Homeless thief Aladdin (Mena Massoud) lives on the streets of Agrabah, until a chance encounter with Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) throws him into a fantastical adventure involving an evil vizier (Marwan Kenzari), a magical cave, a flying carpet, and an all-powerful genie (Will Smith) charged with granting him three wishes.
Disney are really going hell-for-leather in remaking their older animated features in live-action. This year alone the company has released Dumbo and now Aladdin, and have a photorealistic CGI remake of The Lion King bearing down in just a scant few weeks. It is a program of films powered by crass commercialism and audience nostalgia, and most of the results to date have resulted in tidy profits but low cultural footprints. Audiences may have flocked to see Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland or Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent, but it is the original Alice and Sleeping Beauty that audiences will be watching in 20 years’ time.
When taken at an appropriate level Guy Ritchie’s colourful and lively remake of Aladdin is surprisingly great fun. The trailers looked positively horrendous, showing off colour and movement but hiding the film’s overall charm. It is pitched as a confection: a sharp little action sequence here, a comedy routine there, and peppered with the Alan Menken/Howard Ashman songs that helped to make the original 1992 animation such a delight. It is imperfect – the first act drags a little, and the climax does not quite hit the height that the story deserves – but overall it is a nicely enjoyable and varied summer blockbuster. Fans of Walt Disney films will enjoy it; anybody disinterested or particularly critical of such movies will probably have a harder time of things.
This new version has thankfully been assembled with a more culturally sensitive eye: bar one European prince the entire cast consists of people of colour, and a few problematic lyrics have been quietly excised. The film also does excellent work in making Princess Jasmine a more robust and three-dimensional character. Instead of being particularly choosy in which prince she will marry, Jasmine now questions why she cannot simply govern the Sultanate of Agrabah by herself. Naomi Scott is wonderfully cast in the role, and she dominates the screen so effectively she almost supplants Aladdin as the protagonist. By contrast Mena Massoud takes a little while to convince as Aladdin, although the screenplay uses him more effectively as the story develops. The villainous Jafar is another matter. Translating the grotesquery of the animated original to the screen was largely impossible, but despite Marwan Kenzari’s best efforts this fresh take comes across as a little underwhelming and bland. There is a degree of gravity that is lost, reducing his ability to properly threaten the heroes or intimidate the audience.
Worth special mention are Navid Negahban as the Sultan, and Nasim Pedrad as Jasmine’s lady-in-waiting Dalia. Both deliver strong, vivid performances that do nothing but expand and enrich the film. Pedrad in particular brings a huge amount of charisma and humour to the film. After spending years in American sitcoms and sketch comedy – she was on Saturday Night Live for five years – I really hope that Aladdin acts as a springboard for a successful film career.
Of course the elephant in the room in the lead-up to Aladdin‘s release was the casting of Will Smith as the Genie. Robin Williams’ original performance is the stuff of legends: not simply one of the most iconic of Disney vocal performances, but a historic and memorable achievement in Hollywood overall. Repeating that performance in Williams’ shadow is an overwhelming demand for any actor, and a crucible upon which the entire film would either break or hold. Add to that Smith’s dwindling career – a result of poor choices of both performance and project – and it seemed a potential recipe for disaster. Thankfully he comes to the film in top form. This is the most appealing performance by Will Smith in more than a decade. He wisely embraces his own classic screen persona, combined with a little camp, to shift the Genie away from Robin William’s non-stop anarchism to something better suited to his own style and to live-action. He is film’s greatest asset, and in delivering such entertainment he may have just saved his own career from collapse (his next role, in the Ang Lee science fiction film Gemini Man, may just seal the deal).
The film’s colourful production design, which looked so jarring in the lead-up to release, is actually nicely suited to the rest of the film. Ritchie surprisingly cuts short much of the film’s action. There is an alternate take to this material that could easily have seen Aladdin re-imagined as an Indiana Jones-style adventure movie. Instead Ritchie embraces the songs and the comedy. Bollywood is a clear and well-placed influence. The film emphasises broad entertainment and fun. The visual effects are beautifully staged. Everybody is having a good time. Yes, Disney’s live-action remakes are broadly speaking an exercise in creative redundancy, but in this case in particular they are also a hell of a lot of fun. This Aladdin may be a little uneven and wobbly in places, but I cannot deny I smiled and laughed a lot.