I must confess I went into Disney’s live-action Aladdin with the lowest of expectations and a great deal of skepticism. I’m an ardent fan of the 1992 animated classic and couldn’t imagine anyone other than Robin Williams – in human or animated form – playing the big blue wisecracking “Genie.” I still think Williams set an unattainable bar for Will Smith – or anyone else who dares to step into Genie’s shoes. And yet… Aladdin 2.0 is quite good, especially if you’re into family-friendly movie musicals (Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, The Greatest Showman, etc.). It pays homage to the old while bringing something new to our “whole new world.”
The gist of the story remains the same: a charming street urchin and petty thief named Aladdin (Mena Massoud) falls for the beautiful, smart and determined princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) and ends up in possession of a magic lamp that releases a genie (Will Smith) who can grant him three wishes. There’s an evil, power-grabbing Sultan-wannabe, a magic carpet that rides to the rescue, some inexplicable Bollywood-style dancing, and heartfelt themes about friendship, leadership, loyalty and honor.
Will Smith may be the highest-profile member of the cast, but his singing is the weakest. He’s at his best when rapping or visibly reacting to Aladdin’s clumsier efforts to win the girl. Mena Massoud makes a fine Aladdin. And Naomi Scott nails it as Jasmine. The British actress and singer delivers the strongest vocals of the bunch and brings down the house with a new original song called “Speechless.” It’s an Oscar-bait power ballad that screams #girlpower.
Aladdin is directed by Guy Richie (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword; The Man from U.N.C.L.E; Sherlock Holmes) and features a vibrant production design that deserves to be seen on the big screen (at least, the first time around). It’s rated PG and goes longer and darker than the G-rated, 90-minute animated version, but the kids in the audience seemed to handle it well, despite a bloated running time of 128 minutes. That’s in addition to the pre-screening marketing blitz for the upcoming Frozen II and Toy Story 4 movies. See kids, everything old is new again! And that’s okay – as long as it’s done right.
For the most part, this adaptation of Aladdin is done right. Color me surprised!