Aladdin is the second of three live action adaptations of classic Disney cartoons released in 2019. After the retrofuturistic art deco Dumbo, which took extreme liberties with the source material, Guy Ritchie’s (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) Aladdin is a more straightforward piece. With an extra forty minutes to fill and a desire to give Princess Jasmine more agency, the new Aladdin has its points of difference without compromising its story. Even without the spontaneity of Robin Williams, who practically invented improv animation, Aladdin still has something to recommend it.
In the distant past, in the far off land of Agrabah, street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud, TV’s Jack Ryan) meets Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott, Power Rangers). When Aladdin discovers a magic lamp, he enlists the Genie (Will Smith, Bright) inside to make him a Prince so that he may legally woo Jasmine, while avoiding the evil designs of Grand Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari, The Angel).
The script, by Ritchie and John August (Frankenweenie), tries not to step too heavily on its progenitor, and invents new subplots and character motivations from whole cloth. It works on a narrative logic level, and never feels like anything has been padded. The biggest stumbling block was always going to be the Genie: Smith has to make the role his own, rather than attempting to recreate Williams’ singular magic. This means the incarnations of the characters have remarkably little overlap, and Smith’s feels altogether more human in his mannerisms and motivations. The key element that sells Genie is Smith’s rapport with Massoud, whose Aladdin has a cockiness that escalates into arrogance as the power afforded by the lamp changes him. For all of the virtues of 1992’s Aladdin, it is a compact film; there is distinctly more sinew to Ritchie’s version.
Ritchie directs the film in a mostly anonymous fashion, with only one stylistic flashback sequence that announces his presence. Aesthetically Aladdin frequently distances itself from the 1992 effort, and while this works in Agrabah, the Cave of Wonders now looks static and decidedly leonine. The blue Genie special effects never appear anything less than weird, but Smith mercifully appears in his normal human form for large swathes of the film. The original Aladdin was much more cartoony than the other films in the Disney renaissance, but this new version only takes the opportunity for a meta joke once, and is more interested in practical magic than the truly fantastical. Aladdin is a fan of parkour, and he dances with Jasmine; he is a man of simple pleasures. Despite this, Ritchie skilfully links the themes of a script largely about costumes into a cohesive film that is, at times, affecting.
With only one new song and a reprise of same added to a considerably longer film, Aladdin becomes less of a musical and more of a movie with songs in it. The classic Alan Menken tunes with lyrics by Tim Rice and the late Howard Ashman are all here, though the legendary “Proud of Your Boy” is still missing in action. Despite Rice still being alive, new and altered lyrics are provided by Pacek and Paul. Most of the changes make sense: Prince Ali no longer has slaves as a selling point, given that this story has always hinged on freeing the Genie from servitude. It would have caused a different controversy if the songs had been removed altogether, but the new Aladdin has intervals that are almost as forgettable as the originals were not; witness a near invisible “A Whole New World”, where if there are a hundred thousand things to see, they’re obscured by a complete lack of lighting
Aladdin is a movie that does not bare direct comparison to its point of origin. To look at it on its own merits, however, you’re presented with an often delightful adventure that offers a surprising amount of depth and several real laughs. A middle ground between literal translations like Beauty and the Beast and whimsical extrapolations like Dumbo, Aladdin is a fun family feature that does not and cannot supplant the original, but is smart enough not to try.
Aladdin opened in Australian cinemas on May 23, 2019.
Directed by: Guy Ritchie.
Starring: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad and Billy Magnussen.