It’s hard to describe what a movie means to you when its live-action remake is still littered with problems and Orientalism in 2019, but to say I wasn’t still looking forward to Disney’s Aladdin would be an understatement. Thankfully, director Guy Ritchie kept some of his signature style out of the film for the most part and it’s all the better for it. The comparison to the animated classic still stands and Ritchie has trouble bringing some of that energy to life in a film that, at its heart, is as much a love story as anything else. Considering that expectations were on the floor, Aladdin manages to be equal parts entertaining, enjoyable, and charming. This is largely thanks to its wonderful cast, but its moments of cultural confusion when set in an obviously Middle Eastern location still offers a Western point of view of the region, fictitious or not.
This is the point of the review that usually summarizes the plot, but since the film is based on the 1992 animation of the same name, the story needs no introduction. Even with its fundamental issues, Aladdin is enjoyable. It’s certainly one of Disney’s best live-action films to date, even though that’s not really saying much. There’s a lot of spectacle and while Agrabah comes to life, it’s the energy of its citizens that make it stand out. The city’s bazaar is beautiful and provides a look into daily life (the heckling and atmosphere is especially reminiscent of the region). There’s also a sense of earnestness that helps to carry the film.
Mena Massoud brings a lot of heart to the role of Aladdin. He’s almost as charming as his animated counterpart and when his eyes light up and he smiles, you’re sold by the sincerity and warmth radiating from him. Admittedly, he shines the brightest when he’s being awkward and blubbering, intent on stealing Jasmine’s heart as Prince Ali and failing. It’s second hand embarrassment at its finest (but in a good way). Naomi Scott is also really good at playing a love-struck Jasmine and when she and Massoud flirt and tease each other, it’s quite easy to fall in love with them and it helps that they have wonderful chemistry. She plays a spirited Jasmine and gets the additional storyline of her wanting to become sultan without having to marry. It’s an unnecessary attempt at an upgrade from the original, with its intent on fitting into the landscape of 2019, even though Jasmine has arguably always been a feminist. Still, Scott certainly brings a sense of passion and conviction to her role.
Aladdin includes several additions to the story, such as Jasmine’s new song, “Speechless.” Composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (of Dear Evan Hansen fame), the song is a powerhouse tune, though it sounds more like it would’ve worked better in Frozen and doesn’t fit the rest of the song styles. There’s also something off about some of Ritchie’s directorial choices. The film often stays within the confines of the palace and for the big, climactic scene when Jafar’s intentions and show of power are revealed, Ritchie opts for the characters to remain in one spot. It makes Jafar seem less threatening.
Adaptations have never needed to be verbatim, but Jafar was more ambitiously evil in the original. This man locks up Jasmine and the Sultan (who’s lost his sense of humor here), turns Abu into a toy and unravels Carpet, but the scene in the live-action loses much of its oomph by choosing to relegate most of the action to one room while Jafar’s power and transitions from sultan to sorcerer are represented through multiple costume changes. Making Jafar a former thief like Aladdin, however, works as a nice expansion to the villain’s backstory and Marwan Kenzari has the evil laugh down on lock.
Rounding out the main cast is Will Smith. The actor hasn’t played a comedic role in quite some time, so it was nice to watch him do what he does best and it mostly works. It’s a hard role to fill knowing the late Robin Williams originated the role of Genie, but Smith’s version of the character is distinct while staying true to the character. It would’ve been far more interesting if Smith had rapped his songs rather than sang them (“Prince Ali” still doesn’t pack the same punch), but he chews up scenery in the best way and his camaraderie with Massoud’s Aladdin is fun. There’s also Dalia, Jasmine’s handmaid, who makes an excellent addition to the cast and is a good friend and support system for Jasmine; Saturday Night Live’s Nasim Pedrad plays her to comedic perfection.
Besides wanting to be set free, Genie also wants to find someone and settle down, and he and Dalia strike up a romance. It’s an interesting, but odd choice and this addition speaks to the larger issue of the film: it lacks a lot of the magic and spirit that made the original so special. Aladdin isn’t completely devoid of it, but Ritchie does make many attempts to ground the film and reigns in anything having to do with magical extravagance. But what’s a Disney movie without the magic?
Part of what makes “A Whole New World” and “Prince Ali” in the animation so wonderful is the enchantment and wonder in the former, and the kinetic energy and magic that pop up at every turn in the latter. Everything in the live-action is a bit more subdued, like it’s being held back from fully being itself, much like Aladdin is when he’s pretending he’s a prince. I’m partially convinced that if not for the set design, decorations, and the colorful costumes, Ritchie’s lack of imagination would have been more glaring. Thankfully, he dials down on the use of his signature slow motion and high-speed photography, but when it is in use it distracts from the scene.
The CGI budget is still a bit questionable and it shouldn’t be considering Disney’s financial power. Genie works best when he isn’t blue and though Abu is fine, he is generally devoid of personality. The changes to some of the lyrics (like “brush up your Sunday Salaam” is now “brush up your Friday Salaam”) work, and make more sense, while others do not. “A Whole New World,” however, is the song that stands out the most. Between the scene’s cinematography, the singing, and the exploration of places beyond Agrabah, it’s the strongest musical number and brings its lead characters closer as we watch them fall in love.
It’s safe to say that Aladdin thankfully doesn’t have as many cultural insensitivities as expected. Still, the fact that none of the costume and set production designers, in addition to the director and writers, were not Middle Eastern or of Middle Eastern descent is still very much a problem and speaks to a larger issue about who gets to tell what story. Sure, we could argue that Aladdin has been fundamentally problematic from the get go, but it’s also been the only positive representation for Middle Eastern people in mainstream pop culture.
And considering the live-action version is also the first major studio film involving a largely Middle Eastern cast (and none of which are playing terrorists), that representation should’ve also happened behind the scenes. Otherwise, it’s still a film made through the Western lens and the slight fusion of cultures in an otherwise very Middle Eastern setting (Arabic words are written across every paper, name pronunciations, a classical Middle Eastern instrument, and the fact that Jasmine refers to Sultan as “Baba,” which is Arabic for dad, all attest to this) feeds into the continued cultural confusion in the U.S.
Despite the film’s issues, however, Aladdin is very enjoyable and is elevated by its fantastic cast. Aladdin retains the charm, humor, and romance, even while losing some of the magic of the animated film. Some of the additions work in the movie’s favor while others don’t, but it’s nice to come out of a film feeling a bit better about it than when walking in.