Unless you’ve been trapped inside the Cave of Wonders for the past couple of decades, you’ll know that this latest Aladdin reimagining is a live-action remake of Walt Disney’s beloved 1992 classic of the same name, which itself was an updated re-do of a famous Arabic folktale from a book titled One Thousand and One Nights. Thankfully, it didn’t take a magical genie to make me fall in love with Aladdin all over again, as this new update is bursting with color, energy, and flair, as well as some surprisingly good turns from its culturally fitting leads. You see, while this isn’t exactly a ‘whole new world,’ it’s a ‘new enough’ world to warrant a trip back to the fictional land of Agrabah, which is said to be located somewhere around the Jordan River in the Middle East.
Whisked to ‘a faraway place where the caravan camels roam’ via Will Smith’s rendition of Alan Menken’s ‘Arabian Nights,’ Aladdin opens by dropping us into the Agrabah marketplace, the camera zig-zagging in and out of the busy, bustling bazaar before giving us glimpses of power-crazed Grand Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), who’s out at the tiger-shaped Cave of Wonders trying to get his hands on a magical lamp, and a dissatisfied-looking Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), confined to the palace walls. We’re then plopped back into the souk, where we’re introduced to street urchin Aladdin (Mena Massoud), the ‘diamond in the rough,’ and his mischievous digitally-rendered sidekick, capuchin monkey Abu. From there it’s ‘one jump ahead of the breadline, one swing ahead of the sword,’ as our cunning, street-smart street-rat outwits a swarm of palace guards, sweeping a disguised Jasmine off her feet, Aladdin coming to her aide by stopping her from having to surrender her mother’s prized bracelet after she’s caught ‘stealing’ some bread to feed a couple of beggars.
Following their narrow escape, the two hide out in Aladdin’s refuge where Jasmine’s begins to open up about her plight — she feels silenced and sheltered, restricted from socializing with her subjects, and dreams of adventure, along with the chance to rule the kingdom as her father’s successor. Aladdin, of course, doesn’t suspect that she’s royalty, merely a servant girl who’d snuck out of the stronghold and taken to the streets. Jasmine is instantly charmed by Aladdin’s kind-heart and boyish bravado, the stranger who’d rescued her a far cry from the snooty suiters who come from far and wide to claim her as their prize — there’s a great cameo by Billy Magnussen who portrays Prince Anders, a bumbling suitor from Skånland. Jasmine, being so strong-willed and independent, doesn’t want to wed out of sheer obligation, but rather for love (the character is far more fleshed out here, being 3-dimensional in more ways than one — but more on her later.)
When returning to the castle, Jasmine realizes that her armlet has gone missing — poor Abu just doesn’t know when to quit — instilling doubts in her mind about the man she’d met in the mart. Aladdin, wooed by Jasmine’s beauty and wanting to return what the monkey had stolen, slips into the palace that night, meeting with the ‘servant girl’ he’d fallen for earlier. On his way out, however, he’s nabbed by Jafar’s lackeys, coming face-to-face with the sniveling councilman, who offers him a chance to ‘start over,’ an opportunity to become ‘rich enough to impress a princess.’ In exchange for these treasures, all Aladdin needs to do is retrieve an oil lamp from a mystical realm, the Cave of Wonders, and hand it over to the sinister Jafar, who plans on using the genie inside to tip the scales of power and become Sultan of Agrabah.
And yadda yadda yadda, we all know how the rest goes — Aladdin enters the cave, befriends an affable magic carpet, and the sticky-fingered Abu, well, he touches a forbidden jewel, causing the cavern to fall in on itself and bury our heroes beneath the rubble. But hey, at least they have the lamp. So, Aladdin rubs it and out pops a blue, wise-cracking, wish-granting Genie (Will Smith), who bequests ‘Al’ three wishes, explaining the rules of the master-genie pact via the toe-tappin’ ‘Friend Like Me,’ an explosive, ebullient, VFX-laden jam — just one of the many vivid, elaborately staged musical numbers on offer. Once back on the sandy dunes, Aladdin, dubbing himself ‘Prince Ali,’ uses one of his three wishes to become a nobleman worthy of Jasmine’s hand, making his presence known by entering the town with an extravagant noise-making pageant — cue the promenade performance. The sniveling Jafar, however, very quickly begins to suspect that something isn’t quite right about Agrabah’s newest guest, searching for ways to expose Aladdin so that he can take the lamp and use its power to sit atop the throne.
Directed by Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ Guy Ritchie (although you’d never tell), and penned by Ritchie and John August, Big Fish (2003), Aladdin ’19 pretty much follows the same structure laid out by Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio back in ’92, with some minor, yet noticeable changes. Firstly, the film uses a mariner (also Will Smith) as a framing device, the boatman telling his kids the tale of Aladdin, the Princess of Agrabah, and the magic lamp. Our protagonist, Aladdin, remains largely the same, but other key characters have been fleshed out and given backstories. Just on our hero, I’m happy to report that relative newcomer Mena Massoud does a terrific job in bringing Aladdin’s naïvety and childlike cheekiness to life.
