Aladdin (Mena Massoud) lives on the streets of Agrabah with his monkey friend Abu (Frank Welker) stealing food daily to survive. When he runs into the sultan’s vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), he’s given an literal golden opportunity to impress the elusive princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) by venturing into the cave of wonders (Frank Welker). Inside resides a lamp containing a 10,000 year old genie (Will Smith) who can grant anyone three wishes, but will this change Aladdin’s personality for better or worse?
The 1992 Aladdin might not have received a best picture nomination like its older sibling Beauty and the Beast, but it holds a special place in the heart of legendary Warner Brothers animator, Chuck Jones. He described it as the funniest movie he ever saw, and that’s saying a lot coming from one of Disney’s most notorious rivals of all time. Which brings me to the main problem with the 2019 remake. Aladdin is probably the hardest movie to picture in live-action because so much of it is rooted in cartoon logic. One could say that about any animated Disney movie, but really think about it. The physical gags that pop up during the musical numbers, the exaggerated animals with human expressions, and of course the energetic Robin Williams as the epidemy of limitless animation, the Genie. None of that feels like it would translate well to the gravitationally restricted realm of live-action.
Imagine if the Looney Tunes were remade in the same format, and not like Space Jam or Back in Action where they’re kept in their classic hand-drawn vessels. We’re talking ultra realistic fur and feathers trying to maim one another without stylized movement or slapstick, but rather highly detailed dynamite ending in blood and guts rather than smithereens with googly eyes. Not quite the ideal family friendly romp. So for the sake of fairness this will be given equal judgement on its own and compared to the original, even if this will never come close to that comedic masterpiece of animation.
The cast is very impressive nailing the look of their vividly drawn counterparts to a tee even if their vocals are hit and miss. The most prominent example is Naomi Scott as Jasmine, who embodies everything about the character in hair, fashion, and personality. Mena Massoud also captures Aladdin’s street smarts, acrobatic nature, and even the nervousness of being out of his element at a fancy palace. It would make Glen Keane proud to see the spirit of his hard work kept in tact. However on the yang side of the casting is Marwan Kanzari as Jafar. In keeping with the movie’s message, thing’s aren’t always what they seem. What happened to this character? This is the exact opposite of what made the villain so memorable in the first place. There’s no sense of grandeur in his presence, no commanding voice of authority to make him feel powerful in his secondary position. Just a pathetic man with a whiney voice and an underwhelming sense of passion. He’s given a little more back story, which goes a long way in one sentence, but other than that he’s completely neutered without a drop of intimidation equal to Jonathan Freeman. Even original animator Andreas Deja would be embarrassed by this performance.
Of course no one could ever replace the late great Robin Williams nor a single frame of Eric Goldberg’s animation, but having Will Smith as the genie was one of the best parts of this interpretation. At first, it’s jarring seeing him in polished computer animation, but it’s easy to get used to once you remember how exaggerated Genie is supposed to be. Not only that, but his human form is equally as strong as his spirit form bringing out the most charisma and laughs by carrying over his role from Hitch as an expert match maker. There are a few nods to Williams’ lines here and there, but other than that he’s the diamond in the rough.
Director Guy Ritchie is familiar with action, but he doesn’t have a ton of experience with musicals and half of that shows in the vocals. The singing is usually hit and miss with auto-tuning utilized much more than before. But why does it work better here than in Beauty and the Beast? Because there’s actual chemistry between Massoud and Scott when A Whole New World comes into play. There’s a sense of mystery and danger when the camera teams up with Arabian Nights to create a chilling introduction to the story. The new take on Friend Like Me still has the bouncy energy and visuals much to the shock of my inner child. But the limitations of live-action show in numbers like Prince Ali where the best it has to offer are colorful costumes and a CG elephant. Compared to all the movement and gags that took place in the animated edition, this leaves a lot to be desired. Plus some new songs feel out of place in the story, particularly Jasmine’s reprisal of her big number Speechless that suddenly halts space and time. The pacing can also take a hit, rushing through important story moments while dragging out others. As for the locations, it is what it is: a live action take on Agrabah’s streets, deserts, and palace, fitting the budget. However it does lead to the most disappointing climactic battle in all the live-action Disney remakes, almost ruining the goodwill of the liberties the story takes to make sure it’s not a carbon copy. If you’re going to go in your own direction, at least try to measure up to the gigantic scale of fighting a giant snake with only a sword. And that was in the supposedly outdated 2D style.
2019’s Aladdin jumps back and forth in practically every aspect. One minute it’s full of energy and knows how to be its own entity. But then it’ll skim over important moments and not fine tune what else needs improving. It had potential to be on par with its animated counterpart, but it’s only adequate, an adjective that doesn’t do justice to something that’s part of the legendary Disney Renaissance. There are good things to appreciate like Will Smith, the cast fitting their roles, some of the energy in the songs, and the story trying to take potent liberties rather than completely copy the original. But the other musical numbers require some vocal and visual fine tuning, the final battle is a very disappointing climax and worst of all, the villain Jafar is completely neutered to the point where Andreas Deja’s drawings could slap him with disappointment. It has moments of brilliance that makes it better than the other live-action Disney remakes, but that’s not saying much. The problem is if competent is as good as these live-action remakes get, why waste time and money showing the company’s more cynical corporate side on its quest to become the richest brand in the world? Either way, decide for yourself if it’s worth whatever cash Mickey Mouse has yet to syphon from your wallet. But in retrospect, listening to Gilbert Gottfried singing isn’t a bad alternative.