Disney and Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake of Aladdin managed to overcome low expectations and bad buzz to become a real box office hit. Mere days before it opened in theaters, many had written Aladdin off as an expensive folly and inevitably failure for Disney. While Disney's steady stream of live-action remakes of animated classics had proven to be financially successful for them, they hadn’t exactly delighted critics.
Aladdin reportedly cost over $180 million to make and felt like a risk for a company notorious for playing it safe. The trailers, released relatively close to the premiere date, were received tepidly, with many mocking the bad CGI of Will Smith as the Genie. Critics and fans alike wondered how Disney would handle this story of Arab people and culture in 2019 given that the 1992 original was and remains controversial for its take on such issues (not to mention concerns over such a project being taken on by Guy Ritchie, a divisive director who also seemed ill fit for the material). Out of the three live-action remakes set for 2019 - Aladdin, Dumbo, and The Lion King - Aladdin felt like the one that was easy to write-off as an inevitable disaster, one that Disney would quietly sweep under the rug the first chance they got.
Of course, that didn’t happen. While reviews were mixed, they were not universal slams as predicted, and Aladdin topped the domestic box office with a four-day Memorial Day Weekend take of over $100 million. So far, Aladdin has made over $267.8 million worldwide, and its domestic gross has already exceeded that of Dumbo. Audience responses have been favorable and all of Disney’s fears of this movie being a write-off in waiting seem to have dissipated. To break even, Aladdin will need to gross approximately $450 million, so it’s not out of the woods just yet, but one week in and signs are far more positive than had been predicted, so half the battle has already been won. Here’s how Disney, Guy Ritchie, and Aladdin beat low expectations to become a hit.
Aladdin Had the Lowest Expectations of all Disney's Live-Action Remakes
The thing about low expectations is that overcoming them is a whole lot easier than surpassing high expectations. It’s not hard to see why Aladdin was viewed with such cynicism when it was announced. For one thing, Disney’s live-action remakes have been a contentious issue for fans and critics alike. They make lots of money but are dismissed as carbon copies of the original movies, pale imitations of beloved properties that exist only to strengthen brand name recognition and sell toys. Beauty and the Beast may have made over a billion dollars worldwide, but in terms of its artistic merit, there was little to celebrate, and that’s become par for the course with these remakes. This complicated matters for Aladdin: How does Disney do a slavishly faithful remake of this movie to appeal to audience’s nostalgia but update it enough to avoid repeating the mistakes of their past?
Doing that was always going to be tough, but it was made all the harder when their director choice was announced. Ritchie is a director of many qualities and big box office hits, but he wasn’t exactly the first name that came to mind when Disney fans considered the best choice to take on Aladdin. His last two films had been commercial flops and the man who specialized in smooth-talking Cockney gangsters and hyper-stylized action felt, at best, like a shock choice. It didn’t help that there were concerns of another all-white male team telling this story, as had happened with the original. Add to that casting concerns and a scandal involving white extras being put in brown make-up to “blend in” to crowd scenes and Aladdin’s origins were shaky at best. It sounds like an insult of sorts to say Aladdin is doing well because it was expected to do so horribly, but there's truth to that statement. When expectations are low, responses of surprising positivity or tempered optimism cannot help but seem much larger in comparison. That has certainly benefited the film, which had even ardent fans of the original movie concerned.
Nostalgia is Still a Big Money Maker
The main reason Disney’s live-action remakes have proven so lucrative is the same reason that Disney has been a steady success since the 1920s: nostalgia sells. There's no more effective a money maker than tapping into an audience’s nostalgic yearnings, and no studio has more efficiently tapped into that than Disney, even before they were remaking their own properties. Aladdin is one of the key titles of the ‘90s Disney Renaissance, which saw the studio reborn as a critical and commercial success after a tough decade where they came close to declaring bankruptcy. In many ways, it’s the most influential film of that period, in that it paved the way for big name stars to be top billed in animated movies as voice actors and helped to create a particular comedic sensibility that was prevalent through cartoons of the decade. Add to that one of Alan Menken’s most fun scores and all things Robin Williams, and it’s not hard to see why Aladdin remains so popular to this day.
