Apprehension, noun: anxiety or fear that something bad or unpleasant will happen.
Disney’s original Aladdin is iconic. Robin Williams, in voice only, gave arguably his most memorable (and best) performance ever. Gilbert Gottfried’s voice found the home it was always suited for in an overstuffed and murderous parrot. The score earned Grammy recognition. Its humor is still relevant (dated Genie impersonations aside). Every quip, every line, every beat in the plot ingrains itself indelibly in the mind. There’s danger in tampering with an icon. Disney should know, look at the controversies that have come from The Last Jedi. You don’t remake an icon without including the things that made the original iconic and you don’t alter what made them iconic in the first place—you can’t, can you?
Maybe we didn’t know until now, but it turns out you can.
Director: Guy Ritchie
Release Date: May 24, 2019
Twenty-six years ago, Disney brought Aladdin to theaters. It was a different time. Animation was traditional animation. Kids’ movies could not only survive, but thrive with only one or two household celebrity names attached to the voice cast. The film was a major hit (grossing over $500M at the box office and… holy shit… another $500M from VHS sales), and deservedly so, as nearly everything about it is as classic now as it was then. Disney, in its infinite wisdom and power didn’t even ram a boat through the villain’s heart, or shoot the hero’s mother in the opening scene meaning that this film still plays well for today’s more sensitive parents.
The point being, Aladdin didn’t need a remake. Yet, it got one anyway. Disney, infinite wisdom notwithstanding, in sneaking through its own Cave of Wonders, seemed to forget, you don’t touch the forbidden treasure. But much like a certain flea-ridden, simpleton monkey with a penchant for pilfering pocket goodies, they can’t seem to help themselves: there’s just so much treasure there for the taking! They’ve already done it to Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and more to come. So why not do it again?
In case you’re not familiar with the story, titular Aladdin is a lowly street rat living in the bombastic city of Agrabah. He’s gotta steal to eat and, as he tells you through song and dance, he’s gotta eat to live. Living is a life of petty crime with his cohort Abu, a cute monkey and repeat offender. Aladdin finds himself at the center of a love triangle between the Princess of the city, Jasmine (who he saves from trouble in the market), and the sultan’s right-hand man and Royal Vizier, Jafar (who needs Aladdin to find a certain magic lamp and would marry Jasmine to satiate his need for power and position).
Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin redux starts with Will Smith on a boat with two young children and a woman. It turns out they’re his family, and for whatever reason, Smith is about to tell the children a tale about a magic lamp. Right about now, we know that Ritchie isn’t content to tell the same tale we already know. We know Smith is the Genie and have been dreading his notoriously strange, blue phosphorescent incarnation of the character ever since early footage found the internet. So what gives? Why is he on a boat talking to a couple of kids? The film then launches into the same opening number from Aladdin OG, “Arabian Nights.” Honestly, it felt confusing, as did this title sequence which quickly, without naming names or dishing details, introduces all of the major characters in their various settings as the camera flies throughout Agrabah and beyond: Aladdin and monkey-boy on the streets; Jasmine, Sultan, Rajah the tiger in the palace; and Jafar throwing some hapless urchin into the Cave of Wonders in the desert.
It’s almost as if Ritchie, aware of the need pay homage to the original, while making his own unique take on the film, was unsure of how best to establish that, yes, this is the world you know, but it’s also HIS new and improved version of it. It’s funny, because I sensed this same hesitancy in his directing when he tackled the Arthurian legend with 2017’s Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Thankfully, here, his initial trepidation gives way to full-blown ownership much faster.
Sure, the film follow’s the same basic course. Plotting the same highlight songs that we already know and love, as well as pinching key dialog whenever it suits the script, it expands the simplistic world of the animation to provide more depth, predominantly in its Disney princess and villain. Both Jasmine (Naomi Scott) and Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) get expanded motivations, scenes, and character development. Jasmine’s development further opens up minor plot points from the original, emphasizing that she’s not a commodity to be bought and sold, and provides her with dreams and ambitions to rule her city and provide for her people. Scott brings Jasmine to life with these new details, two new songs all her own, and a remarkable resemblance to her cartoon counterpart.
