Updated: Oct 31, 2019
Well, if you're like me, you probably feel driven nuts by all the live-action remakes that Disney has been churning up over the past several years. Many of them were obviously there to cash in on the animated classics, aside from a few gems in the crowd (take Jon Favreau's Jungle Book, for example). While I understand that Disney tried to cash in on nostalgia, I still feel like Disney needs to do something interesting to propel itself to new directions, preferably like doing some new, original stories. Until then, how about Aladdin with Will Smith instead?
Once again, one of my favorite movies from Disney has been selected for a live-action makeup, whether it will benefit the original film or not.
The story played out the same way as the original film did: a street urchin named Aladdin was lured into a magical cave by Jafar, an evil sorcerer, where, upon being trapped, he freed a Genie from a lamp and was granted the use of three wishes, one of which he used in the hopes of pleasing the princess of Agrabah herself, Jasmine.
There were a few things that differentiated it from the original film, like the fact that Jasmine had a handmaiden named Dalia. She was friends with her for a long time, and on occasion, she even took Jasmine's place as she ventured into Agrabah in her peasant outfit. As a matter of fact, that's the first we even saw of Jasmine in this movie; she just came into the movie in that outfit, out of the blue, and only later on, did we see her as the princess of Agrabah.
As a character, I thought Dalia had potential to be a cool character to add to the already-recognizable story of Aladdin, but sadly, she just wasn't that interesting outside of being Jasmine's emotional crutch, and one other purpose I'll mention later in this review. What's even more problematic was that Rajah, the tiger, was in the movie, too, and he was to Jasmine in the original what Dalia was meant to be in this movie. Because of that, Rajah was treated like nothing more than a fancy pet to emphasize Jasmine's regality while Dalia took over on the emotional support with very little else to offer. If you ask me, that's a pretty convoluted step forward and two steps backward.
I found the scenery to be quite fascinating. In the original, while Agrabah and the deserts were portrayed in a romantic, inviting light, they were also subject to much mockery and ridicule for being stereotypical caricatures. Here, it felt like we were really transported to an actual Arabian civilization. The locales were pretty while still offering an accurate view of Arabian culture, down to its costumes, terms, and practices, and the deserts were massive, pretty, and yet also dreary.
It wasn't perfect, however. One accurate thing about Arab culture that the original one did well, exaggerated as it may have been, was address, with no rose-colored glasses, the Arabian judicial system, especially since it's still in practice today. Some of the characters discussed about how someone would've lost their hands if they committed theft, or would've been beheaded for an even greater crime, like kidnapping the princess. Case in point: in chasing Aladdin, instead of the guards saying something like...
I can't wait to see you behind bars, street rat!
...they instead blurted out,
I'll have your hands for a trophy, street rat!
Here, it felt too softened up for modern audiences; it took some of the city's edge and aggression away.
And let me tell you about the only location in the movie that didn't work for me: the Cave of Wonders.
What I loved about the Cave of Wonders in the original film was how the cave was brought about by the use of magic, not to mention how unnatural and threatening it was, both on the outside and on the inside. The Cave of Wonders in this movie felt too standard. Not only did it lack all the threatening atmosphere, but the only thing I found unnatural about it was how it looked more like a theme park attraction than a magical cave. Even the scenes with the cave crumbling over were nothing to write home about: it felt like a standard action scene that was all for naught rather than a trippy, fear-inducing thrill ride like it was in the original film.
The visual effects were very middle-of-the-road. They were by no means terrible, but they were not expressed with the same vibrancy or electricity as in the original, whether it involved the Genie and his magic or Jafar and his magic, like in the climax. Even the Magic Carpet, with all his movements, didn’t amaze me. Maybe there was something about the carpet being applied to the live action setting that made him look a little dull. None of this is something I’d see getting a Visual Effects Oscar anytime soon.
Speaking of which, before I get too off-track, I ought to talk about the characters and their acting. Besides Dalia, many of the characters felt the same as they did in the original, again aside from a few changes.
