Guy Ritchie’s adaptation is lively, colourful and genuinely funny – making only judicious tweaks to the original, it’s thankfully not a whole new world.
The scimitars are out for Disney’s live-action Aladdin, what with the enduring fondness for the original (not least Robin Williams’ Genie) and the botched unveiling of Will Smith as his successor in an early trailer that presented him as a creepy, half-naked blue guy from the uncanny valley. Director and co-writer Guy Ritchie is hardly a seal of quality these days, either, following flops The Man from UNCLE and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. But sheathe your weapons because this new Aladdin is actually great fun. It is far from perfect, but where many recent fantasias have crumpled under the weight of their special effects (Tim Burton’s Dumbo, for one), this one really takes flight. It is lively, colourful and genuinely funny, and doesn’t break what didn’t need fixing about the original. As one character remarks of Aladdin’s early attempts at romance: it’s “clumsy but in a charming sort of way”.
Any Hollywood movie set in a fantasy Arab kingdom is going to have its issues, but Disney has sought to avoid the ethnic stereotyping that marred its 1992 animation. For starters, the cast are brown-skinned actors (all the voice actors in the original were white). Egyptian-Canadian Mena Massoud brings the requisite roguish charm to Aladdin himself, the street rat with a heart of gold, Princess Jasmine is played by Naomi Scott, a British actor of Indian descent, and Dutch-Tunisian Marwan Kenzari is the villain Jafar. There’s also a European prince, played by Billy Magnussen, who’s treated more like a recurring gag.
But we all know the main draw here is the blue-skinned guy. It has felt like Will Smith’s mojo really is trapped inside a lamp, after what seems like a decade of miserable and self-important “serious” roles which reached their nadir with After Earth and Collateral Beauty. Smith seizes his chance to let it out again and do what he does best. His Genie is less cartoonishly manic than Williams’; more human, you could say. But he’s still the life of the party: part-Queer Eye makeover guru, part-Siri in human form, part-romcom best buddy – with perhaps a touch of Hitch, the professional matchmaker Smith played in 2005. His assistance with Aladdin’s clumsy attempts to woo Jasmine is the movie’s comic engine, but in a judicious tweak to the original, the Genie also gets a love interest, in the form of Jasmine’s servant Darla, played by Nasim Pedrad, who gets a few good comic lines of her own.
Jasmine herself is given a few extras to amp up her agency, not least a Let It Go-style power ballad, Speechless, to proclaim how she’s not just going to stand aside and take all this like a passive princess. Scott carries the song well but it comes a little too late in proceedings to make an impact, if we are being honest, and many of the musical interludes feel like unnecessary interruptions. More successful is a grand, carnivalesque street procession, with hordes of dancers, wild animals, and Aladdin astride a giant flower-covered camel float, and an athletic, Bollywood-style ballroom dance; both are full of colour and energy. In terms of cultural references, this theme-park “Arabia” setting is all over the place – drawing on influences from Morocco to Turkey to India (with barely an overt reference to Islam to be seen). You could say it’s still an idealised Orientalist fantasy, but it comes across more as respectful representation than reckless appropriation.
On the whole, Ritchie’s adaptation wisely does little except add human flesh to the bare bones of what was always one of Disney’s strongest stories (if you need a plot summary you must have been living in a cave for the last 1,000 years). It still holds up as a tale whose central couple’s deceptions and entrapments and self-discoveries have a pleasing symmetry to them, and whose “it’s what’s inside that counts” morals are in the right place. That’s really all anyone wanted out of a new Aladdin: not a whole new world, just a slightly updated old one.