Let’s pause one beat to acknowledge that “Speechless,” one of her two solo songs, feels like a bad knockoff of Elsa’s “Let it Go” from Frozen. Like, they wanted to include a powerful, evocative, stirring number that felt like that, but couldn’t get past that song when they tried to write the new one.
Jafar is still ‘that guy,’ only, we’re given insights into his history and how he rose to power. These details are illusory in nature, but they serve their purpose more than an out-of-nowhere murder Jafar commits. No joke, as if to illustrate that he is indeed the villain –because his all black ensemble, pointy beard, beady eyes, and snake staff didn’t tip his hand — Jafar just murders a guy by dropping him down a bottomless pit, for no real reason.
As if to illustrate the hindrances and confines of a finite running time, the Sultan is the simpleton that Jafar calls him. This character suffers most in the adaption of animation to live-action. The unrealistically cartoonish yet hilarious and affable old buffoon from the original becomes a near-vegetative shoe-in for a head of state that has no discernible doctrine or will of his own. He’s blind to the blatant ambitions of his most powerful delegate, and blind the existence of a living breathing, cognizant daughter beyond her position as a thing to be wed to a prince. Thankfully, the film, outside the Sultan, does a marvelous job in addressing this medieval trope and the shortcomings of the original in providing a more in-depth exploration of the female lead, but I couldn’t help but feel this casting was the most disappointing, least inspired bit of the film.
Where the original Aladdin relied on comedy from Robin Williams and Gilbert Gottfried, along with cartoonishly funny royal guards and Sultan, this Aladdin has to find humor elsewhere in the opportunities provided in a live-action film. The guards can’t be cartoon archetypes, nor can the sultan—we get emotionless drones in both cases. Instead, Ritchie, who also co-wrote the screenplay with frequent Tim Burton collaborator John August, create a handmaiden for Jasmine, Dalia (Nasim Pedrad). The character allows for a lot of buddy humor that wouldn’t have been possible in the original but which is absolutely necessary to replace all of its missing elements. Pedrad, frankly, steals the show. Her delivery is incredible, and the range of emotional response displayed on her face dwarfs the other performances.
Additionally, Pedrad’s Dalia provides a love interest for Genie. Why Genie needed motivations beyond freedom from 10,000 years of magical servitude is anyone’s guess. I guess, after 1,000 years stuck in the lamp Genie’s really looking for someone to rub his lamp and Aladdin just doesn’t fit the fez. I get that.
Which brings us to Will Smith as Genie. There’s no doubt that this Genie takes some getting used to. For audiences already familiar with Robin Williams’ take there’s a transitional period where you adjust to this version of Genie. Then, they start letting Will Smith appear as himself rather than his CGI counterpart and things are a little better. It helps ease you into this new reality with this new Genie who’s, frankly, not as funny.
Aladdin works. It’s vibrant, features some wonderful choreography, has witty banter, and is at its core still the same great story. Those other non-story elements are all Ritchie hallmarks. I’ll admit, I was apprehensive when he was hired to direct this—it’s far outside his usual purview. He’s not really done kids or family before, and while street criminals are his forte, usually they’re British and prefer dogs to monkeys. But he handles this deftly, bringing 2019’s Aladdin to life in unexpected ways. Like the dance numbers that feel straight out of Bollywood, or the parkour-like elements to Aladdin’s escape tactics, or the way that pickpocketing and sleight of hand are brought to life in ways the animated feature could never capture. Look, the Disney machine isn’t going to stop mining its properties any time soon, perhaps the best we can wish for is that future directors do as much to bring more to the table as Ritchie has.
It’s not perfect, but it’s still a magic carpet ride.