For a long time, I wasn’t opposed to Disney’s live-action remakes. I grew up on the animated classics; I survived college thanks to Marvel movies; I entered the happiest time of my life when Disney bought Star Wars. Disney is my overlord and has been since I first popped Beauty & the Beast in the VHS machine when I was 2 years old. I’m fine with that.
For a long time, I thought the live-action remakes could be interesting — new ways to tell old stories. For a while, I wasn’t wrong. Alice in Wonderland (2010) turned a lost girl into a grown woman. Maleficent (2014) was, incredibly, a Disney movie about healing from sexual assault. Cinderella (2015) gave a threadbare fairy tale real humanity, and Pete’s Dragon (2016) utterly destroyed me.
I won’t list the ones that came after that, though I was still on board for them despite their diminishing vision. I missed all but one of Disney’s live-action releases this year (thanks, newborn baby), and the one I did see pretty much robbed me of all my remaining goodwill toward these remakes. That one would be Aladdin.
Here’s the trouble with Aladdin: Even without watching the spare special features on this month’s DVD / Blu-ray / digital release, you can tell that a lot of effort went into it. Like, a lot. The cast is infectiously charming, and some of the new elements director Guy Ritchie and co-writer John August incorporated into it, like a female friend for Jasmine who is not a tiger and a surprising parallel between Aladdin and their younger Jafar, are pretty great on paper.
But it just … doesn’t work. No part of this new Aladdin ever justifies its existence, either as a Disney film or a Guy Ritchie one. Ritchie says himself in a bonus featurette that he wanted to make a family film so his family could actually watch one of his movies, but the result is so far removed from his signature style that he’s the last person I’d guess who made this movie. (To say nothing of the fact that he’s a white British man directing a movie about a mythical Middle Eastern city that for some incomprehensible reason has a Bollywood number at the end of it. Pro-tip: India is not in the Middle East.)
The only real reason to watch Aladdin once (and only once) is the cast. Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott shine as Aladdin and Jasmine, and I wish them every success in their future endeavors, because out of everyone in this movie, they really deserve it. They’re also delightful to watch in Massoud’s video diaries from set, if only because I had no idea Scott was British and says things like, “It ain’t even, like, minty, though!” (Meanwhile, Will Smith … is not Will Smith-y enough, which makes the Genie a bit of a disappointment on a whole other level.)
Thankfully, on the same day the 2019 Aladdin is available to own, so too is the Signature Collection release of the 1992 Aladdin. It probably goes without saying that the older Aladdin is the one to add to your DVD shelf, — not just because it’s the superior movie, but also because it has so much more to offer for Disney enthusiasts in its special features.
Along with a selection of “Classic Bonus” features that have appeared on previous releases of Aladdin, the Signature Collection includes a new interview with Scott Weinger, who voiced Aladdin in the original film, and “The Genie Outtakes,” which is just as wonderful as you might imagine. When I learned the news of Robin William’s death in 2014, the first thing I did was listen to the Aladdin soundtrack and cry. Watching him now doing his voice recording sessions as the Genie, in the special features of both Aladdin DVDs, is a special kind of bittersweet — but worth it, because of the irreplaceable magic he brought to the animated film.
And in the end, that’s really the biggest problem with the 2019 Aladdin, and with Disney’s spate of live-action remakes in general. For a studio that has based its entire schtick on experiencing something “magical” in its movies, they’ve completely forgotten what made those movies magical in the first place. It’s partially the animation, yes, but it’s also the fact that most of these classic animated films were lightning in a bottle. The Golden Age of Disney started with Howard Ashman and Alan Menken transforming animated films into animated musicals. Equal emphasis on both words.
You need both for the magic. 2019’s Aladdin has half of the formula, and without Robin Williams, it truly operates at a deficit. Maybe that’s why it feels so hollow.
We will not look back on this era of Disney history as the Golden Age of Live-Action Remakes. We’ll only look back and sigh.
Aladdin (2019) and Aladdin: The Signature Collection (1992) are both available to own on DVD, Blu-ray and digital today.