Jafar is the biggest problem with the live-action Aladdin remake. Aladdin 2019, directed by Guy Ritchie, has been something of a surprise. Turning in a strong performance at the box office, Aladdin is a thoroughly enjoyable film, with glorious song and dance numbers; it has a story that pays homage to the 1992 animated classic, while still updating the tale for a modern audience.
It's not unfair to say that the trailers released for the Aladdin remake in no way did it justice, and led to many assuming this would be one of Disney's poorer live-action retellings, rather than one of its best. However, while there are some standout moments and performances (from Naomi Scott as Jasmine, in particular), one character really lets the movie down: Jafar.
Played by Marwan Kenzari in the live-action adaptation, Jafar has somehow lost the menace he had in the original animated Aladdin movie and, instead, ended up behaving like a childish brat in the new film. It's a sad turn for a character that had, until now, been regarded as one of Disney's greatest villains, spanning decades of film history.
Jafar Was One Of The Disney Renaissance's Great Villains
When Aladdin first released in 1992, Jafar became a classic villain right away. He was the one we all loved to hate, and with good reason. Voiced by Jonathan Freeman, Jafar is very dry and funny, especially in his interactions with his parrot, Iago, but he is also dark and twisted, stopping at nothing in his ultimate quest for power.
Freeman made the character charismatic, with his deep, rumbling voice and many attempts at hypnotizing the Sultan. He also made him human; his snappy impatience at the Sultan's dithering, his hatred of Aladdin because he caught the eye of Jasmine, and his sheer stupidity when he failed to realize that becoming a Genie would also entail living in a lamp. Jafar has no morals at all. He's willing, even eager, to kill Aladdin. He wants to become Sultan because he's a complete megalomaniac who can never be satisfied. He wants his revenge on the present Sultan - under whom he has risen to the role of Grand Vizier, because he was born into the position. He also wants to marry Jasmine, simply to have ownership over her.
The character works so well because he's the total antithesis of Aladdin, and as a result, his return and attempt at revenge in The Return of Jafar makes the sequel even more watchable. Freeman's voice over work carried that movie, which suffered from second-rate animation and no Robin Williams. What could have been a dire movie is actually one of Disney's best animated sequels, simply because it focuses on Jafar.
The Problem With Jafar In Aladdin 2019
Bringing it back to Jafar in 2019's live-action Aladdin, it's easy to see where the issues lie with the character. Putting it simply, Jafar lacks menace and humor, two vital characteristics that mean the character is weakened from the outset. Jafar's charisma is non-existent. Sure, Kenzari is nice to look at, but the writers seem to have forgotten to expand Jafar past him being someone who wants to be in charge.
His relationship with Iago holds no meaning either. We don't get the same twisted bond that the pair share in the first movie. In part, this is because Iago is reduced to a bird who just flies about, observes things, and reports back to Jafar. Moments such as "Iago, I love the way your foul little mind works" don't exist any more; there seems no bond at all between the pair. Jafar's only motive for his actions is that he just wants to be in charge; there's no element of wanting revenge, a desire to be the most powerful person in the world, or the sinister motives that come with his lusting after Jasmine.
With Scott giving a much more feisty take on the princess, she doesn't stand for any of this. While this is good for her character, it hurts Jafar still further, merely making him look like a petulant child throwing a tantrum because he can't get his own way. Jafar is given a backstory this time around, but his supposed street rat background doesn't serve to make us feel any pity towards him, since it's merely mentioned in passing and not expanded upon at all.
Marwan Kenzari Tries, But Is Miscast As Jafar
Undoubtedly, the character of Jafar suffers from poor writing and direction, but sadly a large part of the reason he's so bad is simply that Kenzari is entirely miscast in the role. In the animated version, Jafar looks creepy; tall, lanky, with an evil face that in animation form is depicted with hooded eyes, a hook nose and a twisted beard. In the 2019 Aladdin movie, Kenzari has found himself being dubbed the "hot" Jafar. Being nice to look at doesn't really equate with being a Disney villain.
Physically, whoever took on the role needed to be much taller, and far more imposing. That would have made his attempts at marrying Jasmine far creepier, and his threat to Aladdin and Sultan seem far more real. Instead, it seems as though Ritchie and the casting directors were going for a mirror of Aladdin, which is also shown in the whole street rat history mention, but Kenzari doesn't quite fit that role either. His voice is also far too high for Jafar, which sadly only serves to make him irritating as a villain rather than unsettling.
Having A Weak Jafar Hurts Aladdin's Story
As a character, Aladdin is reliant on Jafar to move his story along, especially in the first and third act. It's Jafar who must convince Aladdin to enter the cave of wonders, that his prize will be worth all the effort and commitment to getting the lamp. It's also Jafar who stands in the way of Aladdin being united with his true love, and it's Jafar he must ultimately triumph over if he's to have any hope of securing happiness for himself and Jasmine, let alone Genie and Sultan.
When that's all weakened because of a weak villain, it means that we as an audience fail to root for Aladdin like we should, because there's never a moment when we feel he might be genuinely in peril. Jafar feels like nothing Aladdin can't overcome, especially with a much stronger Jasmine on his side this time around. The live-action Aladdin movie works ultimately because of Jasmine's strength, Aladdin and Jasmine's romance, and the friendship between Aladdin and Genie. Sadly, it works in spite of, not because of, Jafar.