Magic and music and many, many wishes; Aladdin is back, but this time in the flesh!
Aladdin, the newest live-action remake of a Disney animated classic, follows the titular “street rat” and his monkey companion, Abu, as they try to make a living off of thieving and hustling in the busy desert kingdom of Agrabah. After meeting Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) per chance as she wandered through the streets of the city disguised as a civilian, Aladdin is soon swept up in a wondrous adventure that sees him befriend a magical Genie (Will Smith), a flying carpet, and strangest of all, the power to ask for three wishes that can make his most wildest dreams come true. But with Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the Grand Vizier and second hand to the Sultan himself nefariously scheming for his own ends, Aladdin must find a way to utilize his wishes to help him win Jasmine’s heart, rid Agrabah of its insidious evil, and hopefully help his newfound magical pal get his own wish of finally becoming free.
With the recent bout of live-action remakes Disney is pumping out every couple of months, these films are starting to feel pretty hit or miss. It seems when the filmmakers skew more towards making a near shot-for-shot, beat-by-beat remake of the original films (Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella), the final product turns out to be a perfectly serviceable, paint by numbers film that doesn’t necessarily disappoint, but ultimately ends up feeling a bit hollow and forced. On the other hand, when the filmmakers seem to want to branch out and interpret the original as more of a guide (The Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon) than a bible, the result is a much more competently made and uniquely fun experience throughout. In the case of Aladdin, it seems like the filmmakers went with the former.
Packing in every song, plot point and thrilling set piece (more or less) from the animated tale definitely makes one feel the magic and nostalgia associated with these types of films, but as with many other kinds of remakes – Disney made or otherwise – nostalgia and the sense of cautious filmmakers playing it safe hurts rather than helps the final cut in ways that leaves you expecting and wanting more. It’s as if the people behind the scenes were completely content with taking few creative liberties and instead of taking meaningful risks with the story and characters in the new live-action setting, simply gave us the cliff notes version of what we’ve seen before. Now don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed this film for what it was, splashy special effects, dance numbers, magic carpet rides and all that jazz, but being such a fan of the original (it’s actually my favorite Disney animated film) had me craving for a better take on the story that doesn’t come off as a slightly more polished carbon copy of what has already been done almost three decades ago. We’re better than this, people!
Casting-wise, everyone mostly does their jobs just fine, with no one in particular ever truly wowing me, but none making me despise what I was seeing up onscreen either. Mena Massoud is perfectly serviceable as Aladdin, and while it took a bit to warm up to him in the role, I can’t say I was upset by the casting choice, as he brings a lot of smiles and wholeheartedness to the character, just not a lot of anything else. On the flip-side, Naomi Scott’s Jasmine and Will Smith’s Genie, are more in line with what I was hoping for with this film’s cast, as they break free a bit more from the shackles of the original’s plot points and character choices to bring in a breath of fresh air to the proceedings.
Scott seems to have a bit more to chew on than her animated counterpart, as she now finally gets her own song (that isn’t actually half bad), while also subverting the original ending a bit to coincide with Jasmine having a more commanding and meaty role in the story; a welcome wrinkle that elevates her character more so than even Aladdin himself. For the role of Genie, Will Smith wisely doesn’t try to be a knock-off Robin Williams as many expected, and instead takes it upon himself to – when the script fully allows it – become a big, blue, wacky, larger than life version of himself that works way more than it should. Throw in an interesting subplot for him involving one of Jasmine’s handmaidens, and a couple of great back and forth scenes between him and Aladdin, and you have a casting that will never live up to the original, but never truly tries to compete, a smart decision if there ever was one.
To that end, the only casting that I was particularly underwhelmed by was Marwan Kenzari as Jafar, who plays the villainous role with barely any menace, coming across as just a petty, one-dimensional plot device needed to inject some kind of danger into the script. Add in the fact that the final battle between Jafar and Aladdin is wildly different and much less fun and interesting than the original, and I can’t say that this remake has done Jafar any favors.
At times masterfully magical and at other times magically mediocre, Aladdin comfortably sits right in between the original animated classic and the more recent Broadway show in terms of quality and ambition. Because of this, the film ends up feeling a bit disjointed as it seems more preoccupied with playing the “greatest hits” of the original while only tweaking a few elements here and there to try and bring something new to the table. It’s a shame because out of all the Disney classics that could have soared with today’s technology, VFX wizardry and blockbuster mentality, it’s this one. Either way, I love me some Aladdin, but I think I’ll have to go with the animated version over any adaptation thus far, even if this one isn’t the train wreck I was worried it would turn out to be.