Another year, another big budget Disney live action adaptation. Surprisingly (or not) Aladdin is actually the second of FIVE live action adaptations of Disney animated properties releasing in 2019 alone. Dumbo released a couple of months ago, with The Lion King due in July, a Maleficent sequel in October, and Lady and the Tramp due for Disney+ later this Fall. To Disney’s credit, they’ve had much success with their remakes in recent years – look no further than 2016’s delightful The Jungle Book and 2017’s lavish Beauty and the Beast. With Aladdin, arguably the most magical of all Disney animated classics, not to mention one of the most beloved and critically acclaimed, the remake bubble seems to have finally burst. This new Aladdin may look dazzling on the surface, but lacks the very elements that made the original so universally beloved: a heart and soul.
The very opening Arabian Nights sequence (with lyrics even more drastically altered) assumes that everyone watching is already familiar with the story of the 1992 film, so major story elements (Jasmine running away, the Cave of Wonders) are treated as a montage. We’re five minutes in and Aladdin and Jasmine are running from the law. Even newcomer Mena Massoud’s million dollar smile can’t fix the pacing issues evident so early on. The film recreates the major story beats of the original, but learns from mistakes of past remakes and adds in a few new story elements. Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) now has a tragic backstory and a deeper motivation for seeking the mythical lamp, but that doesn’t stop him from being almost the blandest character in the entire film. Gone is the sinister, menacingly evil Jafar, and here is eye-candy Jafar who can’t be bothered to modify his monotone. Nothing against the actor, but a script this bland (“Bring me the lamp” is yawn-worthy here) does him no favors. It’s a similar case for Massoud, who tries his level best to be roguishly endearing but can’t do much with the poor writing. No wonder he gets his own dance sequence.
Naomi Scott, however, turns out to be the saving grace the film desperately needs. Princess Jasmine this time around is trying to prove she has what it takes to be sultan, but tradition would have her stay silent and on the sidelines. This is where Scott absolutely kills it as Jasmine. While her new solo song “Speechless” is no “Evermore” – rather a pop-rock ballad that sounds like a Jessie J reject – Scott absolutely brings new life to Jasmine. She lends Jasmine a sense of wonder, determination and angst in the perfect ratio. This just might be her career-defining role. Also delightful is Nasim Pedrad as Jasmine’s handmaiden Dalia. Every scene Pedrad is in is hilarious, her dry wit and sarcastic charm being a true scene stealer.
I wish I could say the same about the original scene stealer. Will Smith does his best as the Genie. It just falls flat. Director Guy Ritchie tries admirably to give Genie a sense of elasticity and shape-shifting antics much like the animated film, but it just doesn’t work in this medium. CGI Genie seems laughably dull, a far cry from the beloved role brought to life by the incomparable Robin Williams in 1992. This is not meant to be a comparison of the two, and for the most part, 2019 Genie is pretty much its own thing, but the script (again, that script) forces Will Smith to recall moments that are too close to the 1992 Genie. And while Smith adds his own flavour to the Genie, it just isn’t that endearing. This Genie also has none of the compassion and tenderness that we know and love. In Will Smith’s defense, the scenes where he’s in his human form are a lot of fun. His own love story is amusingly cute, and reminds us that actual Will Smith works a million times better than CGI Will Smith. If only his ad-libs didn’t seem so forced.
Supporting characters like Abu and Iago fail to bring anything interesting to the table. Abu is just a CGI monkey who acts like a real monkey and is hard to get fond of. Iago (voiced by Alan Tudyk) hardly talks aside from during a few key moments supposed to be sinister, but are mostly embarrassingly obvious. We know he’s a streetrat, Iago. Rajah the tiger’s design is incredibly well done, and the few scenes he’s in (usually alongside Jasmine) are extremely effective and serve the purpose well. Finally, the Sultan (Navid Negahban) is possibly the blandest, dullest character of the lot. Not that he doesn’t have much to do, but he seems too upset and heartbroken most of the time for us to support him. While his paternal qualities do shine through, he’s a far cry from the endearing, bumbling Sultan of the original film.
Most importantly, and possibly the weakest link here, is the music. Guy Ritchie might be known for directing Madonna music videos, but maybe Disney’s best bet would have been someone who knows the art of film musicals. While Massoud, Scott and Smith’s vocals range from passable (Massoud) to soaring (Scott), the musical sequences seem incredibly disjointed, low on energy and downright frustrating. The 1992 Aladdin is a classic because of its music and this remakes does a poor job honoring that legacy. The “Prince Ali” scene feels flat and uninspired, while the magic carpet ride seems much smaller in scope this time around (“Where are the pyramids?” someone at my screening yelled). “A Whole New World” turns into a tour of Agrabah. Not to mention the lack of emotional payoff, because Jasmine wants to see THE WORLD, not just Agrabah. And, worst of all, there is no “Prince Ali” reprise, that deliciously evil song Jafar sang in the original. It’s so hard to separate these songs from the 1992 version, because the emotional impact they had back then are hard to replicate here.
Where the film gets it right, though, is the visual flair. Agrabah looks stunning, as do the incredible Afghan-inspired costumes that also have a Bollywood influence. That influence also seeps through in a fun dance number where Aladdin tries to impress Jasmine. It’s genius in its presentation. And while there are plenty of CGI misfires (Jafar in the climax), there are more hits than misses (the magic carpet looks lovely). This is a lavish film, indeed.
But all the visual splendor can’t help a film that lacks true depth and an emotional connection. The instances where the film stretches its story too thin are painfully obvious. This is essentially a very expensive interpretation of the 1992 film, with enough to please fans of the original and just enough new elements to bump up its run time. Of course it will be a box office juggernaut, of course there will be more remakes down the line, but when the magic dust settles, we will only remember the films that truly bring out our emotions, that touch us, lift us up, and make us cry or laugh or sing along.
This Aladdin is not one of those films.
Edited by: Kajsa Rain Forden