A lot’s been done to build on Jafar, filmmakers giving the guy more motive and history. He’s portrayed as a power-hungry anti-Aladdin of sorts, who’s sick of being second best. Jafar, as it turns out, used to be a street thief himself, having worked his way up the food chain and into the palace, his descent into villainy representing what could happen to Aladdin if he ever turned into ‘that guy’ — basically someone whose thirst for supremacy takes over. In terms of performance, Marwan Kenzari, Ben-Hur (2016), does okay as the scheming sorcerer, even if he doesn’t really do much to stand out, despite all the added elements — and look, I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a bit disappointed that he didn’t turn into a giant cobra in the last act. Fortunately, Jafar’s still got his pesky parrot pal Iago (voiced by Disney regular Alan Tudyk), who he frequently feeds info to, this version less of an abrasive anthropomorphic right-hand man and more of a foul-looking scarlet macaw who can utter a few words.
Then there’s Princess Jasmine, who’s been somewhat modernized here — she’s no longer just an object to be fought over and ‘won.’ This Jasmine doesn’t want to get married, that’s not for her, and instead dreams of achieving equality and having her voice heard by becoming the first female Sultan of Agrabah — because hey, no one knows her people more than she does, right? Additionally, Jasmine’s chamber is filled with books and maps, suggesting that she’s intelligent, and knows about the world around her. Plus, her pet tiger Rajah makes her look totally badass. With that said, Naomi Scott, Power Rangers (2017), is a delight as the headstrong princess; Scott looks absolutely ravishing in her vast array of exotic outfits, created by costume designer Michael Wilkinson, American Hustle (2013). She also shares palpable on-screen chemistry with co-star Massoud, and has no problems belting out a tune, with her new solo ‘Speechless’ — composed by Menken and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — a defiant original track that’s fit to empower women everywhere — heck, I liked it more than Frozen’s ‘Let It Go.’ Jas is also joined by another female character, her friend, confidante and handmaiden Dalia (played by a scene-stealing Nasim Pedrad), who’s the center of a new romantic subplot for Genie.
Which, of course, brings me to Will Smith’s take on the big, blue wish-granter, a character made famous by the late Robin Williams 27 years ago. Although the Fresh Prince was never going to match Williams’ unbridled energy, he does manage to make the character his own, capturing that charisma and larger-than-life persona that made him such a megastar back in the late ’90s. Smith absolutely nails a bunch of hilarious reactions as he awkwardly tries to save Prince Ali from sinking when he first meets his future father-in-law, Aladdin clumsily attempting to charm his way into the Sultan (Navid Negahban) and Jasmine’s good books — sure, Smith’s singing ain’t always up to scratch, but his infectious energy more than gets him over the line. Genie’s CGI, however, is a bit hit and miss. While nowhere near as bad as the initial reveal in one of the trailers, Smith’s buff, Smurf-colored deuteragonist works best when he’s wild and cartoony, yet feels a bit off when he’s just hanging around and chatting. When you stop and think about it, it’s clear that Disney’s original blue guy was never meant to be translated into live-action, so this realistic take does, at times, fall into the Uncanny Valley. Irrespective, I dug this new Genie of the Lamp, even the weird way he looked.
Featuring all the iconic earworms from the ’92 film, each springing to live via dazzling Disney-style song-and-dance ditties, as well as grand, exhaustive sets and production design by Gemma Jackson, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017), Aladdin is a spellbinding sensory feast, its visuals alone worth the price of admission. The flick also includes a Bollywood type dance number, which feels very well-placed — Massoud really knows how to cut a rug, his solo shimmy a bit of a showstopper — the Hindi influences slipping nicely into the movie’s Middle Eastern sensibilities. Unfortunately, as far as Ritchie’s stylistic kinks go — think his rough-and-tumble attitude and gritty aesthetic — they’re mostly absent, Aladdin coming across as a safe, studio picture. Bar some speed ramping in a couple of musical sections (the most notable being in the opening market chase) there’s not a lot of stuff out of the Guy Ritchie playbook, despite this being stamped as a Guy Ritchie film.
If the thought of an Aladdin re-tool rubs you the wrong way, don’t fret, as this adaptation does enough to differentiate itself and justify its existence outside of exploiting nostalgia — the stars do such an amazing job here that, who knows, one day they might become just as memorable as their animated counterparts. There’s no hiding it, I out-and-out loved this movie and had such a fun time in the theatre, so much so that I wanted to re-live it all over again immediately after the credits stopped rolling — don’t know about you, but I’m itching for a live-action Return of Jafar. So, come on down, stop on by, hop a carpet and fly, to another Arabian night. Go see Aladdin. Go see it thrice!
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by S-Littner