(2019—Director: Guy Ritchie)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
“I made you look like a prince on the outside, but I didn’t change anything on the inside. Prince Ali got you to the door, but Aladdin has to open it.” — The Genie (Will Smith) to Aladdin (Mena Massoud)
Potential spoilers below
(Also, following their initial mentions, I shall distinguish between the two versions of Aladdin using just their release years, i.e., 1992 and 2019.)
In 1992, Walt Disney released Aladdin, a loose adaptation of the similarly-titled folktale from the Middle Eastern folk collection One Thousand & One Nights. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker and featuring songs by Alan Menken, Tim Rice, and the late Howard Ashman, Aladdin was an enormous success. It became the undisputed box office champion in both North America ($217.4 million) and the entire globe ($504.1 million) that year and swept both music Oscars (Score and Song for “A Whole New World”). One major factor in its deserving success was casting Robin Williams as the Genie. Despite the tense aftermath between Williams and the Mouse House concerning the marketing use of Williams’ voice (article and video essays by Cartoons 101 and Ms. Lindsey Ellis), the Genie remains one of the late comedian’s most beloved screen roles.
This potent attachment to 1992 and Robin Williams’ performance in particular likely explains why Aladdin’s 2019 live-action remake has worried Disney fans the most. Not only is this the second of three Disney live-action remakes in 2019 alone—following the underrated Dumbo from early this past spring and before The Lion King this coming July—but style-over-substance filmmaker Guy Ritchie (not a fan of his last film) is handling directing and co-writing duties (alongside writer John August). The casting of Will Smith as the Genie further generated anxiety, given Smith’s patchy past decade of a career as well as his palpable self-brand preservation. Thankfully and much to my surprise, 2019 proves quite capable in giving Disney’s recent derivative output some semblance of a purpose.
That’s not to say that 2019 has shortcomings that weave throughout its 128-minute runtime, but I doubt you’ll find any right at the start. In terms of beginnings, I’d argue that 2019 surpasses 1992: 1992 led simply with “Arabian Nights”, following a merchant (Robin Williams, because…he had extra time in the voiceover booth?) from the desert to Agrabah, finishing with him introducing the tale with Jafar at the Cave of Wonders. 2019, meanwhile, starts on a small but furnished sailboat with Will Smith (as a human) singing the tale to his two children (Taliyah Blair and Jordan A. Nash) and his wife and crew busy in the background with other errands. As the opening titles appear, the camera tracks in a long take from the sea to Agrabah, first into the crowded market where audiences can identify Aladdin and Abu at once (though not clearly by face). Then the camera ascends to the palace (The Sultan, Jasmine, and handmaiden Dalia (Nasim Pedrad) sitting out in the evening air). Finally, the camera pushes beyond to the desert, where Jafar tries and fails to send yet another thug into the Cave of Wonders (fitting Frank Welker’s “only one may enter…a diamond in the rough” line into the song). Instead of 1992’s ominous yet mostly serviceable entrance into this Middle Eastern world, 2019 surveys and defines the general geography and characters of this story with “Arabian Nights” (added lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) as the through-line and landing on Jafar as the narrative’s main oppressive force.
“Arabian Nights” achieves one other thing: It is the only updated song rendition with percussion that drives it perfectly. “Friend Like Me” comes the next closest and wisely has hip-hop moments sprinkled rather than smothered into it. (Hip-hop can turn quite lame and dated fast in a family-friendly environment, so the less and more concentrated, the better.) The other songs, while fair updates, lack the airy bounce and whimsical rush of 1992’s big-band, jazzy, Broadway swing. The industrial, action genre-sounding drums in “One Jump Ahead”, the funky rhythm behind “Prince Ali” (kudos on changing “Sunday salaam” to “Friday salaam”, by the way), and added brush-like drums on nearly every quarter note in “A Whole New World” end up sounding like their 1992 versions but with speed bumps. A slight disappointment, especially since I quite approve of all of returning composer Alan Menken’s efforts here to incorporate more Middle Eastern instrumentation.
Inhabiting impressive craft efforts such as Gemma Jackson’s production design, Tina Jones’ set decoration, and Michael Wilkinson’s costumes, the cast give respectable efforts in recreating the roles from 1992. Naomi Scott as Jasmine gets a major upgrade as a more headstrong and studious princess who boldly desires to one day succeed her father as a sultan for the people. (Ms. Scott stood out in 2017’s Power Rangers, which I discussed in #6 here.) Ms. Scott blows “Speechless”, the movie’s sole new song, out of the water, though I do wish the song had been far better inserted into the body of the story. I’m also fond of Marwan Kenzari’s take on Jafar—quietly venomous in most scenes (compared to the slimier and more animated take of 1992’s Jonathan Freeman), yet toxically giddy in a few choice moments. Shame, though, that Kenzari didn’t get to sing “Prince Ali (Reprise)” at the end of act two like Freeman did in 1992—after all, what’s more evil than to hurl the hero’s false identity entrance song back at him? Solid the whole way through is Mena Massoud as Aladdin—songs, stunts, and all. Last but not least, Will Smith takes Robin Williams’ Genie and makes the character his own, falling well short of staining the late comedian’s beloved legacy. I dare you to hold back tears during the scene of Aladdin’s third and final wish.
The rest of the more serious cinephile demographic may view these Disney live-action remakes with diminishing regard as they continue to emerge. I, however, hold more optimism now that Dumbo and Aladdin have made their impressions. Unlike with 2017’s Beauty & the Beast remake, Aladdin—though just as arguably untouchable—has its small share of spots for improvement and culturally-appropriate and/or -progressive adjustments, and Guy Ritchie and Co. went the distance on all of them. Better to show some gratitude for worthwhile entertainment than to brood forever at the absence of more original content, I’d say.
(Parental Note: Aladdin has been rated PG by the MPAA “for some action/peril”. It is also rated PG by the BBFC for “mild fantasy threat”, and rated A-II (Adults and older children) by the Catholic News Service for containing “occult material, a benign view of minor wrongdoing, and considerable peril.”)
(Plot Summary: Aladdin (Mena Massoud) has spent his entire life as an impoverished orphan, thieving for survival along with his loyal yet just as thieving pet monkey Abu (Frank Welker). One day, Aladdin meets and falls in love with Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), the beautiful daughter of the Sultan of Agrabah (Navid Negahban). Unfortunately, Aladdin gets forcibly tasked by Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the Sultan’s scheming Grand Vizier, to retrieve from the Cave of Wonders a magic oil lamp with whose power Jafar plans to overthrow the kingdom. Before Jafar can get the lamp, however, Aladdin manages to unleash from the lamp a powerful, wise-cracking, larger-than-life Genie (Will Smith). With the Genie’s help, Aladdin sets out to win Princess Jasmine’s heart while stopping Jafar from taking over as sultan.)
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.