As many fans know, the Disney Renaissance was a revolutionary time period for animation that took place from about 1989 to 1999. We have this period to thank for many beloved titles such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Mulan, and Aladdin. Nearly every movie released at that time was a smash hit and most became instant classics that any respectable kid would enjoy on VHS for hours on end. Now that it’s 2019, the generation that grew up with these films have grown up into a stressful yet nostalgia-fueled world and are yearning for a taste of their childhood. This was the setup for Disney to begin their campaign of live-action remake, the latest of which being Aladdin. Almost every Renaissance film and many others in the Disney catalogue are being recreated in live-action, so love it or hate it, this trend seems to be sticking around for awhile. With Dumbo behind us and The Lion King just around the corner, let’s take a closer look at Aladdin and see if it really is a diamond in the rough.
In this remake, the story is roughly the same as the original with a few updates and creative changes made to the plot. Aladdin is a street rat on the streets of Agrabah that longs for a better life and the ability to marry the princess Jasmine, which becomes much more attainable when he finds a magic lamp containing a genie who will grant him three wishes. Our protagonist Aladdin is played by Mena Massoud, a young man that lacks no charm and does a fairly good job at becoming our real-life Aladdin. He sings well, delivers his lines with a tone and feeling similar to Scott Weinger’s original performance, and overall keeps his role fresh but doesn’t take many risks. Acting opposite to Massoud is Naomi Scott, who absolutely knocks it out of the park as Princess Jasmine. Although she never derails the story to focus only on her own arc, Jasmine is given far more attention and character growth in this remake, which was sorely deserved. She even gets to sing a new solo song about her hardships as a caged princess with no voice, a song in which Scott’s lovely singing and performance energy really get to shine.
Now we come to the most controversial casting choice: Will Smith as the Genie. When this was first announced, people were up in arms about Smith playing the iconic hilarious Genie, and a bit of caution was understandable. The original role of Genie was quite literally created for Robin Williams, so any other actor would have their work cut out for them and face a difficult decision: to try to emulate Williams’ style or ignore it and completely do their own thing. As for Will Smith, he seemed confident enough in his charisma to make the Genie his own role while still keeping a respectful closeness to the original. Most people will still agree that Robin Williams is forever our definitive version of Genie, but personal preference will dictate whether you enjoy Will Smith’s much more chill, laidback approach to the character or not. This does work to Smith’s advantage more in the acting department than the singing, but more on that later. The only other major actor to talk about is Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar, but the issue is that the actor is given a fairly generic version of the famous villain to work with. Although his backstory and motives are fleshed out, Jafar is missing his funny yet menacing lines in favor of a more serious approach. If the entire movie carried this stiff, realistic tone then it would be more appropriate, but it remains largely goofy and makes Jafar seem bland. It also doesn’t help that he never even sings his Prince Ali Reprise in the remake, the animated film’s only villain song and a defining moment for Jafar which cemented him as an enjoyably crazy and cruel baddie. Yup, completely skipped. This really is too bad, as it could’ve greatly helped in making his character more enjoyable, but hopefully the backlash will keep Disney from skipping any more fan favorite songs in future live action remakes.
When it comes to the film’s general aesthetics, the creators do a great job at setting the scene in Agrabah and making the desert town look quite lovely. Having the main credits in the beginning as Arabian Nights played and we previewed the scenes to come was a fantastic touch that felt reminiscent of an older Disney movie. Honestly, all of the musical numbers were shot beautifully with amazingly creative and lively visuals, especially Friend Like Me. As for CGI Genie himself, it certainly looks better than the nightmare fuel of the first trailers but while it can look neat at times, it still sits closer to the creepy uncanny valley rather than believably bringing the animated character to life. A completely stylized Genie probably would’ve looked better on the big screen rather than trying to put Will Smith’s face on a blue computer model, but I digress. From there we easily transition to discussing the musical numbers themselves, mainly which ones captivate the audience and which ones pale in comparison to their predecessor. In addition to previously mentioned beautiful cinematography, the choreography and colors make many of these scenes feel like Bollywood musicals, which is a very fun change of pace for Disney movies. When looking at pure singing talent with a scrutinizing eye, Naomi Scott easily emerges as the golden pearl of the cast, with Mena Massoud doing very well convincing us that he’s Aladdin as well. Another problem arises with Will Smith’s casting here since he is not famous for singing these Broadway-style songs, and therefore needs a bit of noticeable editing in order to keep him on-key. Despite this, he still sounds like he’s trying to get away with talk-singing in his songs wherever he can. Smith’s natural charm at least softens the blow here, but it may not be enough to save this role for everybody. In truth, his laidback take on Genie doesn’t work well next to his lackluster musical moments because it makes it seem as though he works hard during the acting but doesn’t even care to put forth the effort during his songs. Another minor character worth mentioning is Nasim Pedrad’s Dalia, Jasmine’s personal handmaid/best friend that does a nice job at providing a bit of relatable comic relief.
All in all, although the animated Aladdin will always hold a special place in our hearts, the 2019 remake will bring fans the nostalgia they crave and breathes new life into the well-known story. The visuals, musical sequences, and most of the acting are extremely fun and enjoyable to watch for both old-time fans and younger audiences, and the effort that went into creating these scenes is tangible. There are plenty of touching scenes that feel authentic and earned, as well as minor story changes that put our main characters into a better light (such as Jasmine running off due to concern for the wellbeing of her people and Aladdin being a bit quicker to give up his web of lies). Some of the choices were a bit odd (Genie gets a romantic subplot with Jasmine’s handmaid?) but for the most part, these changes were utilized skillfully to update and tweak the story. However, just like with Beauty and the Beast, these live-action sequels are tricky creatures because the movies that they set out to recreate are already amazing films that are difficult to improve on. With these beloved classics, if you change too much then you might as well just make an original movie, but if you keep it too similar then it becomes nothing more than an unnecessary live-action remastering of the same movie. Moving forward, many fans have expressed interest in more live-action remakes and sequels focused on older Disney films that are craving to be updated and expanded upon. The great thing about following that course is that many of those films already have a large, dedicated fanbase or cult following. In that scenario, the films could easily be improved on with a new movie and they would already have a guaranteed audience before the first trailer dropped and only gain viewers from there. The Experimental era would be the perfect place to pluck ideas from since the children that grew up with those films are now adults, some now with children of their own that would love to see new versions of their childhood movies. But for now, it looks like we’ll just have to wait and see what Disney comes up with next. Until then, get your Aladdin tickets, grab some gummy bears, and revel in the magical delight all the way to the end credits…plus you don’t have to rewind your VHS tape this time.
4 STARS (OUT OF FIVE)