By Jonathan Reed
Video supplied by Walt Disney Studios©
It is only fair to start this review by admitting I went into the latest live-action remake of the Disney classic, Aladdin, with low expectations. After seeing the numerous promos and trailers, it looked as if the iconic story was destined to fall short of the original animated classic.
As the sweeping golden sand dunes of the Arabian dessert shimmered beneath the sunset, and the familiar tones of Alan Menken’s “Arabian Nights” echoed through the cinema, my doubts began to melt away. And as if against the blazing heat of the Agrabah sun, those doubts continued to.
Director Guy Ritchie had, what many deemed an impossible task. How do you bring the vibrant world of Disney’s Aladdin to life, and ultimately a character as animated as the Genie? With colour it would seem. The City of Agrabah looks breath-taking, a multi-coloured patchwork of lively characters and set pieces. Ritchie excels with the spectacle of the locations, embellishing Aladdin’s adventure against sumptuous backdrops.
But arguably, hotly debated was Will Smith’s interpretation on the (very) blue Genie. Smith was always going to have a battle against him taking on such a revered character. Many have, and still, feel the presence of Robin Williams, whose characterful and masterful vocal performance is unrivalled. What is admirable when it comes to Smith’s performance, is he doesn’t try to re-create what has already been done before. Instead he re-defines the role.
It is a smart move on Smith’s part, as it separates both versions of the Genie. Robin Williams utilised his genius knowledge of comedy for the original. Smith encapsulates on his musical background. Sometimes it may feel as if the Genie becomes too “Prince of Bel Air”, but it was a relief to see Will Smith mostly nail what was an impossible role to live up to.
Aladdin (Mena Massoud) himself is much more fleshed out this time. Disney have expertly decided to enhance the comedy aspects of the character, using his innocence and wide-eyed wonder as the foundation for his cheeky charm. Massoud effortlessly delivers as the titular role, and his relationship with the Genie is blissful to watch, as is his chemistry with Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott).
And it is the Princess who steals the show. Scott is entirely captivating as Jasmine, a woman determined to lead her kingdom. She expertly distinguishes between the strong feminist and vulnerable Princess desperate for freedom. Throughout every scene, Scott steals your attention and her version of Jasmine feels renewed and fresh. Not one aspect of her performance seems forced, and her barnstorming solo number “Speechless”, specifically written for the movie, is the pinnacle of the entire film.
Not everything is a cave of wonders, however. Sometimes the plot loses steam, occasionally stagnating for too long. The script does little to build on the original and therefore it feels at times that showpieces were added to fill in the gaps. And sadly, Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar takes far too long to deliver the villainous goods. But when he does, he hits the mark.
The story of the street rat who falls in love with a Princess, is granted three wishes from a genie in a lamp and learns the value of being true to who you are, was perfectly told through the art of animation. Now we have a live-action version and, although not perfect, it doesn’t disappoint.
Of course, Robin Williams still flashes across your mind the first time you see the CGI galore “Friend Like Me” showstopper. But by the end you accept that this isn’t just a remake. It’s a new take on a beloved classic and it works. With Aladdin, Disney have proved that not only can they still successfully sell magic, but re-sell it all over again.