Get your own jam.
The Disney animated film that demands most skepticism when considering a live-action remake is Aladdin. No character besides the late Robin Williams‘ Genie has transcended its source to become larger than the Mickey brand itself and no actor could ever dream of filling his shoes with an impression guaranteeing unflattering comparisons. So give the studio credit for understanding “big” can only be combated by an equal or greater level of “bigness” such as the casting of Will Smith provides. He truly was the perfect choice from Day One—first images of him underneath blue computer augmentation aside—because he could bring the personality, excitement, and cartoonish spontaneity necessary to lift a straightforward story otherwise steeped in the inequality of patriarchal-based socio-economic class struggles up from its dour straits.
The second step to successfully doing right by the property is hiring a cast of geographically appropriate ethnicity. It’s one thing to draw brown characters for white performers to speak through, but whitewashing Arabian Nights of Arab actors now would be inexcusable. Look at the controversy surrounding Disney’s enlistment of white specialty performers in brown-face for background stunt work because it was “too difficult to find able POCs.” A) Look harder. B) You’re Disney. Pay a little more and train those who wish to be trained. It does mean something when you put men and women of Egyptian, Indian, Tunisian, and Iranian descent on-screen in something this huge. The whole remains cultural appropriation to an extent, but immeasurably vital representation of a minority group occurs during the process.
It therefore falls to director Guy Ritchie (who shares screenwriting credit with John August while the original’s quartet are forgotten due to a malicious rule wherein writers on animated films basically forfeit their status to the studio) to ensure the rest follows suit with a Middle Eastern aesthetic. As the guy who made his name bringing back-alley cockney crime to Hollywood before more recently retelling King Arthur’s legend as a street-level brawler too, letting him take the reins on a project whose star is a “street rat” punching above his weight class is a no-brainer when paired with a successful box office history. Like Disney hoped nobody would notice their inauthentic background players, however, their allegiance to money shines by once again putting two white men in charge.
Don’t be surprised then that the narrative proves faithful to its predecessor with minor tweaks to fill out the runtime, facilitate a potential Oscar-nominated song, and tighten up a couple wild twists and turns that wouldn’t hold up in the real world. Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is still a thieving scoundrel with a charitable heart who helps a naïve Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) when she forgets she cannot act like a monarch (stealing bread to give to hungry children simply because she deems it appropriate) while pretending she isn’t a monarch. Love sparks between them, his ingenuity catches the eye of her Sultan father’s (Navid Negahban) nefarious Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), and the latter enlists him to acquire a magic lamp imprisoned within the Cave of Wonders.
The treasure’s acquisition doesn’t go as planned, but it does reveal Jafar’s ill-intent so Aladdin can rub the lamp and earn its genie’s (Smith) fealty for three wishes instead. What does he want most in this world? A shot at romance with the woman of his dreams. And since Agrabah law states a princess must marry a prince (despite that title’s best offer coming in the form of a hilariously inept Billy Magnussen), Aladdin will become Prince Ali with a sprawling horde of circus acts at his back in hopes of winning the kingdom’s heart more than the woman at its center. The lesson is thus about honesty and how meaningless a royal title is when compared with the empathetic soul so rarely present beneath it.
Questions abound. Will Aladdin admit his crown is the work of a genie after realizing it was his charismatic, truer self that won Jasmine’s heart? Will Jafar and his conniving parrot Iago (Alan Tudyk in a memorable turn despite the part being vastly minimized compared to Gilbert Gottfried‘s iconic rendition) steal the lamp and wrestle away control of the kingdom? And will Jasmine become a willing participant to the plot rather than merely a prize to be won? If you’ve seen the original film you know the answer to the first two. I’ll spoil the third for you: Yes. She does. As anyone who has been following Disney’s live-action remakes of late knows, however, the way they decide to present feminist empowerment leaves much to be desired.
Rather than shoehorning in a love for science and thus career above childrearing (see Beauty and the Beast or Dumbo), they do at least give Jasmine an authentic plot-relevant path forward. Not only does a princess have to marry a prince, Agrabah also declares that a sultan must be a man. So here’s a strong, intelligent woman who’s ready to assume the throne regardless of whether a husband sits beside her after spending her life learning about the kingdom from her father and humanity from her recently deceased mother. Her dad refuses to buck tradition despite knowing she’s capable enough and Jafar (being an embodiment of toxic masculinity and entitlement) insists on telling her to be seen and not heard. Jasmine accordingly takes a stand.
But while her reaction is inspiring in its show of true leadership beyond station, Disney doubles down on their Oscar-nominated song pitch. It’s not enough to let a quick verse of “Speechless” drive its point home before Jasmine’s response follows. No, they amp up the volume, create a music video interlude wherein her voice becomes as powerful as Genie’s magic, and bludgeon us to death with a cringe-worthy moment that cannot survive its intention to standout in order to also fit the whole. I get wanting to highlight this awakening of spirit so all the young girls in the audience can become emboldened, but it says everything about the filmmakers that they didn’t trust the actions they wrote her within their plot to do so without try-hard theatrics.
Most other changes to the animated script also fall prey to similar circumstances as far as pure intentions falling short in execution. One change I did enjoy was the addition of a handmaiden (Nasim Pedrad‘s Dalia) to give Jasmine a sounding board besides men trying to run her life. (Sadly, I’m not sure they pass the Bechdel Test regardless.) You have to praise the effort, though, and appreciate the attention to detail as far as matching the original’s overall tone while also allowing alterations by necessity. Smith makes this Genie his own with rearranged music to assist him; Negahban imbues the Sultan’s once bumbling comic relief with contemplative intellect; and Scott and Massoud add a level of oppressed frustration that’s needed to render them more than star-crossed lovers.
The special effects are a huge boon too with invigorating carpet rides, lava spewing caves, and a sorcerer-fueled, beefy bad boy Iago wreaking havoc (it was good to forego the logistics of turning Jafar into a giant snake instead). Join them with the lived-in look of Agrabah and the effective skewing of timeless songs to fit this more dramatic iteration of the film and there is a ton to like. Does it have the goods to replace the original? No. It puts a spotlight on the cartoon’s issues, but can’t quite fix them in a satisfactory way. As such, this Aladdin becomes a nice companion piece to the other rather than improvement. Honestly, that’s an interesting enough result to warrant its existence above a blandly uninspired shot-for-shot remake.
courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures