It can be debated whether live-action--or CGI/live-action hybrid--adaptations of Disney's animated classics are needed. The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book, and the rest of the studio's library of iconic cartoon films typically stand the test of time. They're inevitable at this point, though, thanks to the money they earn at the box office. Given that, though, they should at least be good, right? That's the mindset I had before screening the studio's latest adaptation, Aladdin, fully expecting to hate it.
The trailers for Aladdin have not been kind, making it look like a pale imitation of a nearly 30-year-old film. Thankfully, though, the picture they paint isn't accurate. Aladdin is, by and large, a good movie. If you love the original, it does more than enough to tickle your nostalgia bone, while adding more depth to the characters and giving some of them a bit of a modern spin.
All of your favorite songs are there, a lot of the jokes remain, and the cast does more than their fair share of singing and dancing, along with acting. What's more, Director Guy Ritchie (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) has recreated several visuals from the animated film in a way that makes them even more breathtaking in live-action. The Cave of Wonders, as seen in the trailers, is incredibly designed, as is the kingdom of Agrabah.
Of course, the biggest worry from the trailers was Genie, who was originally voiced by Robin Williams in the animated film. Will Smith plays the character in the live-action Aladdin, and what was shown of him in the trailers wasn't great. The CGI was hit-and-miss, and he didn't seem to spend much time in the character's signature blue form. It just didn't seem right.
However, you'll be happy to know that Smith's take on the character works. He's not trying to capture the essence of Robin Williams in playing Genie, but instead relies on his comedic sensibilities--something we don't see nearly enough from the former Fresh Prince of Bel Air. He also delivers big on song numbers "Friend Like Me" and "Prince Ali." And if you're worried about it, Genie also spends a lot of the movie with blue skin.
The only real knock against Smith is how much bigger his character is than anyone else in the film--physically and charismatically. Then again, that's the same problem the Aladdin animated film had with Williams' take, so it's not a bad problem to have.
Still, the cast of Aladdin is mostly well-suited for their roles. Mena Massoud is easy to love as the homeless thief Aladdin, and the friendships he forges with Genie and the magic carpet--as well as his relationship with pet monkey Abu--are fun to see develop. Naomi Scott, meanwhile, elevates the role of Jasmine beyond standard Disney princess fare--and the chemistry Scott and Massoud share makes the love story between Aladdin and Jasmine work well.
Jasmine's story features the most important changes to the Aladdin story. In this adaptation, she has a sense of ambition and wants to follow in her father's footsteps to lead her people and become the next Sultan of Agrabah, even if tradition doesn't allow it.
When it comes to Disney remaking its movies, it's these changes that make the new adaptations a useful tool. While 1992's animated Aladdin featured a Jasmine who was eager to reject the idea of an arranged marriage to find a new sultan, the new film exploring the princess's own ambition to lead her people is a wonderful change to make.
The new movie also gives her a female confidante in handmaiden Dalia, played hilariously by Saturday Night Live's Nasim Pedrad. It's a small addition, but an important one given that in the animated film Jasmine's only real friend before Aladdin was a tiger. Pedrad brings a good dose of humor to the film and has great chemistry with Smith's Genie.
The rest of the cast is good enough for the roles they were cast to play. Marwan Kenzari is plenty nefarious as Jafar, though not nearly as charismatic as his animated counterpart. Navid Negahban's Sultan doesn't have much to do in the movie--much like the cartoon--but the bond he shares with Jasmine is a powerful one.
As good as a lot of this movie is, Aladdin is not without its faults. Everything leading up to the Genie's arrival--save for Massoud's performance of "One Jump Ahead" as he and Jasmine flee from guards in the marketplace--is pretty slow. Meanwhile, the climax of the film is a CGI-heavy affair that borders on Michael Bay levels of visual gibberish. It's not bad CGI, so much as there's so much happening at once that it's hard to distinguish any one thing.
There are also a couple of moments throughout the movie that carry the sort of visual tricks Guy Ritchie likes to use in his movies. Keep an eye on how the film is sped up at various points in the "One Jump Ahead" sequence. These sort of things worked for me, though I could see how they'd stick out like a sore thumb for others.
There's also a musical problem. Speechless, a new Jasmine song written by duo Pasek and Paul and sung by Scott, fits the movie's take on the character. What's more, it's a good song. The way it's utilized in the film, though, feels incredibly out of place. This section of the movie could easily be clipped out and used as a music video, and the film would be better for it.
That all said, Aladdin is good. It's not perfect, but it's a big, extravagant musical that's filled with fun performances, bright colors, and some exciting moments. Will Smith's turn as Genie isn't better than what Robin Williams brought to the character, but it's different enough that it stands on its own merit. And, if you're into this sort of thing--and you should be--Smith has a new rap over the end credits that is themed to the movie.