Review: Live-action 'Aladdin' is a mostly satisfying, if unnecessary, adventure

May 24, 2019

 Courtesy of Disney 

Coming off the elephant sized bomb “Dumbo,” Disney - I guess failing to learn their lesson - is back again raiding their canon of animated classics, hoping to turn over a quick buck in a stunning display of, well, capitalism. If anything, it just shows how quickly these films will fade from the pathos of iconic cinema. For the time being, the live-action vehicles serve as a quick fix of nostalgic relief, but I guarantee that 20 years from now audiences will likely prefer the animated counterparts rather than these big-budget spectacles.   

 

To be fair, Disney spares no expense and everything from “Cinderella” to “Pete’s Dragon,” no matter the quality, have all looked great, I just wish the mouse house could figure out a way to give these one and done pictures a sense of purpose (fingers crossed “The Lion King” knocks it out of the park).

 

Guy Ritchie (yes, the director whose hyperkinetic resume includes both “Sherlock Holmes” films and the grungy “RockNRolla”) has been granted the almost impossible task of directing 2019’s live-action remake of the cherished 1992 classic: “Aladdin” with the “Fresh Prince” himself Will Smith taking his stab at the blue Genie made famous by the irreplaceable Robin Williams.

 

Now before you go write this off as another flop, “Aladdin” isn’t a total misfire, and Will Smith does just about everything he can to make his Genie the best Will Smith version of the character, and that’s commendable when you consider Robin Williams left no room for improvement. In other words, you’re never going to top Williams nor should you even attempt and that’s why Smith gets the gold star, he tries to bring his own flavor to the narrative and - save for a limp third act - gets the job done.

 

Of course it’s not just Genie who mandates the spotlight - this is Aladdin’s story and Ritchie has enlisted a game cast to bring this story home which is beefed up with Alan Menken's infectious catalog of hits, Gemma Jackson’s impeccable production design, and Michael Wilkinson’s scene stealing costumes. This is a glamorous and flashy musical, and Ritchie’s background certainly knows how to play those bigger and iconic moments from the animated film to scale though his style seems out of place.

 

Taking on the role of the thieving street rat Aladdin is Mena Massoud who, paired with his adorably scruffy monkey companion Abu, roam the city of Agrabah yearning for adventure, purpose, food, and any type of merchandise worth peddling to local shopkeepers. It’s not long before the spunky street urchin catches the eye of the strong-willed Princess Jasmine (“Power Rangers’ Naomi Scott - she rules) and begins his desperate bid for her affection (except, he’s not a prince therefore they could never marry).

 

That’s where Marwan Kenzari surprisingly good looking (and not cartoonish) Jafar - the second in command to the Sultan (Navid Negahban) of Agrabah - comes into play, offering Aladdin an ultimatum: Head into the Cave of Wonders, locate a lamp, and bask in a wealth of riches. We know the drill, and before you can say “Ain’t never had a friend like me” - the buffo and entirely CGI Genie (Smith) comes to the rescue eager to grant three wishes (and to give the film a much needed shot of adrenaline).   

 

There’s a learning curve to watching Smith sell every ounce of this shining, simmering, and splendid ordeal (during his entire opening number, you’ll likely be defensive to the fact that someone else is playing Genie) and he really thrives on the musical aspect of the narrative which is where Smith brings his rap background to the table and enough light laughs to warrant a recommendation - though, and I can’t lie, the animators CGI rendering of the big blue wizard takes some getting used too (why does he have abs?)

 

As for the human element, John August and Ritchie are wise to flesh out the background of Princess Jasmine (she is also given a full throttle ballad “Speechless” via Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s dialed in additions to Menken’s cherished score). The screenplay also gives off a strong young-Indiana Jones vibe in the earlier sequences, and Ritchie - prone to his gritty and streetwise sensibilities (i.e “Snatch”) - allows Massound a massive playground to fully project the main character. That said, Ritchie never feels like the correct lad for the directing chair as his movies tend to lean heavily into ultra violence and his filmography doesn’t suggest he should carry a big family picture and as a result “Aladdin” could use a touch more charm.

 

Regardless, and this despite the film being spawned out of greed - “Aladdin” is a mostly satisfying adventure. The updated rendition of “A Whole New World” doesn’t disappoint and Smith brings his infamous razzle-dazzle and bottled up “Hitch” energy to the room in songs like “Prince Ali.” Those scenes are what give the film it’s beating heart, and if you were ever going to remake “Aladdin” - as beloved as it is - without the incredible Robin Williams playing the lovable Genie, I’d say 2019’s version is probably the best adaptation you could wish for.

 

Grade: B

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