9 / 10
Will Smith as Genie / Mariner
Billy Magnussen as Prince Anders
The latest Disney Studios adaptation of its classics tackles 1992’s Animated Aladdin in a live-action adventure directed by Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes), whose take on the material brings to mind his stylized flair but with a rooted emphasis on the cultures that Aladdin’s folklore stems from. This is absolutely a good thing, making the fictional Agrabah a port that takes threads of the various South Asian regions that Aladdin’s legend lives in. Even better is the place the film begins in, with an updated version of Arabian Nights which goes:
Oh, imagine a land, it’s a faraway place
Where the caravan camels roam
Where you wander among every culture and tongue
It’s chaotic, but hey, it’s home
-Arabian Nights (2019)
Creating a new opening that bookends the film, with a fantastic payoff, shifts the perspective from the original. The lyrics in the ’90s film definitely came from the point of view of an outsider looking in at a place that was problematically generalized as “barbaric,” dangerous, mysterious and other. Here instead, we get a new beginning with a family like anyone else’s sharing Aladdin’s story, telling the universally beloved folklore from the perspective of the people who have passed it down for generations. Even Ritchie’s eye assumes a more nuanced sense of direction that truly lets the story be told by the faces in the movie. But yes, the action is where he contributes his signature sensibilities and it’s showcased fantastically in the “One Jump,” “Friend Like Me” and “Whole New World” sequences. (This by no means is a case for the studios’ choices in who was selected to write/direct, and thankfully Mulan shows they’re moving toward a course correction in that regard)
In a completely unexpected way, the film makes a number of changes that are both refreshing and still keeps what we love about the original Disney movie (the music, it’s the music). Will Smith as the Genie creates a new character that isn’t only comedic relief and Aladdin’s buddy–that take is untouchable in Robin William’s iconic performance. Instead, this version of the story creates a new arc for Genie as one of the main players, he yearns for humanity in his wish for freedom. The scenes between Smith and Mena Massoud as Aladdin, build a believable friendship. Massoud’s effortless everyman who finds himself in a stroke of luck is completely earnest. When he falls for Jasmine, he falls for her and not her status. He steals your heart too. His clear gratitude for Genie as a companion on the journey he goes on makes you believe him when he promises to free his friend as his final wish. Both Smith and Massoud are incredibly endearing as they search for a way out of their circumstance. They’re a great match and endlessly entertaining to watch.
This is the best Aladdin! And this Genie is a new sort of meta take, it’s not Will Smith in the sense that ‘Wow, IT’S WILL SMITH,’ in a way that has been misaligned from the glimpses of his characterization that have been hidden from marketing. His human form works for the character arc and not just to have Will’s face as a selling point–as unavoidable as it may be. I love his Genie creation for all the ways we have grown up loving Will Smith as he’s evolved as a performer. It’s the charisma and laughter he’s provided through his legacy mixed with the empathy he brings to the roles that have made him that friend we’ve always wanted and the household name he is. So when you identify with this Aladdin in the movie and you get this Genie, you feel the motivational support you want a friend like him. Music, comedy, heart. It’s a legendary performance where he flexes all the talents that make him one of the greats and an expression of freedom from the name Will Smith.
The biggest change that honestly made me want to stand up and cheer was giving Jasmine more to aspire to than being a princess who wants to run away to avoid marrying a prince. She has goals and she rejects suitors because she knows she’s the best suited to lead her people. She doesn’t run away from home, she goes to the marketplace to be among her people and honestly shattering the glass slipper in this way is the energy we need to carry forward in the future of Disney heroines. Like many, growing up wanting to be a Disney Princess was so ingrained from the films. This idea of what it means to be a princess, a pillar of kindness and determination to work toward a happily ever after for LOVE. Nothing wrong with love–but aspiring to more than just being a Princess as an arc and seeing that fulfilled through the Naomi Scott’s revelatory performance in her quest to find her voice as a leader was so fulfilling. Scott perfectly embodies Jasmine and her need to be heard. “Speechless” is a new empowering Disney anthem. The film could almost be Jasmine the movie.
Aladdin is the prize to be won in a way, and their love story transforms them. Massoud and Scott have incredible chemistry and their version of “Whole New World” is breathtaking. Alan Menken, Will Smith, and the new songwriters will probably get nominated come award season, the music finds new life in some of the contemporary sounds Smith laid into his showstoppers which made for the best collaboration. The way the film’s 3rd act is restructured and is brilliantly conceived but still could have gone a little deeper with giving Jasmine her wish to stand above those who’d silence her. It manages to stick the landing. A princess should want to be a queen and lead. That’s the story that needs to be told. Children will see that, women and women identifying will see that finally.
Man, CGI still has a way to go to not feel weirdly uncanny valley in the sequences that try to replicate iconic animated moments. “Friend Like Me” is a step in the right direction from the colorfully lifeless “Be Our Guest” from the live-action Beauty and the Beast and found it’s footing leaning more into it’s Broadway DNA than it’s animated. Also, Kenzari as Jafar and his desires to invade the neighboring kingdom did not fully develop an earned sense of what made this Jafar power hungry. The result was a campy Jafar that works if you’re into that.
Disney’s live-action Aladdin is a sweeping adventure that celebrates what makes the stories of Aladdin universal while shining a light on a narrative that needs to be told. The characters around Aladdin like Jasmine, Jafar, Genie and Jasmine’s Handmaiden Dalia (she has a friend yay!) are given new life and motivations that enrichen the film. We still have a way to go in giving access to marginalized voices to be able to tell these stories both behind and in front of the camera but seeing the incredibly inclusive cast give us the best Aladdin yet–was a wish come true.