Like the titular character in Disney’s live action adaptation of Aladdin, there’s so much more to this film than its marketing campaign would have you believe. Fans turned off by the trailers, TV spots, and posters will find a diamond in the rough when they revisit this classic story with a 2019 spin. Let your local cinema transport you to Agrabah like you’ve never seen it before.
The essential plot of the 1992 animated classic is ported over beat for beat, but with a few updates and additions. Jasmine is the most changed character, played by Naomi Scott (Lemonade Mouth) who steals the entire show. She also gets a brand new song called “Speechless,” written by Alan Menken and the songwriting team behind The Greatest Showman, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The film may be called “Aladdin,” but with a much expanded role and an empowering message for young girls, Jasmine steals the show in this version. She also has a comedic confidant played by Nasim Pedrad (New Girl), who offers many of the film’s biggest laughs.
Mena Massoud is perfectly cast as Aladdin and often feels like the animated character leapt into the real world without any changes. Marwan Kenzari offers a more toned down version of Jafar, who is far less animated than Jonathan Freeman. However, he also becomes far more menacing in the end and parents should plan ahead for a climax that may be too scary for young viewers.
The film’s biggest challenge comes less from trying to make Aladdin as relevant in 2019 as it was in 1992 than it does from trying to recapture the lightning in a bottle that was Robin Williams’ portrayal of Genie. Will Smith has the unenviable task of trying to fill the curl-tipped shoes and baggy pants of the role’s originator. When he’s given the freedom to make the role his own, it works well and you buy into his take on the character. Sadly, the film tries really hard to recreate some of the Robin Williams magic of musical numbers like “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” and these moments fall flat. It was a fool’s errand to try to recreate the sequences shot-for-shot with a modern pop backbeat and they both underwhelm. Had they explored a different take the way the Broadway show did, these moments may have ended up more satisfying.
Most of the original Alan Menken songs have made the transition to live action, and the Academy Award winning composer returns to score this film, in addition to the aforementioned new song. The lyrics are occasionally altered to fit the story changes, but overall they feel like the animated score re-composed with a bigger orchestra full of more exotic instruments. Like Beauty and the Beast, the singing sounds a little too polished and autotuned and much of it likely won’t play well apart from the film, but most of the musical numbers work well in film, particularly “A Whole New World.” Will Smith provides a rap/pop cover of “Friend Like Me” during the end credits which is almost as humorous as the parody version, especially when you consider that his musical style is still locked into the era that made him famous, which coincides with the original animated film’s release.
Director Guy Ritchie employs some Genie-us camera maneuvers and transitions throughout the film, many of which will give the audience goosebumps. He also draws out some powerful acting performances from this stellar cast. My only criticism of his directing is that he likes to experiment with different frame rates, which makes a fun scene like “One Jump Ahead” look like a cheap music video. He repeats the strange effect for the end credits during a Mama Mia-style all-cast reprise of “Friend Like Me.”
This live action adaptation of Aladdin is far better than I expected it to be and has its own magic that is sure to resonate with audiences. It mostly plays safe and sticks to the familiar moments from the animated film, but takes a few bold risks that pay off and keep it feeling fresh and new. It’s not quite on the level of Beauty and the Beast or The Jungle Book, but it's far better than Cinderella, Dumbo, Maleficent, and Alice in Wonderland.
I give Aladdin 4 out of 5 uncanny valley blue Genie moments.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.