Bursting on to the screen with a lavish and larger than life production design, the film adheres to the '92 story almost verbatim, and aside from the tweaking of the introduction and two new musical numbers, ALADDIN is strictly by-the-books and brings the animation to life beat-by-beat. Of course my cynicism has me asking what the point of these remakes is if they're blatant carbon copies, while the fanboy in me recognises those which worked best (Pete's Dragon and Cinderella). The good news is that ALADDIN is far from the worse of them (that honour goes to Alice in Wonderland) and delivers a comical toe-tapping adventure with enough moments of delight to make it worthwhile.
Perhaps the most peculiar fact about this film is that it has been directed by the man once dubbed the “Cockney Tarantino”, Guy Ritchie. Think about that for a moment... Who would have imagined all those years ago when he took the world by storm with violent, hard-hitting thuggish thrillers like Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch that he would end up at the helm of Disney's Aladdin? I'm sure he certainly wouldn't have. And yet here we are. It marks his first foray into the family market, but not his first outing in Hollywood. With two Sherlock Holmes movies behind him, as well as the Man From UNCLE remake and King Arthur, Ritchie is no stranger to elaborate productions. And given his aptitude for stylish action, as well as his knack for telling tales about thievery, his appointment on ALADDIN is strangely appropriate. However, in this instance he has stepped away from his unique brand of storytelling, making way for the trademark Disney stylings, and aside from one cheeky sequence in the first act, there's no way to peg this as a “Guy Ritchie film”.
When Disney announced that Aladdin was in their sights for a live-action retelling, everyone reacted with the same burning question... how do you replace Robin Williams as The Genie? It's a tough one to answer and having seen the film, I'm not sure I have it. The original film is arguably Williams' most celebrated performances (alongside Mrs Doubtfire) and he personally considered it to be one of his most important. There is also a notorious legal back-story to the animated film, when Williams sued Disney for breaking their agreement of not using his voice in their merchandise. He publicly vowed to never work with them again, only to renege several years later when they offered a grovelling apology and a $1-million dollar salary to reprise his role for the second direct-to-video sequel; Aladdin King of Thieves (which is actually pretty good, I might add). And so with so much mixed-emotions between him and the studio, as well as the overriding legacy that he left with Disney, it's astonishing (to me) that they would even attempt to replace him.
Of course I have no understanding of what relationship Disney has with Williams' estate, but I had originally hoped that they would incorporate him into their new film. It would have been technically achievable to animated his likeness with CGI while using his dialogue and excised audio from the original film to recapture the magic of The Genie. And it's probably naive of me to think this way but I would hope that Disney at least considered it. Those are some monumentally big shoes to fill and in the end the daunting task went to Will Smith.
To address the elephant in the room, Will Smith is no Robin Williams. He fails to recapture the energy and enthusiasm that we love about Williams' character, and even appears to be disinterested at times. There is a lacklustre quality to his turn as The Genie, which in fairness may simply be the shadow of Williams that looms over him at all times. But in saying that Smith is also quite adequate and isn't actually bad at all. The trajectory of his character (as with the other characters) is the same as before, although most of the comical throw-gags have been adapted to suit his personality. His Genie is not as hysterical as we might expect, but he does offer up a few well measured moments of sincerity to balance things out. To put it simply, I was expecting a train-wreck of a performance and was happy enough with the outcome.
Aladdin himself is played by Egyptian-born Canadian actor Mena Massoud (Jack Ryan, TV) who not only resembles the animated Aladdin but also embodies his spirit. He is excellent as the mischievous 'street rat' and delivers the quality of performance we might expect to find on Broadway. Ugandan born British actress Naomi Scott (Power Rangers – pink ranger) plays Jasmine and lights up the screen. Her likeness to the animation isn't as acute, however she gives up a sturdy and empowered turn that adds the necessary strength to Jasmine's character to reflect the modern era of female empowerment. This is a quality that wasn't exactly lacking from the original movie, but it wasn't really obvious either. Here in the 2019 adaptation Jasmine is very much a heroine and it's a delight to behold.
The supporting cast is comprised of Middle Eastern players including Marwan Kenzari as the evil Jafar, David Negahban as The Sultan and Nasim Pedrad as Nazim. With the exception of Will Smith, the entire ensemble is essentially unknown to most audiences, which is an interesting strategy for Disney to make. They must have had the utmost confidence that Smith could carry the film on his own for them to have ignored other potential big names to help sell the poster. I personally enjoyed watching unfamiliar faces take on the story and found myself more invested than I might have been otherwise. Of course having a predominantly Middle Eastern cast helps Disney to gloss over the glaring issue of cultural appropriation which, in today's political climate, I am amazed hasn't been targeted by one triggered protest mob or another.
Anyhow, ALADDIN is the unnecessary remake that Disney felt they had to make. Purists of the original will dismiss it, while most average-movie-going families will probably enjoy it. It is big and colourful with all of the famous musical numbers we expect, and it's over-the-top production design splashes the screen like a pantomime come to life. It's a lot better than I had expected, and I have to confess that it should to be a hit with its target audience. As for Guy Ritchie... Tarantino is debuting his latest film Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, while Ritchie is debuting this. Enough said.