Just weeks after the release of Dumbo, the trend of raiding the Disney vaults, not for home video but for the reworking of classic animated features into a series of new live-action adventures, continues ever onward. After what seemed an interminable length of hearing complaints, rumors, cultural casting conflicts, and required lyric changes from the usual rumor mill sources, the studio has finally unveiled the internationally cast Aladdin, the musical fantasy based on the Middle Eastern folk tale from One Thousand and One Nights, a book written during what is generally considered the Islamic Golden Age.
By-passing the Broadway show as if it never happened, the new film musical from director Guy Ritchie, who also co-wrote the screenplay with John August, sticks close to the story as played out in the hugely popular 1992 animated feature. Aladdin (Canadian actor, Mena Massoud) is the street urchin, the Diamond-in-the-Rough street rat who finds the magic lamp, gets three wishes, wins the heart of Princess Jasmine (London born Naomi Scott), and defeats the evil Royal Vizier, Jafar (Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari), all with help and often the hindrance of his loyal pet monkey Abu (Frank Welker, reprising his voice-work from the ‘92 film). It’s the tale as old a time, to quote another of the Disney musical remakes.
As the genie, Will Smith has the unenviable task of following an act considered to be the performance that finally cemented the transition of having celebrities doing the voice work rather than employing those specifically trained to voice animated features. Watching the genie’s manic actions was like watching a Robin Williams routine. In fact, when the actor/comedian was first pitched to voice the character, his initial reluctance to be in the film was quickly diminished when the studio presented him with a short specially prepared feature of the genie animated to the soundtrack of one of the comedian’s stand-up routines. The effect was said to have inspired Williams. He was sold.
With a personality that can be just as large and certainly as energetic, Smith doesn’t do Williams, he does Smith, and he’s perfectly fine. In fact, the actor hasn’t felt quite this likable or as entertaining on the screen as he is here for quite some time. Appearing approximately 42 minutes into the film once Aladdin has entered the cave and found the lamp, along with the magic carpet, the big blue genie helps the boy and his monkey escape the confines of the desert cave and promises to help him win the heart of Jasmine by making him a prince. “I’m about to fabulize you,” the genie tells him.
Another of the film’s positive features is the casting. Paying careful attention to the insensitivity of cultural upsets, Aladdin is played by Mena Massoud, Canadian raised but born in Cairo to Egyptian parents. With his North American accent. he’s still the all-American Tom Cruise of the animated feature but there’s no denying his heritage. Even better is Naomi Scott, hugely likable as the feisty Princess Jasmine, London born and raised but whose mother is a Ugandan of Indian descent. Iranian actor Navid Negahban is the Sultan, while Iranian born, American raised comedienne, Nasim Pedrad, best known for her five-year stint on Saturday Night Live, plays Dalia, Jasmine’s handmaiden, a new character not in the animated feature. The only misstep is with the evil Jafar.
Dutch actor of Tunisian heritage, Marwan Kenzari never feels right. The image and sound of Jafar from the animated feature, and as he’s played in the Broadway musical, is so indelibly ingrained that to go in a different direction just feels wrong. He’s menacing, but not half as menacing as his animated counterpart was with that distinctive, deep-throated voice that delivered all threats in such a deliciously obsequious manner. And he’s young. Somehow the threat of Jafa insisting he will marry Jasmine doesn’t quite have the “Eeeeuw” factor that a much older looking villain would have had. With his conniving, murderous ways, he’s admittedly no great catch, but with his handsome good looks and his youth, let’s face it, the girl could do worse. “You’re just getting married,” Dalia has previously told her princess. “You don’t have to talk with him.”
Having director Guy Ritchie’s name attached to the project must have raised eyebrows. Best known for crime-themed films, the manic style of the Sherlock Holmes updates, and the irredeemably dreadful 2017 feature King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the last person you would think that Disney would hire to helm a large scale, big-budget Hollywood musical would be Guy Ritchie. Fortunately, those quirky trademark visuals of freeze, stop-go action incorporating the occasional slo-mo are all kept to a minimum, which is the good news. The bad is that the film doesn’t really have the rhythm of a musical.
The Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice songs from the animated feature, Arabian Nights, One Jump Ahead, Friend Like Me, Prince Ali, and a Whole New World, are all there, plus there’s an extra new song called Speechless written by Menken and Pasek & Paul (the guy’s behind La La Land and The Greatest Showman) but for a two hour plus live-action song and dance movie there’s just not enough of them to qualify. There’s no musical flow. With their new beefed-up arrangements, the songs appear more as obligatory moments rather than performances that develop naturally.
When Aladdin makes his grand entrance as Prince Ali, the sequence is a spectacle, but it never feels musically spectacular. Naomi Scott’s vocals on the new Speechless is pleasant, she sings well, and it’s good to hear something new, but the song’s style lacks any theatrical flair; it’s a pop, power-ballad, one that wouldn’t sound out of place as a filler on any present-day teenage pop star’s new CD. Only the magic carpet ride of A Whole New World possesses the emotion of movie musical magic. In the way Aladdin and Jasmine take flight, so does the song. And for those wondering how the controversial introductory lyrics to Arabian Nights of the animated feature that originally sang “… Where they cut off your ear / If they don’t like your face…” then became “… Where it’s flat and immense / And the heat is intense...” are handled, in the new film they’re “…Where you wander among / Every culture and tongue…” while the insensitive ‘barbaric’ reference is now changed to ‘chaotic.’
Alan Stewart’s widescreen cinematography is a stunning array of color and polished glitz – everything looks new, even the disheveled clothes of the poor street dwellers – and the visual effects are near seamless, particularly Aladdin’s monkey, Jasmine’s tiger, and Jafar’s parrot Iago. But the attention will be short lived. Like those live-action remakes before it, the immediate, short-term box-office prospects for Aladdin will be good, and will no doubt make a star out of Naomi Scott. But ultimately, when the time has passed and future generations think of Cinderella, Beauty & The Beast, Dumbo, The Jungle Book and Aladdin, it’s not these new do-overs that will have the staying power. Disney will no doubt continue to mine the vaults for new potential remakes – The Lion King, Mulan, and Lady and the Tramp are all in production – but it’s the originals that will always supply the long term benefits.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 128 Minutes