Look, there’s not much point anymore in complaining about the endless onslaught of these Disney remakes. That’s funny coming from me because I feel like I groan and moan about these things every single day, but the fact is that these cash-grabbing black holes of creativity and originality are here to stay and there’s not much that we can do about it (except stop going to see them but we know that’s not going to happen).
Aladdin, like Beauty and the Beast before it, is one of the more popular films from the Disney Renaissance, which itself is the most popular era of Disney animation. That makes it a very easy target for these shot for shot remakes that the company has been churning out.
Imagine my surprise then, when this film turned out to actually be good. It at least feels like it exists as a movie in its own right – changes from the original actually end up putting it one jump ahead in some ways. It takes obvious inspiration from countless Bollywood films, mostly in regard to the costumes, colors and dancing. This helps Aladdin not just be more respectful towards the culture that the story is based out of, but also makes it feel more real. For once, not everything in this is a CG monstrosity. I think it’s probably the very best out of all these Disney remakes so far, which is only saying so much, but it is at least saying something.
Audiences going into this already know the whole story and how it plays out (and all the words to every song), but let’s go over it just for the sake of it. Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a young and charming thief/parkour expert who’s grown up alone on the streets of Agrabah. One day, he meets the princess, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and the two share a connection as they run from palace guards and compare their feelings of being trapped in the lives they were born in to. As a poor “street rat”, Aladdin has no chance of actually being with the princess, but that changes when Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the kingdom’s royal vizier, forces him to enter the mystical Cave of Wonders and retrieve the magical lamp within. Out of the lamp comes the Genie (Will Smith), who grants Aladdin’s wish to become a prince, but he still has to learn that it’s what’s inside rather than outside that counts.
Massoud perfectly captures Aladdin’s flirty, confident scoundrel-ness and trademark crooked grin, making him a great fit for the role. These remakes are always considerably longer than their animated predecessors (Aladdin is a solid 38 minutes longer than the original) due to Disney padding out the runtime with a lot of unnecessary additional plot, but this time around it’s actually welcome. The extra fluff is mostly character moments, mainly giving Aladdin as Prince Ali more time hanging out at the palace. This gives his relationships with Jasmine, Jafar, Genie, and even the Sultan more weight and depth, and makes all of them more fleshed-out characters than they were in the animated version.
Jafar wants the throne, but it’s not simply because he’s evil like before, but because he wants to turn Agrabah into a more militaristic state, showing desire to invade their nearby allies. He has distrust towards anyone from foreign lands or those who don’t show him loyalty, and makes several comments about strengthening Agrabah’s borders (subtle). Also vying for the throne is Jasmine, whose motivations are no longer just not wanting to be forced into marriage. Jasmine knows that she’s the most qualified person for the job of Sultan, and the film thankfully shows this rather than just give it lip service, but the sexist traditions of the kingdom keep her from being able to ascend the throne (again, subtle). These are solid changes to the original narrative, and it helps that the Sultan in this version isn’t just a bumbling idiot, letting the script find a way around the dumb moment from the original where he realizes “Oh yeah, I can just change the law!”
When Aladdin is given room to stretch its legs and go off to be its own thing, rather than living in the shadow of the animated version, it’s a lot of fun. The first half is bright, colorful, exceptionally paced, and instantly engaging. Agrabah and the palace feel like actual, lived-in places, and the costume and set designs are downright amazing. The film still has to hit incredibly familiar beats, right down to the same dialogue in some moments, and only a couple of them actually land in a natural way. The rest feel forced; another checkmark on the list of moments from the original that the movie has to have. Likewise, Will Smith’s Genie doesn’t ever work when they try to emulate the literal magic that was Robin Williams’ performance, but when he’s allowed to be his own character, it’s actually very good.
Smith’s Genie, although terrifying looking in his blue form, is a separate entity (for the most part) from Williams’. This Genie is more cocky and self-obsessed than his animated counterpart, and his sense of humor is more dry and sarcastic, instead of the 100mph zaniness that we’re familiar with (that kind of humor doesn’t translate well to live-action anyway). It’s nice when Smith is able to make the role his own, but a subplot given to him in this film feels extremely ill-advised. Genie doesn’t just want to be free, he wants to be human. To represent this desire, the film gives him a human love interest, Jasmine’s handmaid Dalia (Saturday Night Live’s Nasim Pedrad). This relationship is mostly just uncomfortable. The age difference between Smith and Pedrad, and their characters, makes it unintentionally creepy, and it’s a relationship that the film only half-commits to anyway.
Reworks of the songs sound fantastic and the dance choreography is some of the best to come from recent movie musicals, although Smith, of all people, is stiff as can be, and Guy Ritchie’s direction during the musical numbers feels a bit stilted and slow. Aladdin’s message is to be yourself, so it’s a bit of poetic justice that this telling of the story is at its best when allowed to do just that. The second half is devoid of the musical numbers that make the film so much fun, but it does contain a “Let It Go” inspired solo for Jasmine (the film’s only new song), and Naomi Scott gets to show off her enormous singing talent.
This remake has more highs than lows and ends up somewhere a little beyond the middle of the road, but unlike the ones before it, it feels like more of its own thing. You’ll almost forget that Disney admitted to browning up the faces of their white extras on the set of this thing. Almost.
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Aladdin surpasses previous Disney remakes with its unique aesthetic and welcome updates to the original, but some aspects still hold it back from true greatness.
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