Disney has certainly covered all the bases with the live-action remake of its 1992 animated classic. Decades ago, this film musical probably would have featured white actors like Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood wearing heavy dark makeup. That approach obviously wouldn’t go over well these days, so the ensemble in this version, directed by Guy Ritchie, features lead performers of Egyptian, South Asian, Dutch-Tunisian, Iranian and African American descent. The combination of diverse casting and female empowerment themes results in a perfectly politically correct Aladdin for these times. The only thing that seems to have been left out is the magic, which is a bit of a problem considering that one of the main characters is a genie.
The screenplay, co-written by Ritchie and John August, adds a framing device in which the familiar story of Aladdin from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights is being told by a mariner (Will Smith) to his children. We’re thus introduced to the tale of the title character (Mena Massoud), a petty thief in Agrabah, a city in an Arabian kingdom whose ruling Sultan (Navid Negahban) is preoccupied with finding a husband for his daughter, Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott).
Not exactly a whole new world, but serviceable.
Jasmine, who chafes at living behind the palace walls, frequently ventures out into the city streets dressed as a commoner so she can better understand the people. It’s on one of these excursions that she meets the roguishly charming Aladdin and his monkey partner-in-crime, Abu. Not long afterward, Aladdin is chased through the teeming streets by the Sultan’s men, in the process demonstrating an uncanny ability for singing and performing amazing feats of parkour simultaneously.
Following Jasmine back to the palace, Aladdin encounters Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the Sultan’s trusted adviser who’s secretly planning to take control of the kingdom. He forcibly enlists Aladdin to enter a magical cave and procure a lamp containing a Genie with the power to grant three wishes. In the course of carrying out the mission, Aladdin rubs the lamp and frees the Genie (Smith, in bright blue CGI form), who fulfills Aladdin’s wish to be made a prince so he can be worthy of marrying Jasmine and, well, you know the rest.
Despite having helmed some relatively family-friendly entertainments as the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Ritchie wouldn’t seem an obvious choice for this material. Indeed, the director responsible for such films as Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels provides an undertone of grittiness here that feels misplaced. You can tell his heart is more in the elaborate chase sequences and pyrotechnics than the musical numbers, which, as is so often the case these days, are so frenetically assembled that they seem to have been edited in a Cuisinart.
The classic songs (“A Whole New World,” “Friend Like Me,” etc.) are all here, albeit in slightly altered form. Some lyrics have been changed, and the arrangements are modernized with the occasional hip-hop influence. There’s also an entirely new number, “Speechless,” featuring music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen, La La Land), that feels all too calculated but probably necessary as a feminist anthem for a character who at one point is told, “It’s better for you to be seen and not heard.” The showstopping “Prince Ali” gets the most elaborate treatment, with a lavish production number that pours on the spectacle but never really catches fire. Ironically, it’s only in the musical reprise during the end credits that a genuine sense of joy is transmitted onscreen.
Massoud, who possesses the requisite lithe physicality and toothy grin, and Scott, who sings gorgeously, display a winning chemistry and charm that make the central love story fully engaging. Smith, faced with the impossible task of living up to Robin Williams’ iconic voice performance, easily makes the role his own. His infectious personality shines throughout, and he even manages to infuse his martini-swilling Genie with moving emotional moments. Unlike the blubbery animated version in the original film, however, the CGI-rendered character here is so distractedly muscled and buff that you wonder how he was able to hit the gym so often while trapped in a lamp.
Kenzari and Negahban are fine as Jafar and the Sultan, respectively, while former Saturday Night Live regular Nasim Pedrad is endearingly funny in the newly created character of Dalia, Jasmine’s loyal handmaiden and best friend. But it’s Billy Magnussen who nearly steals the film with his too brief but hilarious appearances as the bizarrely accented Prince Anders.
Ritchie keeps the film moving at a suitably fast pace, but everything feels obvious and telegraphed, including the obligatory monkey reaction shots designed for cheap laughs. A sequence in which the Genie saves Aladdin from death by drowning is staged so realistically that it may prove upsetting for younger audience members and seems a bit out of place amidst the magic-carpet flying and other fantastical interludes. The climactic showdown between the heroes and villains also feels overblown, more appropriate for a Marvel movie than a lighthearted Disney entertainment. Of course, none of these factors will prevent the film from raking in big bucks — although probably not as much as the upcoming redo of The Lion King.
Production companies: Rideback, Lin Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures, Marc Platt Productions
Distributor: Walt Disney
Cast: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen, Jordan Nash, Taliyah Blair
Director: Guy Ritchie
Screenwriters: John August, Guy Ritchie
Producers: Dan Lin, Jonathan Eirich
Executive producers: Marc Platt, Keven de la Noy
Director of photography: Alan Stewart
Production designer: Gemma Jackson
Costume designer: Michael Wilksinson
Editor: James Herbert
Composer: Alan Menken
Casting: Lucinda Syson
Rated PG, 128 minutes