Among 2019’s catalogue of remakes and reboots was the most recent rendition of Disney’s 1992 animated classic: Aladdin. The story of Aladdin originated in the centuries old collection of 1,001 stories, collectively referred to as The Arabian Nights. It follows Aladdin, a street rat with a giving heart, as his yearning for the local princess’ heart leads him on an adventure filled with magic carpets and genies. The original film is among the most beloved of all time. This film was a live-action adaptation, including original songs, and new arrangements of old ones, from the same team of composers. The film stars Naomie Scott and Mena Massoud as Princess Jasmine and Aladdin respectively, and also features Will Smith as the Genie, a role previously immortalized by the legendary Robin Williams.
In the past, I’ve basically told anyone who’d listen that I fundamentally oppose the idea of live-action remakes of animated content. There are things that you can do with animation that you just can’t do with a human being. The Lion King, one of 2019’s other big Disney animated-to-live-action remake, was a perfect example of trying to make realistic that which wasn’t supposed to be in the first place, and it got slammed for it. From Disney movies to The Last Airbender live action show, animated magic is magical because it’s animated. I’d rather you make a book 4 to ATLA than try to retell me the same story with human faces. On top of that, I re-watched the original Aladdin to gear up for this one, after realizing that I don’t think I’ve seen it in like an inexcusable number of years. Boy, does it hold up, and then some. So, carrying all of that incredulity on my poor shoulders, I sat down to watch the latest Disney meme of a cash-grab.
Surprisingly, I don’t think I’ve been that pleasantly surprised since I saw Easy A, and was reminded that Rom-Coms can be done damn well. Aladdin 2019 is pretty damn good, paying homage to the original and maintaining what was good about it, while adding newer spins on characters and storylines that only improve on its source material. It runs at 40 extra minutes than the original, and it uses every minute of it to develop what was already there and extrapolate from it. The Genie’s relationship with Dalia the Handmaiden, Jasmine’s aspiration to become the Sultan, and the whole character of Hakim are examples of stuff that didn’t exist in the originals, but fit really well into the newer framework, which included some re-ordering and reworking from the originals.
The thing that made me most skeptical going in, particularly about this film, was the casting. Aside from Jafar, who I think it’s unfair to expect a human being to be able to do, and I can’t think of anyone who could embody the animation on that one, they do a bang up job. Naomie Scott is fantastic. I wasn’t sure at the very beginning, but she grew into it in a big way, doing arguably the best job acting-wise and performing the hell out of Speechless, the original song for this film that helped add the sorely needed feminist angle to her character. Massoud isn’t as good, but he’s more than passable, and bring out everything that needed to be brought out with Aladdin’s character. It’s a hard one, but he does a solid job, all things considered. The biggest worry for me was Will Smith’s Genie. Robin Williams’ Genie is one of the most iconic characters in cinema, and to Will-Smith-ify that felt weird going into it. But he does an incredible thing; he’s very respectful to Williams’ portrayal, keeping a lot of the spirit, while definitely Will-Smith-ifying it, which lands well and emotionally commits you in its own way. Williams’ Genie is untouchable, but Smith’s done something amazing with the way he’s added his own signature to it. Even the impossibility of landing Jafar’s character without Jonathan Freeman, which they don’t manage to do, is softened by the slightly different spin on the character. Nowhere near as good as the Jafar we all know and love, but that it wasn’t a train-wreck is goddamned commendable.
The music was fine; I was really impressed with Speechless, particularly the way Naomie Scott did it. A Whole New World didn’t quite capture the magic of the original, and Will Smith’s voice isn’t as suited to some of his songs as Williams’ was, but it evens out to enjoyable for sure. The visuals were pretty impressive; it was definitely easy on the eye. It’s kind of hilarious to think this movie was directed by Guy Ritchie, of whom my favorite works are films like Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. He’s done a really good job, though, so it all worked out, as long as we all ignore a lot of the whitening of Arab-Indian culture, which, to be fair, is equally if not more present in the original.
It’s far from perfect, the writing is clunky in places, and the dance sequences are a lot less impressive than in the original. But it’s a marvel to me that, a day after watching the original, which I love, I saw this and liked it a whole lot. It almost feels strange; strange that there are two versions of the same story that I can just like a lot, without feeling like this one cheapens the original. I prefer the original, by quite a bit, but damn if this movie isn’t a great time. This is exactly how these remakes should work, maintaining the spirit of the original, while adding small elements to make it feel fresh and unique. It helps when you choose the right story; The Lion King and The Jungle Book didn’t work because when the animals aren’t cartoon, they’re animals, who have a lot less range than a 2-D animation. Aladdin 2019 doesn’t come close to falling into that trap, and I’m continually overjoyed to think about the fact that I get to just enjoy both versions of this wonderful story. I tip my hat to Disney and the production team; this was an exception to my beliefs about the potential of live-action adaptations for animated classics.
– Aman Datta
Aman’s Score – 75/100 Aryamaan’s Score –