Aladdin (2019) – Review by Fran Winston
Director: Guy Ritchie
Writers: John August (screenplay by), Guy Ritchie (screenplay by)
Stars: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott
This is the latest Disney live action remake of one of their classic animations but it hasn’t been without its controversies. While Robin Williams gave an iconic vocal performance as the Genie in the 1992 original, initial reactions to Will Smith’s portrayal of the jovial blue giant were lacklustre to say the least – partly because he didn’t appear to be blue! Initially I’m just going to say you can put that worry out of your head – he is indeed a dashing shade of blue. Well for some of the film.
If you’ve seen the original (and I’m going to assume most people have) then you are familiar with the story, which itself is based on an ancient Islamic folk tale. In short, a street urchin named Aladdin (Massoud) is in love with Princess Jasmine (Scott) of Agrabah. When the Sultan’s evil aide Jafar (Kenzari) tasks him with retrieving a magic lamp he encounters the Genie and promises that he will use the last of his three wishes to set him free if he will help him. Quicker than you can say “Friend Like Me” Aladdin becomes Prince Ali who attempts to win Jasmine’s heart while thwarting Jafar’s evil plans.
This version has made several changes to the original story – not least that Jasmine is far more liberated than her animated counterpart whose only desire was to get married. She is an independent woman who believes she herself could be Sultan and has no desire to marry for the sake of it. Also, we get more of Jafar’s back story probably as an attempt to humanise him. Disney villains have historically been very one dimensional so this is definitely progress. There are also a couple of new characters including a handsome suitor and a loyal handmaiden that the Genie becomes quite smitten by. These might sound like tiny alterations but overall they do add quite a shift to the tale. After all, if the Princess doesn’t need saving or desire to fall in love, the hero has to work that much harder to win her heart.
Massoud and Scott are likeable in the lead roles but they are somewhat lacking in chemistry. It all feels a bit forced. Meanwhile, Smith’s Genie is a bit haphazard. When he is in Genie form they rely on CGI to create the blue mystical being, while in other scenes he just seems to be playing Will Smith. It feels like he is trying a bit too hard and he struggles with some of the more classical and flowery language that is inevitable in a story like this. Oh and there is a reason why he started as a rapper and not a singer – just saying! Kenzari is in full on baddie mode but there is nothing we haven’t seen before – the bulging eyes to convey fury, the threatening leer towards the beautiful woman, the Machiavellian plotting – it’s all just a bit clichéd even with the additional back story thrown in.
I realised much of this in hindsight as visually this never lets up. From the opening scenes it is desperate to engage its audience and ensure that there is always something happening to distract from any flaws within the tale. Indeed, it looks stunning and the big musical number where Prince Ali is introduced to the city by the Genie is extremely impressive. The whole look is extremely colourful and vibrant, in the same way that a child’s toy is.
Unfortunately, overall this is a case of style over substance. Yes, it’s entertaining and toe tapping but it is also somewhat lacking in heart and feels as if Richie just decided to make a “musical by numbers”. Some of the newer elements don’t sit well within the original story (although I appreciate why they were added) and it almost feels it would have been better to start from scratch and do a whole new movie instead of making a live action version of the animation.
If you want to see a live action version of Aladdin, I would recommend the touring musical. If you just want lots of bells and whistles and distractions for a 128 minutes, then this will do the trick. It all feels a bit “meh” though.