Aladdin is the latest in Disney’s litany of live-action remakes inspired by their most adored animated classics. Its makeover is modernised, magical but mediocre in parts.
To start with the most crucial – casting the voice of Genie was probably no easy feat for Disney. Understandable, as the talent would have had some very big babouches to fill. Enter Will (Smith).
For Robin Williams, the adulation for Genie came from within. Williams injected his natural comedic thespian into the character with much improvisation. Whether Smith had this artistic license or not, he bestowed the big blue character with fresh, West Philly funk.
(Uncanny that the original Fresh Prince would go onto serve a latent prince).
In the hands of English film director, Guy Ritchie (The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015), (Sherlock Holmes, 2009), (Snatch, 2000), a unanimous fear lingered for months wondering how this Crime genre enthusiast could possibly bring the magic Aladdin duly deserves.
Ritchie, famed for being gritty, seemed to have abandoned his back catalogue and honoured the story and spectacle with multi-coloured flair and flamboyance that fans were expecting.
The film’s not without its flaws, though. Aladdin, played by the lovably handsome Mena Massoud, is adorable but not amazing. Where 1992’s Aladdin demonstrated the urgency required for a street urchin, 2019’s Aladdin seems to wander a little haphazardly and his character gets lost along the way. But it’s okay, Genie’s got him. Whether it’s his attempts to woo Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) or really stick it to Jafar (Merwan Kenzari), he doesn’t doesn’t really reach groundbreaking territory in the same way our animated Aladdin did, both musically and adventurously.
The most treasured song of the film, and perhaps of Disney’s dazzling dossier in general is ‘A Whole New World’ – one I was especially looking forward to. Granted, it was never going to be Brad Kane on the track but it’s the vitality in his vocals that gave Aladdin’s songs the magic that made them so memorable.
Massoud’s music numbers try to take flight but never quite land.
The cinematography overall achieves a (slightly smaller scale) style of a Sanjay Leela Bhansali movie. And though the music’s been preserved by Menken’s original melody, it sounded deprived. Maybe A.R. Rahman would’ve been the one for Aladdin since Ritchie decided to boast some Bollywood bravura(?)
There is crowd-pleasing, show-stopping harvest dance routine where he relies on Genie’s puppetry to impress the palace royals and guests with a brilliant breakdance (and backflip) that was achieved entirely on his own merit. No dancing double needed.
Turbans off to you, Massoud.
Carrying the gravitas of this movie, though, is Princess Jasmine. With the #metoo movement in mind, Scott impresses with her female prowess and that’s not because she has the security of the palace tiger, Rajah, as her pet.
There’s a decidedly rich determination for Jasmine to achieve more in life other than marry for the one she loves – if she marries. She’s not ‘some prize to be won’. She’s got maps to navigate now, she’s got books, she’s got agency.
Jasmine’s gearing up for geographical reasons. Just as well, as the heir to the palace throne, the Sultan of Agrabah needs a reliable ruler. And it isn’t going to be Jafar. It never was. But this Jasmine overthrows Jafar’s Machiavellian schemes (to become the most powerful sorcerer, therefore ruler of the kingdom) by belting out a feminist-tastic Bollywood style ballad, asserting / I won’t be silenced / You can’t keep me quiet / Won’t tremble when you try it / All I know is I won’t go speechless /.
All I know is I was speechless when I heard this one.
Scott’s solo was a definitive decibel defining moment for the movie and moving message for today’s girls. And even if the odds were already in her favour because the palace guards love her unconditionally, she had something to say so she said it, loud and proud.
Now let’s get back to Genie. CG Genie that is. The technical achievement underwhelms, what with Smith’s bobbing body trying to catch up with his tail every two seconds. And the awkward uneven eye-line distracts from the dialogue. But humanoid genie is generously funny and the salvation for most of Massoud’s moments.
When the peasants ‘make way for Prince Ali’, the literal laugh-out-loud moment finally arrives when the trio meet in the palace hall. A jaded Jasmine welcomes the duo wondering what this suitor can possibly bring to her considering she’s already secretly in love with the one she met from the marketplace. But wait for it, princess, it’s… jam. Quite a variety too.
The terribly tongue-tied Aladdin is abashed and so is Abu. Smith’s Genie is the saving grace and this is where even we fall hopelessly in love with Aladdin. After all, as one character admits, he’s “clumsy but in a charming sort of way”.
So while the songs didn’t dazzle, Aladdin’s action sequences didn’t astound and Jafar was forgettable, Jasmine’s refined rebellion makes it a must-see and the Bollywood bravura of it all makes it a spectacle not to be missed.
Know that when you mount your magic carpet ride this time, you’ll soar across a whole new modern world – with a few diversions to the old.