The influx of live-action adaptations of beloved Disney animated classics positions each entry into a tricky spot. On the one hand, they are buoyed by nostalgia, riding high on wave of good will and rose- colored memories. But seen another way, these films face massive expectations and have immediate contrast and comparisons to push back against, starting with casting, right on through to the singing performances and modern (read: not racist or sexist) modifications.
Aladdin falls awkwardly at the center of this push and pull. One of the most popular animated stories at the golden age of Disney sing-a-longs, the 1992 film triumphed behind a whirlwind performance by Robin Williams (and complete disregard for political correctness and equality). Simply trying to recreate that, never mind finding fitting actors who can sing, dance, act, and maintain romantic chemistry, is an impossible task.
Here, Guy Ritchie’s adaptation seems to have accepted this premise before it even gets underway, making the film an uneven, half-hearted attempt to enliven and reimagine what was already a cherished story. Whereas the Beauty and the Beast live action remake hit high marks with song and spectacle, as well as talented actors who at least tried to sing well, Aladdin often falls flat and feels resigned to mediocrity.
It’s not across the board by any means, and there is still a lot of joy to be had in watching this colorful, sun-soaked return to Agrabah. It’s just that in every scene it’s as if there are those cast and crew trying really hard, and others not so much; some that are going for it still can’t hit top marks, while others that seem lazy have proven to know and be better.
Indeed, it’s unfortunate that classic songs like Friend like Me and Prince Ali feel like they are almost there, but just lacking a little bit more vision, creativity, money, opportunity, or some combination of those. The songs are so highly anticipated, but they don’t quite reach the heights they need to in order to justify a remake – there has to be something more to make a new Aladdin worthwhile. It’s not on Will Smith either, who is clearly aware enough not to try to recreate Williams’ performances and style, but instead savvy to channel his own inherent charm. He gives it his all, and he has impressive moments. Still, for all the fanfare these two supposed show-stoppers gesture towards, the live action recreations feel restricted and almost like chores. They are fine, like most moments in this film. Just fine.
So two are the young stars Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott, as Aladdin and Jasmine, who are both charming and captivating, but not given enough help in the dialogue and pacing, putting the spotlight directly on them. Their love story is given some extra scenes and commentary and room to breathe in order to make it all feel less like the rushed, sexist romances that Disney made in the 80s and 90s. Scott too is given a new song for Jasmine, called Speechless, which will likely reside in the ‘Let it Go’ category of independent woman songs Disney creates now. In similarly modern and inclusive rethinking, Jasmine is given handmaiden named Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), who like the genie serves as a wingman and some comic relief.
In fact, it’s pretty refreshing to see a film where this only one white character, and even he’s the butt of a bunch of jokes playing a goofy Prince from the north. Ultimately, it’s good for a new generation to take in this film, but it’s still not the most satisfying. Smith’s genie is funny, clever, and loveable, doing a far better job than can be excepted. Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar is also wonderful, decidedly sinister and rightfully less comical.
But all these moving parts are just that – they don’t quite make a whole. The sultan is made to be less bumbling than the original but doesn’t have much a role to play. Abu, Rajah, and Iago – our supporting monkey, tiger, and parrot characters – are nicely represented, but still more pieces that are juggled. Iago doesn’t quite have the dialogue he did in the original, but he does get a big moment towards the end, albeit in a rushed and underwhelming finish. Making the film doesn’t seem a gift or a curse, more like it was an accepted duty.
It all comes down to this push and pull within viewers. Nostalgia will cloud over some of the missteps, and that makes sense. But a sense of being underwhelmed will make you question the film’s heart and worthiness. For these Disney live action remakes to work, you really have to hit the highest figurative and literal notes and hit them hard – you need that swelling of emotion that combines fond memories with present joy and stunning spectacle. There is no reason not to leave the theatre overcome with elation for something that was so popular and pure. With Aladdin, it’s maybe a spring in your step but also likely a shrug of your shoulders.