Aladdin was still the good-hearted thief we knew and loved, and he even still had his monkey buddy Abu on his side, who was still the jewelry-hungry, easily-tempted monkey we also knew and loved. Actor Mean Messed really nailed it in giving Aladdin his agility and modesty, although the beginning stages of Aladdin as Prince Ali, I thought, felt too modest. Aladdin looked like he was struggling with showing off as a prince in front of Agrabah royalty, to the point of making slip-ups regarding jam (really?). I liked how, in the original, he still had the manipulation skills he acquired as a street rat and put them to good use as Prince Ali. Plus, in this movie, he was referred to as "Prince Ali of Ababwa", making it look as if Ababwa was the name of a fictitious kingdom Ali claimed to be from. I don't know the collective intent behind the use of that name, but personally, I liked 'Ababwa' better as a surname.
I was a little torn over the portrayal of Jasmine in the movie. Even with Dalia included in the movie, it barely changed her character compared to how she was in the original. She was still your headstrong princess with a secret yearning for freedom. And it brings me to ask an interesting question: if she can roam about the streets of Agrabah in her peasant outfit and have Dalia take over for her during then, how come she didn’t go beyond just Agrabah? Well, maybe there would’ve been nothing outside of the Agrabah borders for Jasmine to pursue, but there’s only so far she could’ve gone in her disguise...unless she pretended to be Dalia, and that the real Dalia in the palace, as she insisted, was Jasmine. But even then, it still wouldn’t have clarified who she was more worried about: the Agrabah society or the Agrabah royals. On the brighter side, however, she did display both some aspects of a strong role model for girls and that of a responsible princess, such as when she attempted to make political negotiations with her father, or when she reminded the Head of the Guards of how he was recruited by the Sultan when he was young, as he was taking orders from Jafar. It wasn’t major, but it was nice to see the writers attempt to let Jasmine prove her worth in this version of Aladdin. Also, while Naomi Scott is not of Arab origin, she still gave a respectable performance as Jasmine, emphasizing her sense of royalty, her headstrongness, and her humanity.
Marwen Kenzari as Jafar, though? Wow! It actually depresses me how milquetoast his performance was in this version. Every single time Jafar appeared onscreen, he was dressed nicely, and his staff was cool to look at, but his acting was never refined enough to match his intimidating performance, and he sounded more like a high schooler playing the character than a scheming royal vizier. This was a huge cry from Jonathan Freeman, whose performance as Jafar lended him a voice to match his royalty, charisma, and fiendish determination. He was even brought back to portray him in the Broadway musical, he was that good. As for his character, again, it didn’t feel any different from the original version. Although, I couldn’t wrap my head at one point around how he lured Aladdin to the cave as he was rather than as an elderly man like in the original film. If it was done to tie back to the original tale of Aladdin, then I can sort of respect that, though it still didn't change how uninspired and undermining his performance was.
Alan Tudyk’s performance as Iago, while sounding like a nice match, wasn’t any better, either. He simply had his character flip back and forth between repeating phrases that someone has said, like any parrot would do, and making some wisecracks of his own, like the original Iago did. Now, the original Iago repeated phrases from time to time, too, but it was shown that it was all an act to conceal his brash, loud-mouthed, and sarcastic personality. Here, in this version, it almost felt like the writers were uncertain of how to portray Iago, so they simply had him be a typical mocking parrot with a scheming mindset lying underneath his modest exterior. Nice try, but I would rather have taken Gilbert Gottfried’s wisecracks, thank you very much.
Navid Negahban gave off a neat performance as the Sultan. He felt more like the kind of ruler I’d have expected him to be: constantly trying to do what’s best for his daughter while still prioritizing in the welfare of Agrabah. This was a big cry, but in a good way, from the original Sultan, who, delightful as he was, fretted more about the welfare of his daughter than that of his kingdom.
But now, let’s get to the one part of the movie that left many people like me hesitant about the remake’s welfare: the Genie, played by Will Smith.
