It begins on a dark night, where a dark man waits… with a dark purpose.
Welcome to Agrabah: city of mystery, of enchantment, and an all-new live-action singing-and-dancing Arabian adventure! Witness a chance meeting between Aladdin (Mena Massoud), a streetwise diamond-in-the-rough with great hair and a heart of gold, and Jasmine (Naomi Scott), an fiery princess-in-disguise avoiding vapid suitors with the well-being of her father’s kingdom at heart. Lurking in the shadows is the royal vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), a seeker of power with a black heart yearning for the lamp of an all-powerful Genie (Will Smith) to do his bidding. Would you like to hear the tale?
Another year, another Disney live-action remake of a beloved animated feature… or perhaps two. For many, the Disney animation renaissance was The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, but for others it was Aladdin and its manic Genie brought to life by the late Robin Williams. Inspiring two animated direct-to-video movies and a television series that included most of the original voice cast, the concept was expanded far beyond its musical inception. Along with The Lion King later this year, Aladdin was given the big-screen live-action greenlight under the direction and co-writing of Guy Ritchie, but can it live up to the anticipation… or at least not ruin happy childhood memories?
The good news: it works. It’s the same yet different, expanded in detail and fleshed out with a hint of Bollywood flavor. Following a non-controversy in casting British-Indian actress Naomi Scott as the princess, it makes sense, specially with regards to expanded dancing and costuming. Not all of the changes are perfect, but the positive feel of the original permeates the production, from the anachronistic antics of Genie to finding one’s worth far within. Taking the opportunity to update incorrect Middle Eastern references from the original and mix in more Indian influence to craft a Sinbad-like fantasy Arabia, the live-action remake is intent upon entertaining all audiences while stepping on as few sandaled toes as possible.
Need specifics without spoilers? Fear not: Will Smith indeed makes Genie his own; watch for every possible “Fresh Prince” slant, from his actions to his music. While a step-down in tempo from the zaniness of Williams, it works better for the production overall. Mena Massoud likewise makes a surprisingly good Aladdin, underplayed a bit in relation to his animated inspiration but pulling off the physicality with a bit of Hollywood magic. For Jasmine to be the only woman in the palace — especially courting suitors at her father’s request — never made sense, so creating the handmaiden Dalia (Nasim Pedrad) was a necessary and fun addition. A change in Jasmine’s backstory unfortunately makes her seem less forward or capable than her take-charge animated counterpart; animated Jasmine was also Aladdin’s physical equal, even vaulting over rooftops with him. Jasmine’s new song “Speechless” is a good addition and Scott can really belt it, but where filmmakers shoehorned it in grinds the film to a halt, diminishing its intended effect.
Marwan Kenzari does a fine job as the villain, but he doesn’t feel like the old Jafar. With an updated backstory that’s more in line with the classic Aladdin stories, Kenzari’s Jafar works up to being intimidating while animated Jafar simply was. This isn’t entirely the actor’s fault; with Iago’s role as equal partner severely diminished (and Gilbert Gottfried vocals swapped out for a more parrot-sounding Alan Tudyk), half of Team Jafar is absent, leaving only Aladdin to conspire with. Although Jonathan Freeman’s deep vocal work and Gottfried’s snarky sass are indeed missed, it works better than one might think. Navid Negahban’s Sultan far exceeds his poor animated cousin, possibly the best improvement in the remake; instead of a well-meaning yet comical buffoon, the live-action version means business, commanding respect and exuding requisite awe.
Directed by Guy Ritchie and co-written with John August, the live-action remake of Aladdin takes few chances but lives up to the all-ages spirit of the source material, permitting fans of the original a collective sigh of relief. Unlike Sleeping Beauty’s reworked tale Malificient providing for an upcoming sequel this fall, Aladdin opts for a definitive ending… and that may be the most magical thing of all.
Aladdin 2019 is rated PG for some action/peril and keeping one step ahead of the bread line.
Three skull recommendation out of four