I’m not sure how I feel about Disney’s current trend of giving the live action treatment to some of its most popular animated features. On one hand, I love the idea of using today’s technology to bring to life the fantastical sights that were once only possible with traditional animation. On the other hand, retreading such hallowed ground feels unnecessary and even greedy. While I admit I was completely blown away by 2017’s redo of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, I’ve found the various revisions of THE JUNGLE BOOK to be neat, but lackluster and redundant. So when I first heard about plans to make a live action version of ALADDIN, I was immediately apprehensive. Yes, I was eager to see all the spectacular sights from the 1992 animated juggernaut “in real life,” yet I couldn’t help worry about all the ways that the mouse house could screw it up for the sake of a cash grab. Thankfully, I can report that ALADDIN is every bit the visually astonishing wild ride I was hoping for, however even all the extravagance and pageantry just couldn’t make the film quite click.
The story doesn’t veer far from the original tale. Aladdin is an industrious and clever young man who has survived his impoverished youth by thieving on the bustling streets of his Arabian city. Despite his meager lot in life, Aladdin has grown up to be a generous and generally honest young man. During a regular day of street urchin exploits, a chance encounter and possible love connection with a disguised Princess Jasmine not only inadvertently introduces him to palace life, it connects him with the nefarious “Grand Vizier vie” Jafar who wants to use Aladdin’s skills to help him usurp the Sultan he serves. When Jafar coerces Aladdin into retrieving a special oil lamp from the tempting and treacherous Cave Of Wonders, his plan goes sideways and Aladdin is left in possession of the curious item. Aladdin quickly learns that the treasure is no ordinary lamp when he unwittingly unleashes the magical and all-powerful genie who has been trapped inside the glittering confines for thousand of years. When Aladdin learns that his greatest fantasies can come true via three wishes granted by the genie, his loyalty and integrity are put to the ultimate test.
There is no question that Guy Ritchie’s take on ALADDIN is a visually dazzling treat. While the classic over-the-top musical numbers “Never Had A Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” are the obvious showstoppers of the film with their elaborate and head-spinning imagery, even the quieter moments in the grand palace or sweeping views of city scape are impressive. The film’s signature “A Whole New World” flying carpet sequence is also a total win. The moonlit darkness provides just the right amount of visual ambiguity to make the scene look pretty dang convincing and not at all the green screen tragedy it could have very easily been.
And then there’s Will Smith as Genie. I tried not to pay much attention to all the naysaying when Smith’s blue visage was first introduced to fans. I was completely onboard with giving the charismatic performer a chance to fill the enormous shoes the late Robin Williams left when he originated the ostentatious role, and I am so happy to report that Will Smith is one of the best things about the film. He totally carries ALADDIN with his energetic and funny performance. Even when the CGI version of Genie suffers from the dreaded dead-eye syndrome, Smith’s energy saves the digital character from seeming creepy. While Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott hold their own as Aladdin and Jasmine, it is sometimes painfully obvious why Smith wields the star power he does. His magnetism is practically palpable as he (literally and figuratively) runs circles around his various onscreen companions.
Despite the overall appeal of the story, spectacle, and suitable performances, that “special something” just seems to be missing from ALADDIN. While the story pretty much sticks to the original script, a new feminist bent (and additional cringeworthy musical number) that is meant to portray a more empowered princess feels forced and contrived instead. It was a good step in the right direction, but sometimes even us woke gals just want a fun story without all the obligatory social commentary. Sigh. On the other hand, I totally appreciate that Disney’s casting choices didn’t whitewash the middle eastern characters (though the two main players have American accents while all the other characters have accents).
All in all, I had a good time with ALADDIN, but I will have a tough time recommending it to anyone other than friends with kids. Even my 9 year old son was mostly unimpressed and referred to it as a “cringefest” (though I think he was mostly referring to the kissy parts). If you check your cynicism at the door, there’s a lot to like in the 2+ hour movie, but even Will Smith and all the live action opulence Guy Ritchie and crew could muster just couldn’t completely save ALADDIN from a case of the ho hums. ALADDIN opens in theaters nationwide on 5/4.