Truth be told, I thought Will Smith had some nice strides in his comedic attempts as the Genie. He pulled off plenty of humorous wisecracks and nice improvs every now and then, and his demonstrations of magic and showmanship had some dazzling results. It was also nice to see him advising Aladdin on how to woo Princess Jasmine and how to be himself; it helped that he played a dating expert before in the form of Hitch.
But does all of that matter? There’s showing merit in a performance, and then there’s having big shoes to fill. What made Robin Williams as the Genie so iconic was that his animated comedic personality synchronized flawlessly with his character’s animated comedic personality, and it helped to add plenty of zest to the Genie’s magical tricks and impersonations. Will Smith, by comparison, had some of the skills of a full-on comedian, but he struggled with the animation, so to speak. It felt more like Smith was asked to recreate the Genie as Robin Williams did it as opposed to being given the opportunity to go all out there with his comedic talents for this role, and because of that, it ended up being not enough to live up to the sheer comedic legend that was Robin Williams.
Something else I found interesting was the fact that, near the end of the movie, the Genie and Dalia started to have feelings for one another as he was helping 'Prince Ali' in the palace, and then that Dalia became the Genie's love interest when he was freed by Aladdin. This was interesting because it helped to amp up the Genie's humanity, as in, to address what the Genie would've sought in real life besides just freedom. There was even a nice framework that showed what the Genie, in his freedom, and Dalia did after the story. This felt like a give-and-take situation, however, because at the same time, I saw it as a way of saying, "Oh, look, Genie doesn't have a love interest like Aladdin does; why don't we give him one?", and that felt a little unnecessary.
The songs sounded as nice as they did in the original film, though I felt like they weren't sung with as much passion as they could've been. Alan Menken returned to compose the score, and the result still oozed with the same alluring exoticity as you'd expect in a story about Arabian life. Also, he, along with lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (from La La Land fame) composed a new song for Jasmine named "Speechless", which highlighted in song the turmoil Jasmine had to go through in her pursuit of freedom and social recognition. Even though it had hints of a MeToo theme in there, it was a nice song to give to Jasmine, and I honestly hope that Menken, the legendary music artist, and the Pasek-Paul duo, the steadily budding superstars in the music industry, collaborate more on potential music projects in the future.
In the end, I still feel like this movie was an unnecessary reimagining of a classic Disney masterpiece. Some of the best elements from the original film became AWOL, and for every good idea it proposed (primarily among the Agrabah royals), there also came elements that worked against the movie. Which I find a shame, because the good ideas felt like they would have improved the story and would’ve contributed to an equally successful retelling of the classic story of Aladdin. But as it is, no. This is one retelling of an Arabian Night that sure didn’t shock or amaze. I'd advise that you stick with the original film instead.
– I noticed that many people took a disliking to Prince Anders, one of the potential suitors for Jasmine. And I can understand where they’re coming from; in addition to the fact that he was a little annoying, there was something about a white prince proposing to a darker-skinned Arabian princess that felt very uncomfortable. And don't get me wrong, I'm all for interracial relationships. Maybe it just had something to do with some subtle "white supremacy" being hinted at with Anders' character. Where is the pompous Prince Achmed when you need him?
– SPOILER ALERT At the end of the movie, when the Sultan passed on the title of Sultan to Jasmine, that somehow didn’t sit right with me. For one thing, isn’t the proper term supposed to be Sultana? For another, weren't kingdoms like Agrabah supposed to pass such high-ranking titles to a male heir, as was custom back in the day?
– Here's one example demonstrating why the songs in the movie weren't sung with as much passion as the original one. During the 'Prince Ali' number, Will Smith and the singers kept holding onto the note as they sung "Prince Aaaaaa..." with Smith asking the Sultan to join. Then, as the Sultan started to tap along to the song, then they resumed their musical number. Yeah, I liked it better when, at this particular section of the song, the parade kept parading straight into the palace halls. That felt funnier.