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Review: ‘Aladdin’ could have used just a little bit more magic

 By Jason Seyer

May 24, 2019

It’s been 27 years since Disney’s animated smash, Aladdin, hit theaters. With the studio adapting so many of their classics into live-action recently, there was no doubt they were going to tackle Aladdin at some point. The original 1992 film has become iconic for a number of reasons, primarily for its music and the late Robin Williams’ role as the hilarious Genie. Reimagining this beloved classic was going to be no easy task, so how successful is this adaptation? Can Disney recapture the success of 2017’s Beauty and the Beast? Or is 2019 about to have another lackluster Dumbo on its hands?

The answer is somewhere in the middle. The story begins when street urchin Aladdin (Mena Massoud), meets the Princess of Agrabah, Jasmine (Naomi Scott). In an attempt to visit her at her palace, he gets himself captured by the Sultan’s advisor, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari). As part of his plan to overthrow the Sultan, Jafar needs Aladdin to retrieve a magic lamp from the Cave of Wonders.

Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

Sound familiar? Well that’s because you have seen all this in the original film. In fact, this adaptation almost feels like it doesn’t want to bore you with the details, as the first 30 minutes move at breakneck speed. This live-action Aladdin suffers most during its first act. The musical numbers fall flat in the beginning, especially “One Jump Ahead,” which succumbs to some distracting fast motion edits. The chemistry between Aladdin and Jasmine is not convincing, and some attempted moments at humor land with a thud.

In the 1992 film, Robin Williams’s performance as the Genie stole the show. In this new film, Will Smith’s interpretation of the character will likely garner a similar reaction. You can see shades of Williams in his performance, but Smith lets his real-life persona be a part of the character. Hip-hop versions of “Never Had a Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” find the right balance of fresh and nostalgic. Smith has always been a charismatic actor and he is clearly having a blast here. His scenes, whether playing matchmaker to Aladdin and Jasmine or singing and dancing to a familiar tune, are the strongest moments in this film. They take something familiar and put a different spin on it.      

Will Smith as Genie courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

The remainder of the cast fares varyingly, with Naomi Scott being a real standout. She gives Jasmine an opportunity to be a strong female character and wow, can she sing. The “Whole New World” number is enchanting, with a lot of credit going to Scott’s ability to bring justice to the iconic duet. Massoud is fine as Aladdin, if a little bland– an issue with the script more than anything. It often feels like the film’s other characters are stealing scenes away from him. Massoud’s best scenes are with Smith. The two develop strong chemistry and their banter, especially while trying to set up Aladdin with Jasmine, is very funny. The one obvious casting misstep is the handling of Jafar. Kenzari tries hard to make Jafar interesting, but the script provides the villain with little motivation aside from a desire to be all powerful. There is no sense of menace outside shouting evil plans and providing creepy smiles.  In the 1992 film, Jafar was a shady yet distinguished figure. The decision to make him younger removes the cunning qualities from the character, and ultimately makes him more whiny than conniving.  

One of the more interesting surprises of Aladdin is Guy Ritchie’s direction. With a filmography that consists mostly of gangsters, detectives, and secret agents, the closest film Ritchie has made to this is probably his most recent, 2017’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Thankfully, many of Ritchie’s trademarks are missing from the film, although you can find a few moments where the action goes into slow-motion for a few seconds and then resumes at normal speed.  The film does not include any of the signature side characters that Ritchie has become well known for (though someone like Brad Pitt’s character from Snatch would definitely make this unique). Ritchie’s movies usually have a drab coloring, but Aladdin is bright and vibrant. The costumes and sets are flamboyant and the visual effects mostly work. The Genie’s look is not always seamless, but Smith’s performance helpfully distracts from these moments.

Will Smith as Genie courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

It would be interesting to see this film in the hands of another director, particularly one with more experience around musical numbers. There are moments when the musical numbers work and other moments when these scenes do not quite take off. For the moments that do work, Alan Menken’s recognizable musical score hits all the right nostalgic notes. Though a lot of the music is rehashed from the 1992 version, it still feels completely at home within this new film.

In the end, Aladdin is a bit of a mixed bag. For families, you could do far worse than spending two hours watching this one, but it is unlikely you will find something here you cannot already get from the animated film at home. Even with a rapping genie, a monstrous cave, and a flying carpet, the merely decent Aladdin could have used just a little bit more magic.

Star Rating: 3 out of 5

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