When the animated film Aladdin was released in theaters, I was all of 16. Old enough to not necessarily be attracted to the story, but impressionable enough to have been impressed by it. Alas, I ended up not seeing it.
Like many of the recent live-action re-imaginings from Disney’s vast vault of treasured classics, Guy Ritchie’s (Snatch, Sherlock Holmes) Aladdin is memorable for its vivid imagery, its imaginative casting, and for not trying to be more than the sum of its parts. Ritchie was not in unfamiliar territory when it comes to reimagining a classic (Warner Bros. The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and so it was with great interest that I sat down to watch this film.
That and the really big shoes that Will Smith had to fill.
The story features an impoverished street rat, the titular character of Aladdin, played by Mena Massoud, who is currently playing a recurring role in the Amazon Prime series, Jack Ryan. He has the charm and grace to not only play a stealthy thief, but to also win the heart of a certain princess, Jasmine (Naomi Scott, who herself stars in the upcoming reboot of Charlie’s Angels).
The screenplay by John August and Ritchie based on Disney’s Aladdin by Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliot, and Terry Rossio doesn’t immediately fan the sparks between Aladdin and Jasmine. They instead focus on establishing Aladdin as a lovable scoundrel with his pet monkey Abu (voiced by Frank Welker, who reprises his voice work from the animated film).
The many sleights of hand that occur in the first 15 minutes of the film, along with the stellar choreography, really sets the light touch that Ritchie is known for: it is serious, but there’s a spritely step about the way Aladdin strives to prove himself to Jasmine, who he thinks is a handmaiden.
We learn a thing or two about Jasmine as well. She is secluded, yet worldly in her understanding of how things work. Scott brings an intelligence to the role that was unexpected and refreshing, matched only by Massoud’s wit and bravery. There is a benevolence about Jasmine, something that I imagine translated over from the animated version of the character.
Since Aladdin is not a prince, he cannot court nor marry Jasmine, and therefore it is up to Jasmine’s father, The Sultan of Agrabah (Navid Negahban), to find a husband worthy of his daughter. There is an awkwardly funny scene early in the film in which the pompous Prince Anders of Skanland (Billy Magnussen) is introduced to Jasmine. Anders is a new character to this film and brings some brevity to the updated story.
Also new to this story is Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), Jasmine’s handmaiden. Dalia’s introduction is also laden with humor. Ritchie injects more of a familial relationship between Dalia and Jasmine, enhancing Jasmine’s role and Scott’s performance, as well as that of Pedrad’s performance. There is an ease between the two, as if they were sisters.
When Aladdin is discovered in the castle by Jafar’s (Maran Kenzari) guards, he is given a chance to prove himself worthy by bringing back a magical lamp to Jafar. In an ode to Pirates of the Caribbean and The Mummy (the Brendan Frasier version, not the Alex Kurtzman version that also featured Kenzari), we are treated to a rousing adventure full of danger and the Genie (Will Smith).
The Genie is definitely the highlight of this film and Will Smith knocks the character out of the park. Where Robin Williams voiced the beloved, original character, Will Smith not only puts away his swagger, he embodies the goodness of the character. In much the same way that Ritchie and John August gave Jasmine a sisterly relationship with Dalia, there is a brotherly closeness between the Genie and Aladdin. That relationship really drives the essence of what makes Aladdin lovable in the first place.
Will Smith’s performance does not take away from the voice that Robin Williams gave the character in 1992. In fact, I think audiences are going to quickly warm up to Smith’s interpretation. In an interview with the actor, Smith talked about those lofty shoes he had to fill.
“What Robin Williams did with this character, he didn’t leave a lot of room to add to the Genie,” Smith admitted. “So I started out fearful. But then, I got with the music and it started waking up that fun, childlike, silly part of me.”
That’s the heart of this film: it is fun and silly, and that’s perfectly okay. That’s the essence of who Guy Ritchie is and what his films mean to his fans.
Aladdin is no exception.
If I had one, minor quibble, it’s that the Jafar story thread and interpretation doesn’t completely work. It fits nicely into the overall story and we really see the power of the character in the third act, but in the earlier stages of the film, he doesn’t feel as threatening as he probably could have.
Aladdin really is about changing your vantage point and unshackling yourself from the ties that bind you. The modern interpretation of these characters will spur on a whole new world for future filmmakers.
Aladdin is rated PG and is in theaters on Friday, May 24. All images courtesy of Disney.