When I think of the animated Aladdin, I think back to being about 14-years-old, jumping up and down on my bed, and singing along to its soundtrack. At that exact moment, my friends see me doing this through the window and laugh hysterically at me. You see, I love Aladdin. I always have. And I feel this distinct memory, blending the bliss from the music and embarrassment from the moment, is a noteworthy dichotomy going into a live-action remake of Aladdin.
Disney’s new Aladdin is a film that could either bring audiences back to those nostalgic memories of the 1992 classic or be two hours of horribly awkward blue CGI Will Smith dancing around. It could be laughed with or laughed at. Well...I’m overjoyed to report that while there is some of that awkwardness, it pales in comparison to the rest of it. Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin made me feel like a kid again.
From its very first moments, the film’s reverence for the animated version literally had me fighting back tears. (Which, I fully admit, could very well be because I personally hold the original film so near and dear to my heart and that’s important to remember.) But even if you don’t get misty-eyed at the chorus of “Arabian Nights,” Ritchie and his team have taken the original movie and infused it with plenty of smart surprises and updates to make this film its own.
That said, the basic plot of Aladdin is exactly the same as the original. A young thief named Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is recruited by the advisor to the Sultan, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), to retrieve a magic lamp. The lamp contains a genie (Will Smith) and Aladdin uses the genie to become a prince, hoping to win the heart of Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott). Aladdin and Genie then realize that Jafar is up to no good and, with the help of Jasmine, save the kingdom.
Like the animated original, Ritchie’s film is also a musical, so it’s structured almost exactly the same, simply to fit in the musical numbers. The new film does have one new song, though. It’s called “Speechless,” and it’s an upbeat, pop, power ballad sung by Jasmine.
“Speechless” is the perfect example of the mostly-positive changes made in this version of Aladdin. Here, Jasmine has a significantly more complex role, which is bolstered by the song. She’s still being courted by Princes from around the world with a father eager for her to choose one and get married, but she isn’t defined by that. She sneaks out of the palace regularly and asks her father to make her Sultan, instead of having to be married to some random Prince. He refuses, of course, and “Speechless” is about the frustration of not having her voice heard by the people in her life. It’s reprised later in the film resulting in one of the best, most powerful, moments in the movie.
Jasmine’s evolved role is just the tip of the story expansions, however. Almost all of the songs have new and updated lyrics, which range from head-scratching to eye-opening, but are mostly similar enough that you won’t care too much. There’s a new character named Dalia, played by Nasim Pedrad of Saturday Night Live, who’s Jasmine’s close friend and handmaiden. She adds some comic relief to Jasmine’s storyline and has a few more spoilery functions as well. Jafar’s motivations are also given more explanation and political motivations throughout. All of these add depth and improve the film. Then there are the changes have to do with the Genie.
Ah, Will Smith as the Genie. Ever since the world got a brief glimpse of the character, the Genie has been treated as a sure-fire sign that Aladdin was a disaster. Well, it’s not and neither is he, but it’s not a home run by any means.
First of all, Smith’s choices as the character change the entire tone of the film. He makes the genie his own by only partially channeling Robin Williams’ mania and blending it with a more natural, cocky, human swagger. The combination of the two gives the character a more relatable feeling, which in turns grounds the movie as a whole. Oh sure, there are huge dance sequences with the Genie duplicating himself and wearing silly outfits just like the original, but when that’s not happening, he and Aladdin have a kind of buddy-cop chemistry that gives the movie a very breezy feel.
The biggest problem with the Genie is that when he is blue, the effects are not always great. Sometimes the eye line is wrong. Other times the face is wonky or his whole being just feels like it’s on another plane of existence. The inconsistency in his look is one of the biggest problems with the film, and one many people are not going to be able to look beyond. Thankfully, he’s “human looking” genie for probably 70 percent of the time and blue genie only 30 percent. You don’t cast “Will Smith” and not put Will Smith on screen for as much as possible.
However, one thing in Aladdin makes up for almost all of those gripes, and that’s the music. Obviously, the music in Aladdin has always been incredible and to be clear, none of the numbers in this version quite live up to their predecessors. But a few come very, very close. “Arabian Nights,” “One Jump Ahead,” and “A Whole New World” in particular are nearly as exquisite as the original, even though only “A Whole New World” remains true to the original. “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” are both solid too, though their over-the-top energy doesn’t quite mesh with the film’s slightly dialed down attitude towards the fantastic elements. And yet, they’re still two of the most beloved Disney songs ever, so it’s hard to dislike them.
Most of Aladdin is like that. It’s just generally pleasant. A big part of that is because of Scott (previously seen in Power Rangers and soon to be in Charlie’s Angels), who is fantastic as Jasmine. She takes an already iconic character and makes her even more commanding and heartfelt, especially when she sings. Smith, again, makes the genie work with a surprisingly, and maybe unnecessarily, complex performance blending all levels of intensity. Massoud’s Aladdin is not the emotional centerpiece of the movie one would expect, but he plays the role with wit and innocence that work quite well. He’s also a great singer and dancer with killer comic timing, which he and Smith use to great effect. And, of course, all of them are up against Kenzari as Jafar, who gives a solid, albeit it less-than-memorable, turn as the villain.
All of this comes together through the vision of director Guy Ritchie, a director best-known for R-rated British crime thrillers and Sherlock Holmes movies. In the past, Ritchie’s movies have been very quite adventurous visually. Filled with lots of camera tricks and editing that really stand out. Here though, he only uses long takes, noticeably elaborate camera moves, or changes of speed a few times. Just enough to give the movie his stamp, while also making sure the film never outgrows its box as a family-friendly Disney film. The result is a movie that taps into that nostalgia but also feels fresh and different at a level of success that puts it slightly above similar remakes like Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella.
A few minor squabbles aside, I’m happy Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin exists. Does it need to when we have the 1992 original? Of course not. Did watching it bring me incredible joy? Absolutely. While it’ll never replace the near perfection of the original film, Aladdin has the kind of grand spectacle a younger generation expects from a trip to the movies and simultaneously takes their parents on a magic carpet ride back to their youths. My 14-year-old self would be proud to joyfully sing its praises while jumping around in front of my friends.
Aladdin opens Friday.
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