The live-action remake of Aladdin didn’t even necessarily have to be all that good to succeed. 2017’s Beauty and the Beast was coolly received by critics and heavily derided for its unimaginative take on the material, but the original film is so iconic and holds so much appeal to that target demographic that it was inevitable that people would turn out in droves. This is something that has been criticized a lot regarding these live-action remakes: Do they even need to try making a good movie if hundreds of millions of dollars of profit is already guaranteed? Regardless of what you think of Aladdin in terms of its creative merits, Disney has committed to this remake model for a reason, and audiences keep reminding them it’s a good strategy.
Once Again, Diversity Paid Off at the Box Office
Every time a major release that isn’t centered on white men does great business at the box office, there are a slew of headlines questioning if this is the beginning of a new trend in Hollywood or if this was one more fluke for the studio. It happened with Wonder Woman, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel, to name but three, and it’s happened again with Aladdin. This is one of the very few instances of a major Hollywood film having a majority Middle Eastern and Arab cast. Indeed, there are almost no white people in it at all. The American film industry is notoriously white but it’s especially restricting to actors of Arab and Middle Eastern descent, many of whom are reduced to stereotypes for humor or fear-mongering against Islam. Aladdin, even with its many problems, is a refreshing antidote to that, and a chance to see two rising stars, Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott, light up the screen in the sorts of roles typically denied to them.
Aladdin is One of the Best Live-Action Disney Remakes
Few of the Disney live-action remakes have been critically beloved. The Jungle Book and Cinderella both have Rotten Tomatoes scores over 84 percent, but the average is somewhere in the late 50s. What they all have in common, however, is high CinemaScore rankings. Every live-action remake from Alice in Wonderland onward has a score of A- or higher. Both Rotten Tomatoes and CinemaScore are inconsistent and seldom tell the full story of a film's critical merit, but it does highlight how audiences flock to these movies regardless of reviews. Aladdin received middling reviews but an A on CinemaScore, although the former also doesn't paint a rich portrait of why the film works as well as it does, in spite of the cynicism.
Out of all the recent remakes, Aladdin is the one that most justifies its own existence. It refreshes the Aladdin story and adds new elements in a way that prove more interesting than redundant, and the mere act of telling this story with this inclusive casting was a wholly necessary step for this story to take, especially in 2019. While it still sticks closely to the original in a way that remains Disney’s creative hindrance, it doesn’t feel like a dull re-treading of the 1992 film. Will Smith is given room to do what he does best, bringing his bombastic leading man charm to the role of the Genie in a way that makes it his own rather than an imitation of Robin Williams. Overall, Aladdin is a colorful and kinetic action-comedy that has an aesthetic and tone that make it a much more worthwhile experience than many of its live-action remake predecessors.
Despite Aladdin’s Success, Disney Still Has Lessons to Learn
Of course, just because Aladdin has overcome low expectations to become a hit for studio and director alike, that doesn’t mean that Disney doesn't have some big lessons to learn from this experience. Aladdin has still been heavily criticized by Arab and Middle Eastern fans for its reductive take on their culture and ideas. Ritchie recently made some insensitive and curious comments dismissing the cultural specificity of the film in favor of something more “universal” that ignored how Middle Eastern and Arab cultures are typically flattened and reduced to easy to swallow tropes to comfort presumed white majority audiences.
Disney is notorious for doing this with any and all world cultures as a form of creative shorthand - for example, the dilution of Indigenous American iconography and culture in Pocahontas, or even how the French aspects of Beauty and the Beast are generalities that read as distinctly French to American audiences (baguettes, the Eiffel Tower, overuse of the word "bonjour"). This is a major reason why the company are called out so frequently for their perceived insensitivity, and given that it’s 2019 and Disney are so wildly popular and influential, it’s really something they have no excuses with anymore.
There is also the problem of who gets to tell these stories and why. Ritchie ends up equipping himself well for Aladdin, but given how heavily the original film was criticized for its all white male creative team, repeating that mistake in 2019 is especially egregious. Disney has the power and money to hire anyone they want, and their films greatly benefit from having those points-of-view at the table. This movie was always on some level going to be a money maker, so why not hire a director or writers of Middle Eastern or Arab descent?
Disney got lucky with Aladdin’s first week at the box office in a way few could have predicted, although it’s always a bad idea to bet against the idea of the studio making lots of money. Expectations were low but they overcame them in ways many thought they wouldn’t, and now the next step is for them to take what they’ve learned and do better for the future. Aladdin is a big step forward for the company in many ways, but it’s also a reminder that the mistakes of the past cannot and should not be repeated.