ALADDIN – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Will Smith (Men in Black), Mena Massoud (Run This Town), Naomi Scott (Power Rangers), Marwan Kenzari (The Mummy), Navid Negahban (American Sniper), Nasim Pedrad (Saturday Night Live), Billy Magnussen (Game Night)

Director: Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes)

Writers: John August (Big Fish) and Guy Ritchie

Runtime: 2 hours 8 minutes

Release Date: 22 May (UK), 24 May (US)

Disney aren’t going to stop making live-action remakes of their animated classics. They just aren’t. Unless the world suddenly runs out of childhood nostalgia, we will keep getting these movies no matter what, and they will keep making billions of dollars. It’s futile to complain about their mere existence at this point so, instead of beating an undead horse, let’s at least try and judge the movie that we’ve got in front of us. This month on the docket for a makeover is Aladdin, which, though it makes sense popularity-wise to remake, is also one of the more difficult. The 1992 original’s charm relies so much on its vibrant animation and high fantasy concepts that recreating those visuals in live-action is a recipe for disaster, and trying to present a Genie that can stand up to the late Robin Williams borders on disrespectful. But, in all honesty, this new Aladdin is far from the disaster it could have been. It’s still not particularly remarkable, but you won’t hate yourself while you’re watching it. Hardly a compliment, I know, but bear with me here…

2019’s Aladdin follows the broad strokes of the original film very closely, and that’s certainly not a bad thing considering how tight and definitive that telling is. This version has a slightly more contemporary sense of humour, and the love story takes on something more akin to a romantic comedy than a Disney romance, but otherwise this is the story you know and love. It knows not to mess with the well-laid foundations, and instead focuses on updating the smaller details and adding some modern depth. This is an approach that many of the previous Disney remakes have taken and it has its pros and cons. Most of the smaller changes, like some slight reordering of scenes and clarifications to the rules of the world, are pretty pedantic and just make things more complicated. The bigger differences are laid in the film’s themes which, in addition the core messages of being yourself and the responsibility of having power, now includes feminist and anti-authoritarian subtext to Jasmine and Jafar’s storylines. Whilst these ideas are welcome and don’t damage the overall story, they are handled in a fairly perfunctory and on-the-nose way. We shouldn’t be congratulating a movie for simply doing the right thing like having stronger female role models or adding political allegories. Those kind of layers should be a given, and the appraisal is then based on how well they accomplish those tasks, and that’s where Aladdin falters. I could go on, but I’ll summarise it so: if you had a problem with the updates made in the Beauty and the Beast remake, you’ll have similar issues here. If you can get past the triteness of those changes, you’ll otherwise find an entertaining if slightly artificial romantic adventure that kids who’ve never seen the original will certainly have a fun time with.

Of all the times to remake Aladdin, I’m glad it was at least done now rather than any time sooner, given that this film would probably look a whole lot whiter if they did; remember, it was only nine years ago that Disney still thought casting Jake Gyllenhaal in a Prince of Persia movie was a good idea. Relative newcomer Mena Massoud makes for a charismatic Aladdin, retaining the character’s bravado and cockiness whilst also upping his awkward factor when dealing with romantic situations; he’s basically a Hugh Grant character in Arabian dress. Naomi Scott often steals the show as Princess Jasmine, lending strong credence to the character’s newly fleshed-out political aspirations. Though the writing occasionally reverts the character back into a damsel for arbitrary reasons, Scott’s performance remains consistent and the film really comes alive when it just lets her go full ladyboss.

Marwan Kenzari is fine as Jafar, but the character has lost a lot in translation. Deciding to nix the queercoding and redefining him as more of a political schemer with inadequacy issues is a fine enough concept, but it never feels like they got further than that basic idea. Navid Negahban’s Sultan feels like a huge downgrade, completely losing the character’s comedic aspects and rendering him a mere chess-piece character with little personality. Instead, they decide to give more character development to Numan Acar’s head guard Hakim, but only suddenly during the third act to give Jasmine a chance to flex her powers of persuasion; it’s a fine enough moment, but it lacks any tangible preamble. Abu and The Carpet are handled pretty much identically to how they were in the original, whilst Iago has lost the Gilbert Godfreid wisecracks in favour of a more grounded approach; he’s now basically just a really smart parrot. In regards to the new characters, Nasim Pedrad is amusing as Jasmine’s handmaiden Dahlia but she’s relatively thankless, while Billy Magussen as suitor Prince Anders is basically pointless. He’s introduced as a Scandanavian stereotype, has two brief scenes, and then promptly disappears from the movie; methinks there’s a lot of his scenes of the cutting room floor.

