’s Dalia, the handmaid to the princess, the story of Aladdin. At first glance, this change doesn’t work. The whole point of the original Aladdin is the genie being freed and allowed to stay himself once he’s no longer a slave to whoever rubs the lamp.
But on a second thought, the genie becoming human and living a normal human life with no powers, no blue CGI, and no immortality is a fantastic choice for this character. The genie’s sadness comes in his inability to have lasting relationships past the three wishes, and while being freed is wonderful, being human is what he wants. Phenomenal cosmic power is great and all, but the true itty bitty living space is having to live in the shadow of one’s abilities.
It’s a simple thing, and arguably the backbone of the film, but it’s still nice to see that the three wishes stayed exactly the same. Aladdin becoming a prince, the genie fudging the rules to save Aladdin from drowning, and the genie being set free are the three markers of this story, and the three things that could have had the least successful changes if the writers attempted to take it in that direction.
By keeping the wishes the same, the new film shows that it’s not willing to fix what isn’t broken, and has a strong reverence for the power and simplicity of the animated classic while updating what, and only what, needs it.