Is it me or did I just see a live-action re-creation of a Disney animated classic just two months ago? Oh, I did… Dumbo. I think I asked that same question then and will probably again when The Lion King comes out in a few months. At the risk of repeating myself…why are they messing with the classics at all, did they forget why the original is so beloved, how is this not a lucrative cash grab? That said, I just came out of Guy Ritchie’s re-creation of the classic Aladdin, and I have to say I’m surprised I like it.
Unlike Dumbo, Aladdin is a faithful retelling of the original movie. This means the original storyline is intact, the great music from Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice is still there.
In case you forgot, Aladdin (Mena Masoud) is one of the many poverty-stricken citizens of the kingdom of Agrabah. Aladdin survives by stealing food off of food carts and giving whatever he doesn’t eat to the starving children. While on the hunt, Aladdin runs into Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) who is disguised as a commoner to survey the city her father rules over. The two meet and a love connection is made. Soon, the pair is chased through the city streets, and I quite like how Ritchie sped up the action oh so slightly giving it a cartoon feel.
Meanwhile, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) is actively trying to take power over the kingdom from the good Sultan (Navid Negahban). He’s risen to the number two spot as the primary counsel to the Sultan, but that’s not enough. He needs a magic lamp hidden in the cave of wonders, and only Aladdin is purest of heart or “the diamond in the rough,” who can enter the cave. Cutting to the chase, Aladdin retrieves the lamp rubs it and out appears the genie (Will Smith) to grant Aladdin three wishes. More than anything, all Aladdin wants is to be with Princess Jasmine for the rest of his life.
“…Jasmine as the strong, authoritative Princess qualified to take over as Sultan…”
Let’s start with the obvious criticism. It’s hard not to watch Aladdin and not think about the original. Quite frankly, what made the original a classic was the music and song and of course, Robin Williams and his mile-a-minute improvisations that somehow still holds up today. Will Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin ruin our memories of the classic or can he pull off a miracle?
The first act of Aladdin is difficult to watch. Will Smith sings the opening number, Arabian Nights, and like Emma Watson’s Belle from Beauty and the Beast, Smith just doesn’t have the Broadway-calibre voice and lacks the vocal strength to belt out the song. It’s a great song but falls flat. There is a new character named Dalia, Jasmine’s handmaiden, performed by SNL’s Nasim Pedrad and it felt like another great comedic actress is appearing in a Disney film, only to see her talent being wasted.
Aladdin soon proved that it was going to go down with the ship, like the Disney re-creations of the past, until suddenly out of nowhere, the film’s course is corrected, and once we get to the song, Prince Ali, Aladdin becomes this wonderfully, inspiring movie. Something changed starting with the Prince Ali processional accompanied with some fantastic Bollywood-style dancing and a marked improvement in Will Smith’s singing.
“…suddenly out of nowhere, the film’s course is corrected, and…becomes this wonderfully, inspiring movie…”
As Aladdin, Massoud comes alive as the insecure fake prince. Naomi Scott brings gravitas to Jasmine as the strong, authoritative Princess qualified to take over as Sultan, while at the same time gets her own ballad. Nasim Pedrad fleshes out her character and gives a much-needed comedic performance alongside Will Smith. More life and personality is also given to animated characters like Rajah, Abu, and Carpet. The best compliment goes to Will Smith, who did not even attempt to channel Robin Williams, he made the Genie his own. It just felt like once the second act started everyone got comfortable with their roles, and as an audience, we just stopped making comparisons.
There are two significant differences with the new Aladdin. First, they removed every instance of cultural insensitivity from the first, especially in the opening songs. Although, I’m sure the internet trolls will find something pretty scathing any day now. That aside, in the end, it becomes a celebration of Persian and East Asian Culture.
The role of Jasmine transforms from the strong damsel-in-distress female needing Aladdin to rescue her to the budding political leader of her country in which Aladdin becomes her partner rather than her savior. Her new song, “Speechless” is the film’s anthem for the Women’s Movement. She has this moment at the end of the film, which is unique to a Disney Princess and will inspire young girls. That said, I’ll take the hit on this one, as much as I liked the moment, it does come across as a little heavy-handed. In other words, if this film came out before the 2016 election, it would have been shot in a way that’s more organic to the overall story. Instead, it feels like a blatant social/political statement. That said, it’s still a great moment.
As a chapter in the Disney classic remakes, Jungle Book still stands at the top. Behind it is Aladdin and Cinderella fighting for second place with the rest as a distant whatever.
Aladdin (2019) Directed by Guy Ritchie. Written by Guy Ritchie, John August. Starring Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad.
8 out of 10 stars