Aladdin (2019) is yet another entry in Disney’s ever-expanding live-action “adaptation” roster, this time of course a remake of the 1992 animated classic. It was directed by Guy Ritchie and stars Mena Massoud as the title character, Will Smith reprising the late Robin Williams’ role of the Genie, Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine, Marwan Kenzari as Jafar, Navid Negahban as the Sultan, and Nasim Pedrad as handmaid to Princess Jasmine. The story of Aladdin is one with which I’m sure most people (if not everyone) are overtly familiar, so I won’t waste anyone’s time delving deep into the plot here. Suffice it to say, if you’ve seen the 1992 original, you’ve seen almost everything in this one, save for a few script changes and one extra song Naomi Scott gets to belt out as Jasmine. All that being said, I do still have to review this as a film proper, the only way to comment on the interesting parts of it are as they relate to the original, and there is quite a bit to talk about, so let’s lay down some ground rules first.
Disney’s remakes of its classic material are a dime a dozen nowadays, but hey, what can you expect? It’s the mouse house; they’ve always been a money-minded franchise heavy studio, it’s just that longevity in those franchises wasn’t really a guarantee until Pixar found out they were allowed to make sequels too and they’d just acquired Marvel Studios. It’s probably an inevitability that if this version of Aladdin makes a solid bit of money, we’re going to keep getting them regardless of how good or bad they actually end up being because this is about as middle of the road as you can get with one of these, so it’s somewhat useless to keep hoping that maybe after The Lion King roars into theaters in July and makes over a billion dollars (likely to make it the second biggest movie of 2019) they’ll eventually make a bad one and then we’ll stop getting them. They’re happening regardless of whether that occurs or not; let’s just get used to it. So, I will talk about the original. I will talk about this one. What I will not be doing is talking about how they should just stop remaking these, cause that’s not going to happen. Okay? Okay.
So, Aladdin. It’s got about the same story you expect, most of the same musical numbers from that 1992 original (with that Jasmine number added), and it’s about as good as one can expect given that the guy they got to direct is the same one who’s lost Warner Brothers a ton of money on his last four movies with that studio. That being said, Guy Ritchie’s direction is surprisingly restrained here (apart from some weird fast-forward type editing that’s pretty bizarre); it’s not as flashy or quickly edited as some of his more visceral or headache-inducing works, and it’s not quite as full of itself as some of the others (even in cases where that works like in the remarkably underrated Man from U.N.C.L.E.). That’s not to say it’s great though. Don’t get me wrong, it’s better than it is most of the time, but for Aladdin it was mostly just tolerable. Agrabah is supposedly this grand city with a massive palace, and while the palace itself boasts some scale, Agrabah seems to be just a small town comprised of Hollywood studio sets. None of it is filmed in a way that makes one believe this is a full city full of lots of people, which also makes Aladdin’s thieving at the beginning of the film somewhat more implausible than it is in an animated medium (seriously, there can’t be that many other places he could hide). The greatest scaled-up part of the whole thing is Aladdin’s extended stay in the cave of wonders as it collapses around him, but that only lasts for a few minutes before we’re back to relatively unimaginative, bland direction. It doesn’t break the film or anything, but I never once thought while watching Aladdin “ah, so that’s why they got Guy Ritchie.” There’s just not much energy to the filmmaking apart from the visual effects, a few performances, and some of the production design.
Unfortunately, that lack of energy also extends to the performances of the leading male characters, and as much as he is objectively good-looking and I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, Mena Massoud as Aladdin is just a bland performance. It’s not terrible, but it’s also not terribly exciting, and when you’re playing one of the most charismatic and charming characters in Disney’s animated canon, having a little animation to your performance will go a long way. As it stands, the parts that he did genuinely show some performance chops in all had to do with Will Smith’s Genie, who we’ll talk about later. I’m not sure what they were trying to do with Jafar’s re-casting, but unfortunately, Marwan Kenzari is just never as intimidating a presence as this version of the story would like to pretend he is, especially considering his character this time around is less of a straight-up mustache-twirler and more of a guy who thinks Agrabah is going to be made better by being a superpower with great military alliances and strong borders (real subtle, Disney), and that’s why he should be Sultan. And speaking of the Sultan, while I know he wasn’t that much of a character in the original anyway, he seems even less of a character here, and it’s not a huge deal, but it does seem like a missed opportunity to expand on him a little bit.
Not all of what Aladdin presents is for naught, however, as there are quite a number of things that actually do work about it that don’t have much to do with the central conflicts. For one, Will Smith’s Genie actually might be the best thing about this new version (performance-wise), despite the doubts many of us had going into it (the marketing did not do him justice). It’s less of a compelling performance when he’s asked to simply re-create notes from the original than when he’s allowed to do his own take on the character and have some fun, but even then, he sells it better than he really should be able to, considering the legacy Robin Williams left on the character. That’s one of the things Disney is doing well about most of these live-action remakes: fixing what didn’t work, and leaving what did. Sometimes that’s to their detriment (in the case of this movie, it works best when it’s deviating from the original and is less compelling in its re-creation of that film), but sometimes it can beget surprising and more nuanced turns with the plot or certain characters in them that otherwise might not have had a chance to really shine as they deserved to.
One of those characters happens to be Princess Jasmine, who in this version faces a different central conflict than in the animation. Naomi Scott is a stunning beauty to be sure, and this is gonna be a star-making turn for her, but she also has probably the most confident and understated performance in the whole show, second as a character only to Will Smith’s Genie, and even then only because his character has a bit more dynamic writing than hers due to the way the script plays out. Instead of being someone who’s forced to marry this time around and resenting that notion entirely, she doesn’t mind that in this one so much as she’s irked by the tradition of Agrabah being so steeped in sexism that even though she’s clearly the best candidate for the job with the most experience that matters, she’s not allowed to ascend to the role of Sultan because she’s a woman (again, Disney with that subtlety). The new song they give her in this movie does wear a bit after a little while considering she sings it twice and the second time is like a full song all by itself, but it’s nice that they give her a bit more agency over her own life than the animated version did. Even Jasmine’s handmaid gets to be a bit more of a character here, and it’s a nice change of pace.
In other positives, the story in Aladdin (2019) has also changed some things up to have a more uplifting and positive message that throws out some of the more racy jokes at the expense of middle eastern people in the original for a more Bollywood-inspired/centric stylistic approach to some of the more unfamiliar ground it treads. It’s most notable in the way certain characters interact, and in a dance sequence that’s the most obvious example; that change to the script is not in and of itself something that gets a lot of attention called to it, but I noticed, and I appreciated the effort involved.
In the end, Aladdin (2019) is…decent. It’s just decent. The real shame of it is that this new version, for all the good will it attempts to inject into the story (and everything it does right), never lets that good will take over the rest of a relatively dull movie that only gets more interesting the further away it gets from the source material it’s meant to be re-creating. Still, it’s not as bad as most feared it would be and not as good as many are saying it is in reaction to it not being bad. It’s just...fine. Maybe if the animated original is held in as high regard for you, it will be more enjoyable than even I’m making it sound, and it’s good entertainment the whole family can enjoy, but for me, this is no diamond in the rough.
I’m giving “Aladdin” (2019) a 6.7/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.