We all know the purpose behind Disney making these live-action remakes of their animated films. They’re for the fans, in more ways than one. They serve to entertain and to show us our favorite, most beloved characters in the flesh. And Disney knows that this alone will sell tickets, if not satisfy our curiosity. And it works on both accounts.
Just like the live-action versions of The Jungle Book or Cinderella, these movies are also able to fill in some details left out of the originals, made during a time when minute details here or there could afford to be overlooked–especially when the animation or musical numbers themselves were the big draw. 2019’s Aladdin stays true to the overall story in most ways, but fixes the few issues present with the 1992 version. And although we largely know what’s going to happen, there’s still a certain sense of spontaneity that comes with these updates.
Aladdin is played by Mena Massoud, who dons a pretty terrible wig, but gives a performance filled with pretty good comedic sensibilities. Aladdin is a street rat, but meets Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) one day in the market place of the fictional kingdom of Agrabah. Only he thinks she’s a servant for the princess–whose appearance has been hidden from the kingdom.
Upon sneaking into the palace later that night to return Jasmine’s lost bracelet, Aladdin finds out that she really is the princess. Not long after, he’s caught by the palace guards and sent into exile by the secretly evil Jafar (Marwan Kenzari)–the Sultan’s right-hand man. Jafar informs Aladdin that he could never get with the princess because he’s not a prince, which is stated in the rules.
Jafar also promises to Aladdin that he’ll let him go if he retrieves a magic oil lamp in the Cave of Wonders. Jafar hopes that it can give him the power to overthrow the Sultan for his job and power. After a series of events, Aladdin ends up trapped inside the cave with the lamp, which summons a genie in the form of Will Smith, who grants him three wishes. I’m sure you know the story.
Disney’s take on Aladdin–both here and in 1992–is largely made for the animation medium. But special effects are so good these days that a live action retelling can actually work. Where it’s most noticeable is during the genie’s antics, especially during Smith’s song, “Friend Like Me”. These sequences are visually entertaining, but still possess a certain noticeable difference from the original. When we see the imagery changing in the cartoon we don’t think twice about how it’s done. They’re within the confines of animation. Here, these things come off as an effect, reminding us that we’re watching a live action film with inherent limitations.
Smith’s Genie is impressive. He’s obviously not going to have the same type of comedic chops as Robin Williams, who played Genie in the 1992 film, but you don’t expect him to. You could argue that Smith is just as unique a personality as Williams. He’s still Will Smith, just as ’92’s Genie was still Robin Williams. But what they both have in common is their ability to ground their respective films with a certain kind of warmth and humanity.
The standout in this movie is Naomi Scott. The story is about Aladdin, but this version is also about Jasmine. Not just because the part was simply written that way, but because Scott takes her role and demands our attention, so that we know this film is just as much about her as well, blowing us away with every single choice she makes on screen, not to mention the power and honesty behind her voice. Her delivery and facial expressions convey so much with each and every shade and nuance, giving a flawless performance. She absolutely kills it.
Even though the script, written by John August and Guy Ritchie, who also directs, has a tendency to be a bit wordy at times, it hits all the marks, story-wise. Instead of the now-popular Disney trend of having their female protagonists not have any need for romance, this new Aladdin gives us perhaps its strongest and most likable female lead who doesn’t have to reject love in order to make the exact difference she sets out to make. I think it’s the best of both worlds. Dare I say, a whole new one?