This live-action remake is suitably nostalgic and features a terrific cast, but never tries to soar on its own magic carpet.
May 23, 2019
UPDATE: April 15, 2020: Aladdin is available to stream via Disney+.
Let's get the obvious reference out of the way: in remaking the 1992 classic, Disney's live-action Aladdin doesn't venture to a whole new world. Instead, the company's latest rehash of its back catalogue adds literal, visible flesh to everyone's favourite makeover concept (Blue Eye for the Street Rat Guy, basically), as well as a few minor twists and an extra song. Relaying the same tale again isn't necessarily an issue, on paper. Storytellers have been doing the same thing since time began, as have filmmakers for more than a century, with re-interpreting familiar narratives, adapting them to different contexts and seeing them afresh all part of human nature. But what Aladdin lacks is a purpose beyond the obvious. It's a glossy new version with actors instead of animation; a shiny, nostalgic replica that's definitely entertaining enough. However it never tries to soar on its own magic carpet.
One line of thinking, of course, is that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Another is that faithful do-overs of beloved hits (including Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast and Dumbo, plus the forthcoming The Lion King) are just Disney's safety-driven success strategy. These are risk-averse filmmaking times, so the latter approach is understandable. When fans mobilise online en masse to cry about women with lightsabers and demand that a television show be remade because it didn't end the way they personally wanted, simply giving viewers what they already like is the all-too-sensible option. Accordingly, Aladdin circa 2019 is exactly what it was always going to be, with all of the expected ups and downs that entails. Yes, it'll make you want to revisit the original. No, Will Smith can't match Robin Williams, but he doesn't always try to. Surprisingly, while there are no geezers spouting Cockney rhyming slang (and no Jason Statham, sadly), director Guy Ritchie's penchant for energetic spectacle generally fits.
The story, for those who didn't spend their childhoods rewatching the animated flick endlessly and committing the details to memory, charts Agrabah urchin Aladdin (Mena Massoud), his newfound love for Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) and the lamp-dwelling Genie (Will Smith) who can make dreams come true. Aladdin is merely a kind-hearted petty thief with a cheeky monkey for a best friend, with Jasmine only able to marry royalty — and her sultan father (Navid Negahban) is hardly fond of breaking tradition. Complicating matters even further is nefarious advisor Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), who exerts his own influence — with the help of his all-seeing parrot Iago (voiced by Alan Tudyk) — to try to seize the throne. With Genie's wish-granting assistance, Aladdin pretends to be a prince to secure Jasmine's hand, but securing the kingdom becomes just as pressing a concern.
There's a timely female empowerment thread to this version to Aladdin, as seen in its new song, as well as Jasmine's rallying against her lack of agency. Barely tinkering with the initial flick's script, Ritchie and co-scribe John August (Frankenweenie) aren't trying to break the mould — or enchanted lamp — yet it's a welcome albeit fairly obligatory touch. Where the director best exerts his influence is in teaming with cinematographer Alan Stewart (Mary Poppins Returns) to bring Agrabah to vivid, jewel-toned life, watching Aladdin sneakily parkour himself around the city and giving the musical numbers the requisite bounce. Where the tunes are concerned, established crowd-pleasers such as 'Prince Ali', 'Friend Like Me' and 'A Whole New World' prove the high points they're meant to be, which sums up the film's fortunes perfectly: its hits are already known, and making sure they don't crash compared to the original is the primary plan.
That could sum up Smith's tactics also, or at least that's how it initially seems. He's less comfortable and convincing when he's overtly mimicking Williams at the outset, but serves up an engaging and amusing Genie once he makes the character his own (and when he isn't sporting a distracting shade of blue). Indeed, if viewers had three wishes for the Aladdin remake, and one of them was for a great cast, that has largely been granted. Crucially, Massoud makes a suitably charismatic rapscallion, and Scott brings poise and radiance to a star-making performance, helping you forget that she was in the awful Power Rangers movie. The true scene-stealer, though, is ex-Saturday Night Live star Nasim Pedrad as Jasmine's handmaiden Dalia. It's a move that'd never happen, but if this adequate yet never arresting Aladdin revival sparked a spin-off about its two main ladies just being great and taking on the world, it'd justify its existence several times over.