Disney gives Aladdin a live-action make-over & a fem-forward twist
Starring Will Smith, Mena Massoud & Naomi Scott
Directed by Guy Ritchie
The genie is out of the bottle—again.
Or the lamp, as the case may be. Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin, 27 years after the release of its original animated classic, adds some fresh, feisty zest to the familiar tale while honoring its beloved roots.
The rags-to-riches story, based on an 18th century folktale with roots in China as well as the Middle East, is a time-honored fable that’s become woven into pop culture in just about every possible way—on stage, in the movies, on TV and in comic books. But most people walking the planet today know it from the 1992 Disney version, about a young street-wise thief, a princess, a magic lamp and a wish-granting genie.
In the new version, the “street rat” is a handsome charmer (Mena Massoud—perhaps you saw him in a handful of episodes of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan on Amazon) who pines for Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) in the fantasy kingdom of Agrabah. She digs him, too; but she’s also got her sights set on the throne to safeguard it from the nefarious, war-mongering Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), her father’s devilishly duplicitous advisor.
Jafar tricks Aladdin into a mission to seek a magic lamp in the Cave of Wonders—where many others have tried and failed—in exchange for his assistance in wooing the princess. That doesn’t go exactly as planned, and Aladdin ends up with the lamp, a whimsical flying carpet, and a genie (Will Smith) who grants him three wishes.
When the trailer was first released for Aladdin, it caused a bit of an outcry among Disney fans. Many of them bristled at the sight of Smith, big and blue and half naked—and certainly not Robin Williams, who imprinted the role of the genie with his unique personality and comedic riffing when he provided the voiceover back in 1992.
But Smith—aided by an arsenal of CGI—wins you over in his first poof! out of the lantern. His genie is a sight to behold, a zany, shape-shifting zephyr zipping and swirling and twirling around with one-liners and quips, happy to be out of his cramped, brass quarters for the first time in thousands of years. Smith is fun, he’s funny, and—yes—he makes the role his own.
There is, however, a nice little nod to Williams (who died in 2014) around midpoint in the movie. Watch for it when Aladdin, in “disguise” as Prince Ali, is looking on a map for a country that isn’t there.
Although it follows the basic plot and story of the animated version, this Aladdin is certainly not a beat-for-beat remake. Fans of the original will enjoy seeing familiar characters “fleshed out” anew, and Naomi Scott makes a fine Disney “princess” for the modern, “woke” era—a contemporary, progressive-minded, role-model female (even though the story takes place centuries ago) who stands up for herself and her people.
“Understand,” Jafar mansplains to her, “it’s better for you to be seen and not heard.” That is not what you say to Princess Jasmine—or any other female—as he finds out. Jasmine even gets her own power ballad, “Speechless” (a brand new number), that defines her position in song.
The costumes are sensational, an ever-changing, eye-candy cascade of gorgeous pastels and vibrant rainbow hues. Director Guy Ritchie—best known for his stylish action flicks about sharp-cookie, wisecracking British lads, like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and the Sherlock Holmes franchise—keeps things moving along at a brisk, lively clip with a couple of well-staged chase sequences, and also shows he’s capable of handling his first bona fide movie musical.
The original Aladdin was a rightly considered a “family” film, and so is this one. But there’s a bit of darkness in the story that the live-action version makes feel even darker, especially for younger viewers, since it’s happening to “real” humans and not animated characters—like when a man screams as he’s tossed to his death into a deep, dark well, or others suffer at the hands of Jafar and his sorcery. And the plot’s loaded real-world undertones—about war, borders, allies and the advancement of women as leaders—might be lost in the love story for little ones more interested in the starry tale of how things will work out for plucky Aladdin and spunky Jasmine.
All of the songs from the original Oscar-winning soundtrack—by Disney’s musical maestros Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman—are still there. And some of them are turned into real movie-musical dazzlers. In “Prince Ali,” Aladdin/Ali makes his booming entrance in a grand, carnival-like street procession with elephants, ostriches and monkeys and hundreds of dancers, musicians and attendants. Later, there’s a Bollywood-inspired ballroom-dance fusion of hip-hop, popping and locking. And the flashy cabaret blowout of “Friend Like Me,” in which the genie shows off the spectrum of his skills, ends in a sky full of fireworks.
And of course, there’s “A Whole New World,” the movie’s soaring signature love ballad. Jasmine and Aladdin sing it as a duet while they’re sailing over the city on the flying carpet.
Magic lamps and genies and flying carpets are cool, but Aladdin reminds us that there are some things you just gotta buckle down and do yourself. “I made you a prince on the outside,” Smith’s genie tells Aladdin, “but I didn’t change anything on the inside.”
Aladdin 2019 isn’t a whole new world; it hasn’t changed that much on the inside. It just looks a bit different than it did almost 30 years ago—brighter, bluer, newer and given a significant spin, especially for a modern generation of young viewers who need to hear that princesses have more on their minds than marrying a prince.
In theaters May 24, 2019