I should probably start this review off with a confession: Aladdin is not one of my favorite all-time Disney animated films. Loved the songs but, truthfully, it’s just not one of the Disney classics I’ve watched more than a couple of times. The same goes for Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Hercules. I don’t dislike any of these films; I’ve just never made a point of seeking them out to watch more than once. (101 Dalmatians, Lady and the Tramp, and The Aristocats…see a theme there…are more my jam.)
The announcement of a live-action Aladdin film was greeted by a resounding, “Huh? Why?” in my household. And the first trailer or two didn’t really do anything to answer the “why” part of that reaction. Will Smith hasn’t made the best choices in projects recently, and Disney’s coming off a disappointing live-action remake of Dumbo.
The $170 million budgeted Dumbo grossed less than all of Disney’s live-action remakes with the exception of Alice Through the Looking Glass and Pete’s Dragon. So, will Aladdin and its massive $180+ million budget flop like a CGI elephant’s ears or be a box office monster in the mode of 2017’s Beauty and the Beast? After checking out the musical, I’m betting on a Beast-ly box office take.
The Twitterverse wasn’t kind to Will Smith’s Genie when the first teasers were released. Subsequent extended clips of Smith in character did little to quell the naysayers certain this version of the character would be a huge letdown. The knee-jerk reaction wasn’t necessarily a reflection of Smith’s acting skills; it would be difficult for any actor to be immediately embraced in the role Robin Williams originated – and completely owned – in the 1992 animated blockbuster.
Thankfully for Aladdin fans, it turns out Will Smith’s the perfect choice to bring to life the magical being who’s spent a thousand years trapped in a little tiny living space. Smith delivers an exuberant performance, fully embracing the over-the-top singing, dancing, and wisecracking Genie.
Mena Massoud, most recently seen in Amazon’s Jack Ryan series, tackles the titular role in Disney’s 2019 reimagining of Aladdin. Massoud parkours his way through the opening scene as the street rat with a heart of gold. He’s a charming rogue, worming his way into the hearts of women including the beautiful Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott – more on her later). Jasmine’s in disguise as one of her handmaidens when she meets the street-wise thief at a bread stand in the open-air market. It’s not exactly love at first sight for either, but there’s obviously a spark of attraction on the verge of igniting into full-blown infatuation during their first encounter.
Aladdin’s attempts to woo the lovely Princess Jasmine are thwarted by the villainous Jafar (boo-hiss!) who convinces the poor young man his fortunes will change if he enters the Cave of Wonders and retrieves a golden lamp. Jafar fails to warn Aladdin he could die in the attempt, and Aladdin and his BFF monkey Abu are only able to survive the task with the help of a flying magic carpet.
The Genie pops out and introduces himself with a high-energy song and dance number that explains the rules behind the wishes. Aladdin doesn’t immediately catch on, but once he understands what the Genie can offer, he fully embraces the idea of magically transforming into the very rich, very charming Prince Ali. However, Aladdin soon learns that with great power comes great responsibility and that nothing beats telling the truth when it comes to love.
And now back to the scene-stealing Naomi Scott. Scott is the best thing about Aladdin. Scott’s Princess Jasmine is no shrinking violet. She’s led a sheltered, privileged life however she’s grounded, intelligent, and cares for her people. The new show-stopping female empowerment anthem, “Speechless,” is perfect for this era and Scott’s performance of the song is a pivotal, memorable moment in this joyful adaptation.
Scott has a gorgeous voice and it soars as she sings “A Whole New World” while flying high above Princess Jasmine’s country with Aladdin. She’s able to make Princess Jasmine into a complete person, not just a chess piece in the power struggle between her father and Jafar.
Disney’s 2019 Aladdin was directed by Guy Ritchie, an unlikely choice for the job based on his resume. Snatch, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and Sherlock Holmes don’t exactly scream, “Give this man a musical to direct!” But Ritchie and his co-screenwriter John August (Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie) did a terrific job of remaining loyal to the animated classic while breathing fresh life into this 2019 live-action adaptation. The musical numbers are spectacular, the costumes are stunning, and the CGI work is flawless.
Coming in at a little over two hours, Aladdin could have used a nip and tuck in a few of Jafar’s scenes. But otherwise it’s swiftly paced and entertaining. It’s made an Aladdin fan out of me, something I didn’t expect going into the screening.
MPAA Rating: PG for some action/peril
Running Time: 128 minutes