Can you believe it that the original Aladdin animated feature came out 27 years ago? To be honest, I barely remember it as I was more into the Princess movies growing up (esp. Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid). When they first announced they’re working the live-action remake, I was skeptical, which wasn’t helped at all by the ‘blue-not-blue Genie’ debacle. So I went in to the screening really hoping to be pleasantly surprised. You know what, I was!
The opening sequence of Arabian Nights sets the right mood, though it took me a little while to get used to Will Smith‘s singing. By the time we meet Aladdin (Mena Massoud) in the streets of Agrabah with his loyal monkey friend Abu, I have a good feeling I’d enjoy the movie. The Egyptian-Canadian Massoud is instantly likable and is light on his feet as he runs, jumps, leaps from building to building while flashing his movie-star smile. He can sing too, his song One Jump Ahead is dynamic and fun, offering great views of the town.
The arduous casting process for this movie paid off, not only in finding Massoud but Naomi Scott as well as princess Jasmine. The Anglo-Indian actress got so much flak because she isn’t of Arabic descent, but I think people would be impressed by her performance here. She has such a regal air about her but also a charming earthiness that made you believe Aladdin would mistake her for being the princess handmaiden. She and Massoud have a lovely chemistry as they relate to one another that they feel trapped in the life they’re born into. She too can belt a tune and actually sound fantastic together in the gorgeous duet of A Whole New World.
Now, as for Genie. The comparison with the iconic Robin Williams is inevitable, and Will Smith has such giant shoes to fill. But all things considered, I think his ‘Fresh Prince’ interpretation of the character surprisingly works. His Friend Like Me rendition has touches of hip-hop and it’s pretty catchy. The A-list star has an infectious energy that works perfectly as Genie, and some of the jokes (mostly directed at his naive master Aladdin) is genuinely funny. Massoud’s comic timing is adorable, playing up the state of being discombobulated to great effect. It mostly works as this version of Genie also has a good rapport with Aladdin and their relationship plays like an unlikely buddy-comedy with some emotional moments for good measure. I actually enjoyed Smith more when Genie is in human form, which shows up quite a bit in this movie.
It’s ironic that initially I was most excited by Jafar’s casting (Marwan Kenzari) but he’s actually the weakest link here. It’s not exactly his fault however, as he’s a talented actor based on the few things I’ve seen him in (especially The Angel on Netflix). I just think his character is underwritten and bland. The Dutch-Tunisian actor is stripped off his
hotness charisma playing a trite, one-note villain. The finale when he’s got his last wish is practically laughable and way over the top as the CGI team went nuts with the magic dust effects.
As for the supporting cast, Iranian-American actress Nasim Pedrad provides comic relief as Jasmine’s handmaiden Dalia (and Genie’s love interest). I also like the fact that Dalia is more of a friend to the princess which is lovely to watch. Turkish-German actor Numan Acar as chief soldier Hakim has a memorable scene towards the end, while Billy Magnussen as a goofy Caucasian prince with a hilarious accent drew plenty of laughs. I’m glad his screen time is basically a cameo as he’s so unnecessary. In any case, it’s gratifying to see a diverse cast in this movie. As someone of Southeast Asian decent, I’m always glad to see actors of color shine in a big-budget Hollywood production.
Guy Ritchie seemed a rather odd choice as director, given that he’s mostly known for his R-rated action movies set in London. But to be fair, he’s been stretching his filmmaking horizon a bit with movies like Sherlock Holmes, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., etc. And as he often make movies about inner city working class people, I suppose it’s fitting that he tackles a Disney version of a street hustler. Ritchie also co-wrote the script with John August.
Stylistically, Ritchie’s trademark hyper-stylized filmmaking style of frenetic pacing, quick camera work and kinetic editing is visible in some of the chase scenes, but overall it’s tamed down a bit here. It’s definitely nowhere near as dizzying as his reimagining of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword which was a major flop. The way he directed the musical numbers however, is a bit hit and miss.
I’m a huge fan of Alan Menken‘s classic songs, and those are still the main highlights here despite some of the wonky directions. For one, some of these numbers seem to be Bollywood-inspired despite the story is set in the Middle East. The Prince Ali sequence is supposed to be all festive and celebratory but at times feels more topsy-turvy. I do love the A Whole New World number atop the magic carpet which feels appropriately dazzling and romantic, boosted by the terrific aerial effects. The one that make me cringe is the main scene of Speechless, mostly in how it’s directed. I loved the new song the first time I heard it, sung beautifully by Naomi Scott. But the second time around, the musical number felt off despite the defiant message. It’s a pity as it’s such an empowering song and the lyric is organic to the story of a smart, capable woman who’s a natural leader of her Kingdom. I credit Scott’s charismatic performance that somehow she still made the scene work.
I went to the press screening with my best friend’s 12-year-old daughter. In the car she said she’s disappointed by Disney that they keep remaking old things instead of coming up with new materials. Well, she definitely shares my dread about the lack of creativity from behemoth studios. Alas, these live-action remakes are here and they’ll keep on coming whether we like it or not, but as a critic I still ought to judge each of them based on its artistic merit.
Overall Aladdin is a pretty fun movie, though overlong at 2 hours 8 minutes. The production quality is naturally top notch given the hefty Disney budget. I love the set pieces of Agrabah and especially the fabulous costumes. Jasmine’s intricate dresses are especially breathtaking. I think this princess would be a good role model for young girls as she’s not just beautiful on the outside but also has something to say. This movie is far from perfect, but it’s got enough going for it that warrants a recommendation. One thing for sure, Menken’s iconic songs still sound as wonderful as the first time I heard them, and Speechless is a great addition. I don’t even mind seeing this movie again and that speaks volumes about its entertainment value.
Have you seen ALADDIN? Well, let me know what you think!