A street urchin named Aladdin (Mena Massoud) has relied on thievery and his pet monkey Abu to survive the streets of Agrabah. His life is transformed when he meets and falls in love with Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott). Then an encounter with the Grand vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) leads to his meeting a Genie (Will Smith) who grants him three wishes.
So how does the latest of Disney’s run of live-action remakes fare, you ask? Well, it’s fine – not as bad as you expect, but not great, with some enjoyable aspects and some issues.
Starting with the positives, Mena Massoud as Aladdin was a superb casting choice. If you could imagine the animated Al in live action form, Massoud would be it. But you’re probably more curious about how Will Smith does filling the giant shoes of Robin Williams. Well, it’s a relief that Smith chooses not to do an impersonation of the late, great actor (although it initially appears that way from the Cave of Wonders scene) opting to play Genie as, well, Will Smith. He doesn’t have quite the vitality of his earlier years, and his singing range isn’t the ideal fit for the ‘Aladdin’ soundtrack, but Smith does bring an infectious enthusiasm and singalong quality to the numbers, which similarly worked effectively in Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ remake.
A couple of things are added such as new character Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), the handmaiden and best friend of Jasmine, a new song, and more courting scenes between Aladdin and Jasmine. It’s pretty loyal to the original aside from that. While “Arabian Nights” is lackluster, the film picks up substantially with “One Jump Ahead” (thanks to Massoud), and “Friend Like Me” – once you get over the mildly terrifying-looking blue Will smith – is good fun; you can’t deny it has pizzazz. The Cave of Wonder scene and magic carpet are also done well but “Prince Ali”, in spite of being full of colour and spectacle, has a staged feel. It’s a strange choice of director in Guy Ritchie, best-known for ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ and ‘Snatch’, and one gets the sense that he doesn’t quite understand how to direct a musical, unlike, say, Bill Condon (‘Dreamgirls’, ‘Chicago’) or Dexter Fletcher (‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘Rocketman’.). You’d almost forget it was even directed by him other than the obligatory Guy-Ritchie-slo-mo-shots.
One of the greatest sins of the movie though is its villains. Marwan Kenzari is completely underwhelming as Jafar. You just never believe in his villainy. And gone is the smart alec, cheeky characterization of Iago (voiced fabulously originally by Gilbert Gottfried, here by Alan Tudyk) and in its place is a boring, bad guy parrot. There’s also something of a feminist narrative hemmed in whereby Jasmine wants to be Sultan – and is pointedly told she lacks experience, and that her role is to be seen and not heard – which feels inorganic. Naomi Scott is good and she sings “A Whole New World” with Massoud well but it’s a dull rendition compared to the animation. Like much of the movie, it’s irritatingly CGI heavy. And when there isn’t CGI, the movie looks so blatantly like a set that you get the sense, again, that either Guy Ritchie wasn’t sure of what he was doing, or Disney execs insisted on the film being as bright and showy as possible to distract from its flaws.
There is something of a pointlessness one feels watching the film. It’s over 2 hours long, so why not just stay home and watch the original? Or if you want to see it in live action, why not check out the hit musical on the West End or Broadway (and indeed, the movie often has the feel of a broadcasted stage show)? The absence of Williams means the new ‘Aladdin’ never has quite the charm of the animation, but it’ll leave you with a smile on your face thanks to those delightful musical numbers.