Twenty years after George Lucas revolutionized digital filmmaking with Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace, our favorite cartoons are coming to life, with meat-puppet actors making the motions to memorable music on the greenscreen altar.
Aladdin is appointment viewing for the initiated, not unlike every other movie released this April and May. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that. It’s been litigated and re-litigated in reviews and criticism plenty. Who cares? Better live-action remakes of famous Disney cartoons have come and gone in the last half decade. Some took a new approach to old material (Maleficent) while others were faithful to a fault (Beauty and the Beast). Aladdin is more the latter — with alterations to certain characters and added musical numbers to pad the time and update the gender politics. For what it’s worth, I’ve mostly hated this series of Disney remixes but enjoyed Aladdin; my wife, much more invested and generally positive about the series, hated it.
Will Smith stars as the Genie, already a meme months before release because of how odd the CGI looked in an early trailer. He looks great here, mostly, and Smith’s performance reminds audiences of why he was so enjoyable during his 1990’s blockbuster phase. “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” are remixed to fit his style of rapping; of all the re-arrangements, they’re the only two that work. Smith isn’t the only performance that works but he’s certainly the only one that leaves an impression. He’s a best-case-scenario as a replacement for Robin Williams’ classic, and still definitive, take on the character .
Not that these live-action movies are supposed to be definitive in any way, shape or form. But credit where credit is due: This version of Aladdin tries to increase the role of Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), giving her a power ballad and a more active role in the plot. Scott is good, but “Speechless,” her new song, is generic and nobody involved in the production could seem to figure out where it fit into the flow of the story. Whether you feel like her new role is generic girl-power stuff or a meaningful improvement probably aligns with your investment in whether Disney hits your preferred beats.
Mena Massoud, who plays Aladdin, is pretty likable. Unfortunately, the restructuring of the story squeezes out a lot of the character’s better moments; the first act of the animated story — including his first song — is squished and smooshed (probably to get audiences to Smith faster, and it’s hard to blame Guy Ritchie, who does a fine job here but otherwise seems adrift directing musical numbers). I liked Massoud, though.
“A Whole New World,” the signature song of the whole endeavor, is just garbage here. It isn’t the fault of Scott or Massoud, who would be fine performing it onstage with some cool cardboard cutouts. That would be more than the VFX team at Disney concocted for this film’s drab and desert-filled night ride around the world. In the animated movie, they travel to different cities and see exotic animals; the song, which is about seeing new sights outside your window, is matched by the visuals there. Here it’s absolutely nothing. Heartless, weightless.
Aladdin is more or less consistently entertaining nostalgia bait. It may appeal more to the middle-ground fans of the animated movie who don’t rewatch it frequently but remember it fondly. Full disclosure: I listen to Will Smith’s Wild Wild West end-credits rap frequently, so maybe I was the target audience for this one. Its faults are many — that’s apparent from the get-go — but those faults aren’t related to the reasons anyone is buying a ticket. Enjoy.