Despite the success of a few of the entries, it’s fair to wonder for whom the “live action” remakes of Disney’s animated catalog are being made. Anyone who grew up with the originals has the memories of those films locked in their hearts, and they remain such classics that the kids of today can enjoy the movies just as much as the generation before.
All of which leaves films like the new Aladdin in a quandary. To justify its existence, it has to walk a fine line between honoring the original and offering up something new. The new stuff starts right away, as Genie (Will Smith) opens the film with a completely reworked version of “Arabian Nights,” a song that was famously changed in the original due to an offensive lyric.
That change sets the tone for the film, which tweaks many things along the way so that it rarely feels like a mere copy of the animated version. Of course, the main story remains the same as “street urchin” Aladdin (Mena Massoud) pursues Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) despite their circumstances being designed to keep them apart.
The big musical moments of the film — “Friend Like Me,” “Prince Ali,” and “A Whole New World” — are nearly as entertaining thanks to keen filmmaking by director Guy Ritchie. Smith is a decent successor to Robin Williams and, with a big assist from CGI, fills up the screen in his two showcases. The romance and wonder displayed in the imagery during the film’s one love song, along with the timelessness of the lyrics, makes it a winner, too.
As “A Whole New World” was Jasmine’s sole chance to sing in the original, the filmmakers expanded her role with the empowering “Speechless,” which is broken out at two different points of the film. Written by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land, The Greatest Showman), it’s sung well by Scott and it certainly does the job of giving Jasmine more agency over her life. However, it’s nowhere near as rousing as the other songs on the soundtrack, and it feels tacked on instead of organic to the plot.
Speaking of less-than-inspiring, Marwan Kenzari’s turn as the evil Jafar just doesn’t do the trick. The original Jafar, voiced by Jonathan Freeman, was as over-the-top as they come. In perhaps an attempt to differentiate himself, Kenzari plays Jafar relatively low-key and winds up being much too subdued to have an impact. It’s only at the end when CGI takes over that he stands out in any way.
Smith, Scott, and Massoud are the anchors of the cast, and each lives up to the expectations of their respective roles. Smith is a polarizing figure, but he does well, especially in a new and unexpected romantic subplot with Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), Jasmine’s handmaiden. Scott, who co-starred in the 2017 Power Rangers movie and will soon star in the Charlie’s Angels reboot, looks to be the breakout from the group.
It’s unlikely that the new Aladdin will be the cultural touchstone that the original was, but it has plenty of memorable moments that complement well the iconic ones many of us hold near and dear.