Disney’s live-action adaptation of Aladdin falls somewhere between Beauty and the Beast and last spring’s grounded Dumbo. While Smith and Massoud do display some buddy chemistry, it’s Naomi Scott’s fierce performance as Jasmine that’s the real show-stopper.
Guy Ritchie would be the last director I could think of to direct a mammoth Disney family production. Even less of an obvious choice for a man who made his mark with English dark-action comedies fueled by power naps and most likely a kilo of white powder off his mother’s kitchen table. A man who gave birth to badass action men like Jason Statham, Vinnie Jones, Gerald Butler, and hell, can even make Sting look like a bad-ass had me half-expecting Aladdin would have Will Smith as a coked-out Genie with vendettas to settle. To my relief, and one of the few times I found relief for a director to play it safe, he settled into a nice groove with his live-action adaptation of Aladdin, as dogmatic as the outcome can be.
This latest Disney attempt to keep that gravy train going (now for Fox), like the original, is based on the eponymous folklore of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp from the story One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. A young street urchin or street rat (Mena Massoud) and his cute pet Monkey Abu (respected voice artist Frank Welker) befriend a young woman he thinks is a handmaiden.
It turns out the sheltered Princess Jasmine (Power Rangers‘ Naomi Scott) has snuck out of the palace. When he tries to see her again, he is thrown into the cave of wonders by the envious Jafar (The Angel‘s Marwan Kenzari). He tells Aladdin the only way he will escape is to retrieve the lamp. He meets a magic carpet and the Genie (Will Smith now taking over for the late Robin Williams), who grants him three wishes he needs to use wisely.
The original animated classic Aladdin opened during Thanksgiving in 1992. The original was 90 minutes long, while the update is a little over the 2-hour running time. The one reason this adaption feels more of a complete film than Tim Burton’s grounded Dumbo is that it was an hour longer than the original’s 46-minutes; this left plenty of room for some severe fluff that made the film feel padded, repetitive, and boring. Even though it loses some of Robin William’s frenetic energy as Genie, that isn’t the case here.
Will Smith has a natural charisma and vibrancy that serves the film well here that didn’t resort to casting a snippy comedian who would have most likely imitated Williams’ energy. This would have come across as forced and inauthentic. Mena Massoud carries most of the film as Aladdin and has natural buddy chemistry with Smith’s Genie. Massoud has a charisma and presence of a young James Carpinello, even though every syllable seems to end in a lusty breath.
When Genie and Aladdin finally meet, the film is dragged down when it is more interesting in its 3D animation than clever banter, and this distracts from the song “Friends Like Me” sung by Smith. Kenzari is reliable as the villain Jafar, but his lines to force his way into Jasmine’s heart (“Now Woman!”) are laid on thick and even cheesy.
It has been noted there have been some additions to the Aladdin soundtrack and slight changes in some of the most famous song’s lines (notably in Prince Ali and Arabian Nights). The addition of a new song, “Speechless,” was born out of the #MeToo movement. Naomi Scott delivers the new track with a fierce verve honest to god, a real show-stopper. Watching her elevate an already headstrong female character had me thinking a star was born at that moment; it’s a knockout.
The Disney live-action adaptation craze of late has been seriously hit or miss. While this live-action really can’t hold a candle to the original, Ritchie’s film does put on an entertaining show for the magic kingdom’s biggest fans and families alike. Some sensational numbers are performed here (even though it will be a letdown if you compare them to Rocketman). While Smith clears a hurdle that most were worried he couldn’t come close to finding, it’s Naomi Scott who steals the show as Jasmine. She is a star in the making.