Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Nasim Pedrad, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban
It’s pretty much a given now that Disney are going to keep recreating their best-loved classics into live-action (or not-so-live-action, in some cases) films, as long as there’s an audience for them. Judging by the amount of classic (and current) Disney fans there are in the world, there will always be an audience for them, and so keep coming they shall and we may as well give in to it. The latest Disney Renaissance movie to get the makeover is 1992’s Aladdin, a beloved animation that many of us still recall seeing when it came out on VHS (as well as the female, and probably some male, friends who adored the titular character on a more romantic level. Weird.) One of the best-loved aspects of 1992’s Aladdin was the late great Robin Williams’s performance as the Genie (not only did he voice the character, but animators also took note of his physicality and facial features when performing the script). It’s a risky performance to touch, let alone performances of the famous soundtrack, including the title track ‘A Whole New World’, or even performing as the terrifying villain of the piece. So is Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin one jump ahead, or less diamond and more rough?
Aladdin (Massoud) is an orphan struggling to survive on the streets of the fictional Middle-Eastern city of Agrabah. Along with his trusty monkey pal, Abu (voiced by Frank Welker, the original voice of Abu from 1992), they come to the assistance of a young lady in trouble. She turns out to be Agrabah’s Princess Jasmine (Scott), and Aladdin quickly falls head over heels. After visiting the princess at the palace, he is reprimanded by the Sultan’s (Negahban) Grand Vizier, Jafar (Kenzari), who then convinces Aladdin to risk his life in order to bring Jafar a magic lamp. After a failed attempt in which he becomes master of the Genie of the Lamp (Smith), Aladdin begins to realise all his dreams can come true, including becoming a suitor for Jasmine, when he can make three wishes. As his wishes are granted his self-confidence is tested, along with his love for Jasmine, resulting in many lives being put in danger and only Aladdin to set things right again.
1992’s Aladdin is, in a word, magical. Perhaps more so for those who were young when it was released, but it resonates with all ages. From the characters to the songs to the beautifully animated Arabic setting, it’s a fun film that continues to entertain generations. The same will not be said of Ritchie’s Aladdin. It has its moments, some comedic touches that will elicit some giggles and songs that are almost as strong and wonderfully performed as the original cast recordings (although nothing can really compare to Aladdin and Jasmine’s original singing vocal performers, Brad Kane and Lea Salonga, and their rendition of ‘A Whole New World’ – check out their 1993 Oscars performance here, complete with full ’90s feel as well as Alan Menken and Tim Rice’s win for Best Original Song, and their 2015 reunion performance here). But overall the film feels very flat, which is potentially down to casting (see next paragraph) and a lacklustre script. As an adaptation, many lines are lifted straight out of the original but aren’t performed nearly as well. Injecting a little modernity into it via Will Smith and his personal brand of hip hop and Fresh Prince-y style goes a long way – it’s not overdone, but it’s a fun way to bring the film up to date without completely losing its setting, much in the way the original animated Genie brought a lot of modern pop culture references to the historically-set film. Ritchie clearly had a good collaboration with cinematographer Alan Stewart, as the movie is visually pleasing in all aspects (even Smith’s part-CGI Genie isn’t too bad), but it doesn’t feel like he pushed his cast far enough in their performances, or he only delivered minimal direction, and his rehashing of the tale leaves a lot to be desired.
If there’s at least one thing that Ritchie has done right with Aladdin, it’s making his cast predominantly of Arab/Middle Eastern/Central Asian/Southern Asian descent, providing a more authentic and racially correct portrayal of the people of Agrabah. However, that’s not to say that he necessarily got his casting choices quite right. Massoud as Aladdin is quite stiff – he doesn’t have the cheekiness that animated Aladdin is known and loved for. Perhaps that’s in part down to the script, but there’s something substantial missing; that charming glint in his eye isn’t there. Massoud certainly looks the part, but that’s all there really is to it. Scott’s portrayal of Jasmine is a little better – she doesn’t feel quite as strong as her animated counterpart, but with an extra song put into the film just for her that exudes female empowerment she certainly gives it her best shot. By far one of the biggest let downs of the film is Jafar. In the animation he is a terrifying creature, tall and thin and very intimidating. Kenzari is none of the above. He does his best in the role, but there is nothing intimidating about the character or the performance. Jafar is, in a word, bland. And although Iago, Jafar’s literal partner-in-crime, is voiced by the ever-wonderful Alan Tudyk, he’s nowhere near as fun to love and hate as Gilbert Gottfried’s animated Iago, mostly because in Ritchie’s film he’s barely more than a regular parrot with a few words to say. Mostly the same goes for Abu, whose realistic look is actually creepier than Jafar.
If anyone was going to save this movie, it’s Will Smith. Of course, no one could or ever will compare to Robin Williams’s Genie, but Smith does his own thing whilst paying homage to Wiliams’s comedy. Smith is actually rather enjoyable, one of those versatile actors who can flip through comedy and light-hearted storytelling right through to emotional heart-wrenching performances, possessing the ability to pull you in at all angles nearly in the same way Williams could. Although Williams could never be replaced in the role, Smith creates his own Genie who could easily be related to animated Genie. He’s fun and gives the songs a damn good crack. He truly provides the entertainment in Ritchie’s film.
If it’s the soundtrack that pulls you into Aladdin, you won’t be entirely disappointed, so allow yourself to indulge in the musical segments with decent performances and one or two new songs and refrains. Also go for Will Smith, because he will entertain you. But don’t expect to feel the same magical feeling of drifting away to a far-off land via magic carpet that you may feel after watching 1992’s Aladdin. To save yourself disappointment, watch Ritchie’s Aladdin and then go home and watch 1992 Aladdin. You’ll feel better.