I didn’t realize just how deep my love for Disney’s 1992 Aladdin ran. When the film first came out, I rushed to see it and fell in love immediately. Princess Jasmine was a Disney princess unlike any other – not white and blonde. Also, being named Jasmine, I had a natural affinity for her, flaws and all – and back then she had many representation flaws.
Of Disney’s live-action remakes, this one seems to be caught most in the spotlight glare, with some people ready to pounce all over it. From Will Smith’s blue genie to Guy Ritchie helming a Disney movie, we’re at a point where everyone has an opinion before they’ve even seen something, dismissing it or raving over it. Although, Twitter does seem to approve of Hot Jafar.
As I write this, my friend’s son who had been skeptical about seeing it, sent me a text message asking if I wanted to see it again on Friday. Well, last night I saw it with critics and it was fun and highly entertaining, and I’ll be seeing it on Friday.
So, is it good? Is Guy Ritchie worthy of praise? Surprisingly, yes. Yes. As it turns out, the clips and trailers have done no justice to the film. Aladdin instead, opens a cave of delightful wonders and is a shining and shimmery carpet ride.
If you’ve never seen the 1992 animated classic, the ageless story is about a street rat named Aladdin who wanders the streets of Agrabah stealing from people to survive — and sometimes just for the fun of it. Charming and impish, Aladdin bumps into a beautiful woman and steals from her. She just so happens to be the princess. Princess Jasmine. Poor street boy meets Princess. She’s supposed to stay confined in her palace, not allowed to venture out on the streets, but she defies those rules, and now look what she’s mixed up in.
Aladdin falls for the princess and, as luck would have it, he soon finds a magic lamp with a genie inside. When Aladdin releases the genie, the grateful grants him three wishes. Bold kid that he is, Aladdin’s first wish is to become a prince so he can properly woo Jasmine.
Guy Ritchie or any filmmaker taking on a beloved Disney classic has a high bar to pass when tackling a modern-day version, but surprisingly rather than reinvent the wheel and make drastic changes, Ritchie stays as true to the animated feature as possible. And so, we have a faithfully live-action recreation of Aladdin, set in a vividly realistic Agrabah, as Prince Ali sets out to woo Princess Jasmine with his new best friend in tow.
Early on in the film, there’s a chase across the rooftops and you get to see how crisp and detailed the visuals are. The production of the musical numbers are framed lavishly and gracefully staged, whether it’s the Bollywood inspired Prince Ali or A Whole New World as Ali and Jasmine fly over the kingdom -the latter translates surprisingly well to live-action.
Choreographer Jamal Sims adds flamboyance to dance numbers. Prince Ali is deliciously inspired by Bollywood, lavish, vibrant, elegant and Smith makes a firm stamp on the musical number amidst the grand production. It might be best described as part Disney parade and part majestic coronation, with a big splash of Bollywood spice for authentic flavor. Again, I saw a brief clip of this on Twitter and it did nothing for me, but seeing the number played out on Screen 10 at the Arclight – was a whole other world.
Mena Massoud’s Aladdin has just the right voice to deliver the iconic Alan Menken and Howard Ashman songs and his chemistry with Naomi Scott’s Jasmine brims with wit, charm, and passion. Scott not only matches his vocal perfection, she embraces her character’s headstrong willfulness with a sharp edge of feisty brilliance and, as the two leads make abundant magic together.
Princess Jasmine has the more impressive character arc since her journey from sheltered royal to enlightened woman see her evolve for the better, and her attitude is modernized with a greater sense of agency. Gone too is the midriff-baring turquoise outfit and any trace of negative stereotypes. As much as I love the animated Jasmine, Ritchie’s live-action version has a voice perhaps even more meaningful, speaking out with inspiring force, demanding to be heard. Listen carefully to the songs in Arabian Nights and you’ll hear the lyrics have been elegantly updated in all the right ways. The same can be said of every aspect of Richie’s enchanted carpet ride that lets Aladdin soar into 2019 and beyond.
However, it is Will Smith who really makes his mark. Here he is, having to quote words that are ingrained by Robin Williams and songs that have his stamp all over it. How do you fill the shoes? Be Yourself. Which is the other core message of the film and one that Smith tackles well. Smith’s genie is a colorful and larger-than-life presence, and he steals his scenes. Human genie has charm, and all eyes are on him when he’s in any scene. He’s absolutely enjoyable in this role, and it’s Smith returning to his comedic finest making him a joy to watch.
I spoke to composer Menken last year for Beauty and the Beast who teased Jasmine’s song, Speechless about empowerment, and Scott sings with a ferocity of a princess who won’t be left “Speechless.” Scott lands that number with great intensity. It’s not delivered as one number, instead, it’s broken into segments. As Jasmine finds her voice, the song reflects it too, and by the end, she’s smashing out the rest of the number fearlessly, and so Disney delivers our first real Best Original Song contender of the year. It’s a powerful earworm of a tune in the movie and when you listen to the complete song. It’s a gift. A Disney anthem for the ages.
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul too have made a mark on their contribution to film music as well as theater, and you can hear their stamp here too, seamlessly fitting into the Disney music canon whether it’s a lyrical change or a whole new number.
Since Aladdin’s main protagonist here is Aladdin himself, the buddy friendship story is endearing as well as the romance and the love story. Ritchie gives us two, as Jasmine’s handmaid, Dalia (Nasim Pedrad) and Genie swap look and since it’s Genie whose narrating the story, we know how it ends.
The addition of Dalia is one that adds to the character arc of Jasmine, giving us an insight into her world and what’s going on.
The buddy aspect here is developed more – Marwan Kenzari as Jafar, the Sultan’s Vizier is interesting, he does not come across as bad or villainous, just a person after his interests and we know how it ends. He tells Aladdin, “Steal an apple and you’re a thief. Steal a kingdom and you’re a statesman.” And so Aladdin’s tries to find his place in the world. Discovering who he is and that’s the core of the story. His discovery. He’s an orphan, and his best friend is Abu, his monkey until he meets Genie. He thinks he wants to become a Prince, and that’s what it takes to win Jasmine, but as Genie reminds him, she fell for the street rat, not the thief. He’s funny and charming. And Genie puts him in his place. Smith and Massoud click into a groove, making their scenes all the more fun.
There’s a freshness to Aladdin, something that Ritchie has succeeded in doing. The cast brings a freshness to the film. The dance numbers are colorful and fun entertainment, lending from the stage show. The costumes by Michael Wilkinson are a vibrant array of colorful elegance in this world and are a delight to look at against the backdrop of Production designer Gemma Jackson’s world. Ritchie captures the magical world allowing us to delight in the textures and colors.
Aladdin is fun. It’s entertaining. It’s a visual feast. Ritchie hasn’t tampered much with it and Will Smith absolutely delights and delivers.
Aladdin is released on Friday