But even with all of that said, the mere idea of a new Aladdin rests on the quality of whoever is playing the Genie, and trying to imitate Robin Williams’ iconic work is practically impossible; go ask Dan Castellaneta. In all fairness, Will Smith is mostly trying to do his own thing, and when the film allows him to he actually works surprisingly well. Smith is basically just doing his character from Hitch again but with magic powers, and when he’s playing into that smooth matchmaker persona the character begins to take on his own identity. His comedic chemistry with Massoud is charming and genuine, and of course he brings his Fresh Prince swagger to the musical sequences, but that only makes it all the more frustrating when the film does force him back into doing Williams’ shtick. Those moments are when the film feels most desperate, and frankly I wish they had leaned harder into Smith’s new take rather than constantly trying to remind us that this is Disney’s Genie and not so much Will Smith’s Genie.

Guy Ritchie is certainly an odd choice to direct any Disney movie, let alone an Aladdin remake, but you’d be hard pressed to even recognise this as a Ritchie production. I’m thankfully this isn’t another horrible mash-up of style and time period like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, but instead it just feels like another Disney factory line product; if you’d told me this movie was directed by someone like Rob Marshall, I probably would have believed you. The film does a decent job of bringing the world of Agrabah to life in regards to atmosphere and vibrancy, though the city sets too often feel like a backlot and make the city seem a lot smaller than it ostensibly is. The CGI was the cause of a lot of backlash pre-release (yes, I’ll admit I made my own Genie/Tobias Funke meme), but the final results are far better than those in the trailers. Smith’s Genie for the most part looks convincing in motion, though obviously nowhere near as malleable and imaginative as his hand-drawn counterpart. Other CG characters like Iago, Abu and The Carpet are consistently strong, and effects-heavy sequences like the escape from the Cave of Wonders and the “A Whole New World” sequences are well executed.

Speaking of that classic song, all of the classic numbers are here relatively intact and just as catchy as ever. Massoud proves himself a capable singer with his rendition of “One Step Ahead”, and he and Scott absolutely nail “A Whole New World”, whilst Smith definitely leaves his signature mark on “Arabian Nights”, “A Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” alike. Your mileage with his songs will vary on how much you genuinely love Will Smith as a musician and/or how much you ironically enjoy hearing classic Disney songs interrupted by Will Smith-isms (seriously, he sounds like he’s ready to break right into “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” at any moment). However, there are new verses added here and there to the originals, along with a whole new song for Jasmine “Speechless”, courtesy of The Greatest Showman songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Though “Speechless” itself is a fine enough song and Scott performs the hell out of it, it and the other tweaks stylistically don’t blend well with the work done years ago by Alan Menken, Tim Rice and the late great Howard Ashman.

The new Aladdin is far from a bad movie. It’s too full of energy and charm to be bad. It’s clear that everyone involved is putting in the effort, and for solid stretches it’s actually very enjoyable, but that’s mostly because of how much it loyally follows the original. At that point, when you can just as easily watch the 1992 film, getting the same experience and feeling without all the superfluous new stuff, why even bother? If you’ve enjoyed Disney’s previous remakes, you’ll probably have a lot of fun with this one, but I don’t think this version is likely to supplant the classic in anyone’s mind. If you didn’t like most of the prior reimaginings, you’ll probably find similar problems here, and I can’t blame anyone for feeling these productions are cynical and unnecessary because…well, they kind of are. When it comes down to it, this new Aladdin is like seeing a new production of your favourite stage musical. The show on paper is still great, but you know you’ve seen a better version of it before.



Author: Jennifer Heaton

Aspiring screenwriter, film critic, pop culture fanatic and perpetual dreamer.

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