It must seem a monumental effort to adapt a Disney animated classic into a live action film to those charged with the task. How does one juggle both being true to source material but also shy away from a shot for shot remake? Aladdin as an adaptation is exceptionally tricky to boot. How do you remake but also pay homage to one of the great and most beloved performances of Robin Williams?
The story for those who didn’t have my childhood – Aladdin is a rags to riches (to rags [but also to riches]) story of the titular orphan living on the streets of the fictional Agrabah. He chances upon the Princess Jasmine, with whom he falls in love, but is swept into a web of lies, deceit and adventure when the villainous Jafar decides to use the strength of Aladdin’s character to fuel his own ends.
Aladdin is a very fun movie. Whilst the pacing is somewhat inconsistent, the 128 minute film breezes past and doesn’t lag. Despite the family friendly rating, Guy Ritchie has certainly left his mark here. There are artistic flourishes here and there, such as the frenetic chase sequences with sped-up low-framerate film much like those used by George Miller in Mad Max Fury Road. In Aladdin however, these create more of a fun cartoon effect, rather than a visceral one.
Mena Massoud is extremely likeable as Aladdin, and it’s clear that the extra time Disney put into pre production to cast this role paid off. Massoud somehow exudes the same charisma as his cel drawn counterpart. It’s remarkable. That’s not to say this is a carbon copy shot for shot remake, however. The changes in Aladdin are not as egregious as the ones in the Broadway iteration. Gone is the gabby Gilbert Gottfried as Iago in favour of an altogether quieter performance by Alan Tudyk, gone is the happy, bumbling Sultan in favour of a Sultan who is more sedate and Jafar is no longer a sexy baritone. The thing is, these changes all make sense to the story that Ritchie is crafting. What we gain from these losses in this retelling is a stronger heroine in the princess – who to me was the true main character of this story. Naomi Scott earnestly plays a stronger and more independent Jasmine, intent on taking on responsibility for the kingdom, a welcome trade off.
The change everyone will be discussing however is Will Smith as the Genie. In Aladdin (1992) the Genie was essentially a vessel for the comedy of Robin Williams. In the same way, the Genie in Aladdin (2019) is a vessel for the comedy and musical talents of Will Smith. Yeah, the CG is a little janky in spots, but Smith spends plenty of time on set with the actors, crafting a character altogether different than the one we’ve seen before. I enjoyed his performance. I feel that he was the right choice for the story that this live action movie wants to tell. Some of Smith’s musical flavour is added to his songs, notably Friend Like Me and Prince Ali, and though it was surprising to someone who knows each one by heart, it helped cement his interpretation of the Genie as his own creation.
The updates of the classic Disney tunes are all really fun, and I found myself enjoying the modernized soundtrack despite some reservations. Songs have their own stylized music videos, which would seem out of place in any other film, but the magical realism present here makes everything mesh together fairly neatly. I won’t sugarcoat it though – “Speechless,” the new song by Pasek and Paul of La La Land sticks out like a sore thumb. As a professional musician, I found its addition is musically jarring and did not mesh well with the existing soundtrack – much the same as I felt with the new song “Evermore” in 2017’s live action Beauty and the Beast. That being said, as someone who loves musical theatre, “Speechless” is an absolute banger. True fire. People are going to be humming it as they walk out of the theatre.
The original Aladdin is an exceptionally important film. It appeared in the midst of the Disney Renaissance – a period between 1989 and 1999 which began with The Little Mermaid (1989) and ends arguably with 1999’s Tarzan. Disney as a company in this period evolved from a film studio to a cultural touchstone – known for its family friendly and award winning animated musicals and cementing the company’s place in the pop culture lexicon. Disney’s 1991 film Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and was instrumental in creating the category of Best Animated Feature. Aladdin (1992) won two Oscars for its music. It then should be stated then that this film can’t be watched in a vacuum. It is too laden with cultural meaning and nostalgic emotion to those that the animated film meant so much. My advice dear reader – walk into the cinema with an open mind. There are moments of cognitive dissonance, sure (as there will be with any live action Disney adaptation past, present and undoubtedly future) – but there’s a really fun movie here, with comedy, heart and some dope parkour. See it with friends, and enjoy it for what it is – not for what your nostalgia wants it to be.