There has always been something engaging about Disney’s Aladdin, the third picture to be directed by Disney duo, Musker and Clements, the film did something that no Disney film had really done before – it took a non-western culture and made it into animated magic. Although now there may be some issue taken with that statement, seeing as Disney’s relationship with race and culture is definitely a turbulent one, Aladdin still remains one of the studio’s best.
The animation and direction is stunning, the music is memorable and the whole beautiful package is topped by one hell of a performance from Robin Williams as the Genie. In many ways, Disney’s animated classic truly is a perfect film. So it makes sense that it would be one of the company’s top choices for a live-action remake, especially since their remake of Beauty and the Beast banked in a whopping 1 billion at the box office. And the expectations for this film were high, so high in fact that it’s release pushed back filming of the studio’s live-action Mulan (which I am so ready for! I’m a Mulan fan, sue me!). But unlike Mulan, this modern take on the Arabian folk tale was meant to follow in the golden footsteps of Beauty and the Beast, as a fully realised musical blockbuster.
So it surprised me that even before the film was in production, it seemed that the studio were sabotaging the project with their creative ahem “choices”. The first head scratcher being the hiring of Guy Ritchie to direct the film. When thinking about a magical, musical experience, Guy Ritchie is not the director that comes to mind, with his filmography being primary known for its gritty tone and violent action scenes. The next stop sign came in the form of Disney’s decision to cast non-middle eastern actors in the roles, something that led to some savage backlash from online groups. But the film still went ahead and was eventually released this very month in cinemas worldwide.
And I can say now, that the film does sadly not live up to the glamour and glitz of Beauty and the Beast, but still holds some strong and engaging elements. But don’t get me wrong, there’s also some very weak elements here as well.
In a normal review, I would usually do a basic run through of the plot, but we all know the plot of Aladdin at this point, so I guess that would be rather exhausting and pointless. So let’s just get into the good elements, shall we?
Overall, the film’s cast is perfect. Although some of the actors may not be culturally correct, they each give strong and lively performances. Mena Massoud plays his Aladdin with wit and charm, and his handsome smile is enough to light up any scene. While Naomi Scott delivers what is probably my favourite iteration of the Jasmine character.
In many ways, I have always found Jasmine to be one of the weaker Disney Princesses, with her story and character being the one most entwined with that of her male counterpart. Hell, her own film isn’t even her own, which has always made me question the love and support she receives from the Disney fanbase. But in this film, she is given a lot more agency and independence, even being given a storyline that is distinctly her own and separated from that of Aladdin’s. She is also given a new song entitled “Speechless” , which although is not great, it does give Naomi Scott some time to shine, because she truly is a powerful singer, arguably the best in cast. But the primary role here is Will Smith as the Genie. In fairness to both Smith and the screenwriters, they do not simply remake the Robin Williams Genie with a different face, this Genie is very much his own entity, even though it’s an entity who can’t really sing. But Smith delivers with his comedic charm and is even able to sell some more of the emotional moments, such as when he is finally set free and given a mortal life. Other stand outs in the cast include Nasim Pedrad as Dalia, who simply nails every comedic beat, using her years as a SNL regular to their full potential.
The film is also another visual spectacle, almost rivalling Beauty and the Beast in its gloriously delicious eye-candy. The Arabian setting makes way for some stunning visuals, with the city of Agrabah being reimagined as a port city, complete with azure seas, a golden palace and lollipop-coloured sand shacks. In fact, if this film isn’t enough to make Disney utilise the Aladdin setting more in its parks, I may have to start a petition – I want to go to Agrabah damnit!
Sadly, there’s also a lot about this film that made me cringe and simply roll my eyes in embarrassment. For one thing, Ritchie again did not feel like the best choice to direct this picture. Although the direction is sometimes beautifully done, in other parts of the film it feels stunted and somewhat confused, the musical medium obviously not being a part of Ritchie’s comfort zone.
Marwan Kenzari also fails the film in the role of the villainous Jafar, who is such a cartoonish villain to begin with, that it’s jarring to watch him being played so straight laced. Some may say that the role was simply darkened for the live-action format, but Kenzari’s performance also doesn’t help – ranging from monotone to melodramatic without warning or reason. In some ways, I wish they had gotten an older, more experienced actor to play the role, to give it some well-needed layers. I personally believe that Ben Kingsley would have been better in the role, and from a single google search, it seems that the internet also agrees.
The film also falls short of its expectations in its music, which simply doesn’t change. Beauty and the Beast not only reworked some of the title songs, but also added in several new musical numbers that tied the film’s new themes of family and loss together. Aladdin sadly doesn’t do this, not even borrowing from the Broadway adaptation for some weight. Will Smith’s inclusion doesn’t even leave room for the songs to be modernised or edited for his usual musical stylings, and the only new song is Jasmine’s ballad, which feels more like a Eurovision entry than a heartfelt addition.
In the end, Guy Ritchie’s kick at directing a fantasy musical doesn’t leave the audience with a terrible film, not does it leave them with a brilliant one, instead it leaves them with a final product that falls down somewhere between John Favreau’s The Jungle Book and Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella. This film may have the potential and charm to reach the same heights as Beauty and the Beast, but it still isn’t a tale as old as time.