While Disney has spent the last several years mining its animated archives for live-action box office gold, the results have been somewhat uneven, from a creative standpoint.
To be certain, some of the reboots have worked quite well. Director Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast (2017), for example, was a faithful retelling of the 1991 Oscar-nominated animated version, packed with all of the songs and story beats that made the previous film soar, but with enough fresh touches and richly realized modern visuals to lure new fans into the fold.
On the other end of the live-action remake spectrum was March’s Dumbo, an almost unforgivably dour affair from director Tim Burton. The filmmaker seemed oddly disconnected from what made the 1941 original — an unquestioned classic — work. The 2019 film was a drab, muted, almost lifeless effort, at least in comparison to its vibrant, colorful, trailblazing forebear.
Disney’s most recent foray into live-action reimagining — director Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin — falls somewhere in-between those poles: It simply cannot match the 1992 animated original in energy and verve, but it’s not without its own charms.
Perhaps most notably, Ritchie’s Aladdin is absolutely not the childhood-robbing disaster that many in the Twitterverse had feared in recent months. There had been much online teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing as the various images and trailers for the remake rolled out in advance of the film. But it’s proven to be a crowd-pleaser, hauling in $113 million during its four-day Memorial Day weekend opening and garnering an “A” from audience polling service Cinemascore.
The general story beats from the 1992 version are here in the new one: In the fictional city of Agrabah, streetwise thief Aladdin (a game Mena Massoud) enlists the help of a genie from a magic lamp (Will Smith) in wooing the determined-but-compassionate Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and must fight to keep the magic lamp out of the hands of the villainous Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), who is determined to seize control of Agrabah and seek war against neighboring cities.
There are a lot of moving parts in the new Aladdin, and that’s actually a bit of a problem. If anything, it’s overstuffed. To wit: The runtime on the 1992 version was one hour, 31 minutes. The 2019 version is two hours, eight minutes. You feel that extra half hour, too. It sort of reminds me of Peter Jackson’s 2005 version of King Kong, where he remade a 1933 film that was two hours long and turned it into a three hour, 21 minute leviathan.
Also working against the latest iteration of Aladdin is Kenzari’s take on Jafar. There just isn’t enough weight in his performance, particularly in comparison to the character’s position in the animated original. It is, to me, perhaps where the new film is at its greatest disadvantage versus the 1992 version. In that one, Jafar was so relentlessly, deliciously nefarious. That character was evil. Kenzari’s version is a shallow imitation.
There are high spots, though. Scott, who seems destined for superstardom, is a standout as Princess Jasmine. She brings the perfect mix of strength and vulnerability to the role, and her powerful voice is the glue that holds together many of the film’s musical numbers. When her verse kicked in on “A Whole New World,” it was the one time during the movie where a lump caught in my throat. I was young again, if but for a moment.
And then there’s Smith’s turn as Genie. It was this bit of casting that unquestionably drew the most criticism from the online peanut gallery in the run-up to the Aladdin’s release. And let’s be very clear: What Smith does here is something separate from what Disney’s animators and the late, great Robin Williams did in the 1992 version. Williams once called that film “a Warner Brothers cartoon in Disney drag,” and it was, in part because of Williams’ own madcap spirit.
In truth, Smith is as lively here as he has been on the silver screen in quite a while. In ways that, at one point, would have been unthinkable, Smith has had something of an uneven career. There was a time when he was, undoubtedly, the biggest movie star on the planet. But he’s spent the last decade or so making some, um, interesting role choices. (What’s up, Collateral Beauty?)
But we get the full, old-time Will Smith Blockbuster Package® in Aladdin. He throws everything he’s got on the screen in this one, rapping, singing (OK, the singing’s a little wobbly), joking, dancing and charming his way through the film. No, it’s not Williams’ Genie. But it is a fun, modern version of the character that stands on its own.
As it is, Aladdin occupies a funny place in the pantheon of the live-action Disney remakes that have become so proliferate. It’s a little too long, and some of the new songs don’t quite achieve lift-off. It certainly won’t make you forget the 1992 film. Nor should it: The animated version is the better movie, full stop. But Ritchie’s remake is a bold, colorful effort that’s got some magic in it, too.
You’ll leave the theater with your childhood fully intact, I promise.