When it comes to the live action remakes of Disney’s animated classics, the results most definitely vary. For me, some are absolutely enchanting (Cinderella), while others are middling and underwhelming (Maleficent). When it comes to Aladdin, I will be honest and say I was extremely nervous to see this movie. Not only does the 1992 Aladdin rank at number 4 in my list of favorite animated films, but the trailers left a lot to be desired and felt somewhat off and disjointed. It’s puzzling how the trailers did not do the film justice, but it just goes to show you how significant context is. Those fears were not only put to rest, but absolutely vanished and replaced with sheer delight and overall love. Indeed, much like the classic song we are treated to a shining, shimmering, splendid film that is infused just the right amount of nostalgia and feel of the original, while also adding some wonderful and rich new story beats, character enhancements, and music. Aladdin is a visually sumptuous, funny, and heartfelt retelling of the classic story that soared right into my heart.
Casting/Performances & Story/Character Enhancements
When it comes to any film, but especially in these Disney remakes, casting, and in turn performances, plays a crucial role in the overall quality of the film. And one of Aladdin’s finest attributes is indeed its cast. Mena Massoud is a brilliant and perfect Aladdin. He’s charming, funny and earnest with a dynamic energy and dazzling smile to match. He was able to make Aladdin’s agility look natural and believable, and his journey of self discovery that his strength of character was always there really touching. Naomi Scott’s Jasmine is equally terrific, infusing the feisty princess with heart, compassion, strength and an intelligence that comes from inherent nobility and desire to truly help her people. Individually, they are fantastic. Together they are equally wonderful with significantly more screen time together which added some lovely depth to their relationship, and showcased a natural, sweet, romantic chemistry that helps makes Aladdin and Jasmine remain of Disney’s greatest couples.
Of course, a great deal of the film’s success rests on Will Smith’s Genie’s shoulders, and is undoubtedly who audiences were anticipating the most. No one can ever replace or replicate Robin Williams. What he created was unique, brilliant and beloved. But Smith truly brought his own amazing spin to the character. He brought a great deal of charm, sweetness and humor, and with the music a hip hop flair that he is not only known for but does exceedingly well. He was charismatic, but also at times profound and importantly very human. And that may be one of the best things Smith brought to the role. Instead of trying to replicate the larger than life portrayal by Williams, this Genie is more grounded, which not only felt appropriate but was undeniably likable. And like the original, the friendship between Aladdin and Genie is poignant and the cornerstone to the film’s themes, and the chemistry between both actors is terrific. I’m going out on a limb here and saying that this may be my favorite role Will Smith has ever done.
The more human and grounded qualities in the other cast members and characters, as well as the story additions and changes are also what made the film work so well. What works in an animated film may not always translate or work in a live action one. Moreover, it’s important to distinguish it from its predecessor and add the necessary story beats needed for a new and longer live action film. In Aladdin’s case, these changes felt necessary and were executed beautifully. Jafar for example is an amazing villain in the animated version, but mostly a mustache twirling, over the top kind of villain whose evilness is obvious. That is great and works perfectly in an animated film. But I loved what they did with this new version of Jafar, who is younger, handsome and much more subdued. Marwan Kenzari grounds the character and showcases that villainy not only can come from a place of hardship but also that evil may not always look as such. It can be simmering under a surface that can be very attractive and persuasive. Honestly, much like they did with Gaston’s character in Beauty and Beast it’s important to portray villains in this realistic way. The same can be said for the Sultan (Navid Negahban), who is more reverent and realistic rather than goofy, as well as the animal characters of Abu, Iago and Rajah. There is obviously still the fantastical element about them but they feel closer to reality and in turn perfectly blended into the story. I smiled whenever they were on screen. Moreover, some other character and story additions that I absolutely loved were Jasmine’s hand maiden Dalia (Nasim Pedrad) who was sweet, funny and gave Jasmine a true friend and another scene partner that added real humor and heart. Some other changes were made at the climax and conclusion to the story that I won’t spoil, but they were refreshing, added dynamic action, and meaningful messages that a modern audience will certainly appreciate.
Direction and Visuals
I am a fan of many of Guy Ritchie’s films and his signature style. Aladdin is a much brighter and happier story than his usual fare but he was still able to bring his moments of slowed down or sped up film that is his trademark in some of the dancing and action sequences that I comes to expect from his work. This may be off putting or odd to some, especially if unfamiliar that this is Ritchie’s trademark visual that he always employs. I personally find it fun, but it may not be for some viewers. In addition to the direction, indeed all of the visuals are sumptuous and wondrous, from the rich and colorful costumes and sets to the sweeping camera work. These truly are an artistic feast that are both similar to the original but something entirely different and often as magnificent as what we saw in Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. And while the blue version of the Genie is still a bit jarring on first glance, you quickly get used to it and are simply looking at the character.
Music and Songs
If I were to rank my favorite Disney soundtracks, 1992’s Aladdin is tied for the top spot with The Little Mermaid, so there was certainly a great deal to live up to with these new versions of the songs and score. All of the songs that we love are included and are brought to life with amazing and fresh takes and a different but wonderful energy. It’s difficult to actually choose a favorite, but “Friend Like Me,” which was already so fun and colorful in the original, has the same kind of fun flair and new hip hop vibe, also found in “Prince Ali,” which is slower, but drawn out in a way that almost felt necessary with the changes to Genie’s character. There is definitely a vibrant Bollywood influence to this number, while “One Jump Ahead” is just fun and gives added interaction between Aladdin and Jasmine. “A Whole New World,” which is my favorite Disney song, perhaps may not soar as high as the original, but at the same time, it’s almost impossible to do so. What is does do a give us a beautiful new version on this romantic scene. And I loved it vocally, orchestra wise, and visually with new locals the couple flies throughout and a lovely depiction of their inherent and natural chemistry. The new song “Speechless,” which is a anthem of strength given to Jasmine’s character, is a great song and moment for her arc. However, it’s inclusion, which is sung in a dream like sequence, and songwriters are La La Land and The Greatest Showman’s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, instead of one of Menken’s other collaborators feels a bit disconnected and decidedly different from the rest of the songs. Is the song great? Yes, indeed it is. But its style does feel like a Paul and Pasek song as opposed to a Menken song.
Lastly, what is truly remarkable is that Menken composed new versions of his Aladdin themes and motifs as well as all new orchestrations for the entirely of the film, all of which are magnificent. They are deep, rich, and gorgeous and profoundly demonstrate what we already knew- that that Menken is not only a living legend for his body of work, but can still compose equally brilliant new musical scores. Menken should be revered in the same breath as such illustrious composers as John Williams and Hans Zimmer.
If you are debating whether to see this new version of Disney’s Aladdin, especially if you are a tremendous fan of the original or not always sure about live action remakes, I cannot recommend this film enough. Currently, for me this Aladdin ranks just below 2015’s Cinderella, but another viewing may move that to a tie for the top spot. Regardless, what I do know is that despite trepidation Aladdin proved to be a funny, effervescent, colorful and heartfelt diamond in the rough.