Certain expectations are always set for any Disney live-action remake – Aladdin is no different. By default, any live-action remake is made for comparison from its original animated counterpart. And this time around, Aladdin’s expectations are set higher with the remake directed by Guy Ritchie (known for his crime thrillers), and with Will Smith taking over the late Robin Williams in the role of The Genie. The Aladdin Live Action Remake stands on the shoulders of giants. And it looks like it’s standing on stilts – with a lot of lanky attempts to walk (or run) well-balanced. Safe to say, it’s hardly soaring, tumbling or free-wheeling.
A Hundred Thousand Things To See
This time, the story of Aladdin is told from Smith’s Genie instead of a random street peddler like in the animated movie. Smith starts singing, and suddenly everyone gets nervous – but not for long, fortunately.
The live action Aladdin is still the funny and inspirational story of a street rat, plying his thieving abilities on the marketplaces of the fictional Agrabah – a vividly Middle Eastern inspired kingdom. The Cave of Wonders is incredibly designed, as is the kingdom of Agrabah. The entirety of the set draws on influences from Morocco to Turkey to India, coming across as a respectful representation than hasty appropriation.
Agrabah is also where Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets and falls for Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott). Aladdin embarks on a ride as he comes into possession of a magic lamp and a magic carpet; together with his monkey, Abu and a blue genie (Smith). The street rat is on a colourful and musical adventure to win the heart of the princess, and to stop the evil vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) from stealing away the kingdom from the sultan (Navid Negahban).
From the opening song “Arabian Nights” number to “Prince Ali”, “A Whole New World”, most of the major sequences are the same. Any Disney kid (one whose occasional breaks include a marathon of Disney animated films) will not feel that anything has gone missing. Most of the bits that seem to work best in the live action were imported from its 1992 original, although there are a few fresh twists scattered throughout, particularly during the second half of the film.
Bollywood inspired numbers, bright costumes, and scenes remind us of the history of the film. All in all, it is simple and fun, more intent on being charming than looking real. The film’s overall attempt to resurrect the classic was, in the words of Princess Jasmine, a “clumsy but in a charming sort of way”.
A Whole Updated World
The Genie – the centerpiece visual effect – is less manic than the animated film; a bit more human, but still the life of the party. And Will Smith works on the character well. He delivers big on song numbers and relies on his comedic charm. He made the character his own, you could say.
The cast of Aladdin are mostly well-chosen for their roles. Mena Massoud is easy to love as the charming and vulnerable thief Aladdin; the friendships he creates with the non-human characters – the magic carpet, his pet monkey Abu, and the genie are fun and engaging to develop. The chemistry between Massoud and Scott makes you want the love story between Aladdin and Jasmine to work well.
One notable addition to the colourful characters is Jasmine’s handmaiden, the doe-eyed Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), to whom the Genie falls in love with (yes, our Genie falls in love, too!).
The original Aladdin’s success was always about its supporting cast – down to the talking parrot, a magic carpet, a genie, and a lovable sultan. Simple backstories were given to original characters to make sense of why or how our characters are what they are. Here we see the influence on Jafar’s hunger for power; but simply put, he’s just a man who complains why he’s always second best to the Sultan. It feels like they played it safe with Jafar. He’s diabolical alright, but not as scary nor as intimidating as the animated version, and he never once sang in the remake which seems like a missed opportunity.
A mention of the death of Jasmine’s mom best explained why Jasmine was not permitted beyond the castle walls (so it’s not just simply because she’s a Princess). While appreciated, the movie tries too hard to give Jasmine something to do other than be the object of men’s affections or cling to her tiger, Rajah. Jasmine on this live-action remake was reimagined as a leader-in-the-making who is eager to rule Agrabah upon seeing it from the streets, despite a father who doesn’t see the need to change the patriarchal tradition. Her power anthem, Speechless, feels more like an interruption, but Scott’s performance brings it to volumes and blasts her confined character into the 21st century.
But neither of these character developments – Jafar’s and Jasmine’s – seized the spotlight for very long, though. If this was a story on Jasmine or Jafar (or even an origin story on the genie), it would’ve worked better. Take for example, ‘Maleficent’, which tells the story of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ from the villain’s point of view; it’s a fresher take and it feels more like a companion piece – an opportunity to create a sub-Disney universe of its own.
A New Fantastic Point of View
Live action remakes, where Aladdin is no exception, just aren’t as fun to watch as cartoons. All the while you may be anticipating for the iconic ‘A Whole New World’ sequence to punch you in the gut with romance and magic, but it’s less thrilling as one would hope; it barely conveys the wonder of flight, discovery, nor was every moment red-letter.
But much like the film’s lesson “it’s what’s inside that counts”, its morals are in the right place – even updated to fit modern society’s standards. It also takes on a more family-friendly approach with fewer revealing costumes, less gold-lust, less violence, and less insulting stereotypical language than the original Disney animation. Disney is committed to doing well by meaning well with this adaptation.
Aladdin 2019 is simply a big, extravagant musical filled with bright colours, cultural appropriation, and a few laughs in between. And it’s the moments that take us back when we were kids make it all worthwhile. That’s really all anyone wanted out of the new Aladdin. It isn’t exactly a whole new world, and that’s not exactly a bad thing.