Is that a Genie in Your Bottle?
I would never call myself the biggest Disney fan -- although with the state of media at this point, pretty much everyone is a Disney fan if they like the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. or Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same. or Aliens v PredatorOriginally two separate franchises, the Alien and Predator series came together first in a series of comics and video games before, finally, Fox Studios merged them together is the Alien v Predator film franchise. or any number of other franchises -- but I will admit to watching my fair share of the Mouse House movies over the years. I've seen more animated movie musicals than I care to think about, and certainly the best of the set have come from Disney, usually as part of their Disney PrincessesReleased in 1937, Disney's Snow White was a gamble for the company: the first fully-animated, feature-length film ever created. It's success lead to the eventual creation of the Disney Princess franchise, which has spawned 13 main-line films and multiple spin-off movies and shows. line of films (and shows, and toys, and omnipresence). The princesses may have their flaws when it comes to the messages they sent to young girls in the past -- dream hard enough and a man will show up and whisk you away because you're beautiful on the outside -- but they did have some killer animated films.
One that always struck me as a weird inclusion, though, was Aladdin. Don't get me wrong, this film is fantastic, powered by a one-of-a-kind performance from Robin Williams (as the Genie, of course), but despite the film being in the Disney Princess line, because of Jasmine, the film is very much Aladdin's movie. It's a "Disney Prince" film, one of the only ones I can really think of, but it doesn't really feel like a good fit for the Princess line. Hell, set along side more recent efforts, like Tangled and Frozen and Moana, Aladdin's adventure really casts him in the role of a Princess, following all the same beats -- rags-to-riches story, a destiny he's about to unlock, magical animal friends who will be his closest allies, and songs all about his life and his hopes and dreams -- just with the genders of the characters flipped around.
That's one thing the new film does manage to course correct as the 2019 remake gives Jasmine a larger role, making her a co-star of the film instead of just a treasure to be won (even if she complained about that in the original film, it was true then). The film actually changes a surprising amount of content from the original while still following the same basic structure (and I say surprising because the 2019 remake of The Lion King was a shot-for-shot remake without any creativity about it). While nothing will replace the original film -- and, really, that's one of my biggest issues with all these live-action remakes, since why remake these classics if you can't improve upon them? -- the 2019 Aladdin does a good job of being enjoyable in its own right, being the rare live-action Disney film that can stand along side it's animated original.
If you've seen the original Aladdin then you know the basic story of this movie. Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a "street rat" thief living on the streets of Agrabah. He spends his days stealing to live, but his daily routine gets complicated when a pretty girl gets in trouble with the city guards. Aladdin jumps into save her and they go running off across the city. Al doesn't realize that the girl, who calls herself "Dalia" is actually Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) from the palace (and that the real Dalia is her handmaiden, played by Nasim Pedrad). The two are instantly smitten, but Jasmine has her own issues to worry about and has to go running off to the palace. There she has to entertain prospective suitors for her hand when all she really wants is to become Sultan (something a woman has never done in the kingdom before). Meanwhile, Aladdin just wants to be with the girl he likes, but politics (he doesn't even know about) prevent him from getting her hand.
Things take a turn when Al is captured by the palace guards. He's taken to the Cave of Wonders where he meets Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the Sultan's Grand Vizier. With promises of helping Aladdin claim the princess's hand, Jafar offers Aladdin a deal: Al goes into the cave and grabs a lamp within, and then Jafar will give Al all he deserves. But after Al gets the lamp, Jafar double crosses him and leave him for dead in the cave, trapped seemingly for all eternity. But Al's special monkey, Abu, stole the lamp back and, wouldn't you know it, a Genie (Will Smith) lived in the lamp. Now Al has the wishes to make himself into a prince and woo the girl he likes, he just has to fend off Jafar's attempts to steal the power of the Genie first.
The biggest change in the movie, and of course the one that was unavoidable (given the actor's death), is in the replacement of Robin Williams and Will Smith. When the first trailers for the film came out everyone complained about how Will Smith looked as well as the fact that his Genie seemed like a pale copy of the original. And it's fair to say that Robin Williams was truly irreplaceable in the role -- the few times Disney tried it, such as in the animated sequel Return of Jafar -- the movie suffered for the lack of Williams. The only way to make a new Genie would be to make a new Genie and not a pale imitation. And, thankfully, that's what Smith did, creating a character that has to follow the same plot beats, to be sure, but is very much a Will Smith creation with his own style of comedy, and not something that just riffed on Williams's material.
I'm not going to go so far as the say that Will Smith replaces Robin Williams in the role because that's impossible. Williams was an animated person and his Genie was as animated as he was. In that same way, though, Smith's Genie is Smith and he manages to add his flair and style to his version of the role. It's a very different character in Smith's hands and the actor is wise enough to put his own style and substance into the role. I don't know if there were a lot of actors that could have played Genie without falling on riffs of what Williams did but, to his credit, Smith avoids that pitfall while still making Genie the spotlight-stealing character he should be.
Although, really, there isn't that much spotlight to share because Massoud steals so much of the lime-light. The actor has charisma is spades, selling his role of Aladdin in a way even the original animated version couldn't. He's a magnetic personality, sucking you into the movie so you can be carried along by his style and performance. About the only times his performance doesn't hold are during the expected musical numbers, all taken from the original film, which feel out of place in this live action version; the heightened reality of the original film allowed the songs to blend in, but here the musical sequences just don't work as well. Smith is able to sell them because he's a Rap star as well as an actor but Massoud doesn't have that same skill with musical performance.
Jasmine's actress, Smith, does a better job with her musical numbers, one song of which, "Speechless", was written for this movie. He role is also beefed up, and Smith is up to the task, making her Jasmine strong and charismatic, an equal in every way to Massoud's Aladdin. While I didn't much care for "Speechless", finding it to be just an okay song, Smith does give her all to the number, trying to sell it for all it's worth. Really, the whole trio try their hardest with the material and the only time they stumble is because of the awkwardness of the clashing material, something the director, Guy Richie, really should have gotten a handle on while filming; it's his issue, not the fault of the actors.
Which, yes, the film is flawed. It's still beholden to the original film so while they changed some elements -- the intro section is different, as is how Aladdin gets caught by the guards early on, and any number of little changes to various scenes to give them new twists -- you still know everything that's going to happen before it happens. Even the musical numbers largely riff on the original versions, at times being literally shot-for-shot, instead of finding their own ways to remake the material in new and interesting ways. This film is, often, quite derivative, iterating on the material instead of reinventing it, which holds the film back from greatness.
And I guess we do have to acknowledge that for all of Disney's attempts at making a more diverse movie, this film still feels like a Western version of a Middle Eastern story. The actors may be of diverse background, but there are still plenty of white people involved in the production, from some of the stunt people all the way to the top with Guy Richie in the director's chair. Even Jasmine's actress, Smith, was accused of being a "color wash" since she's of English decent on her father's side while her mother was from Africa, not the Middle Eastern region of the film's setting. The film does feel like it's trying hard, almost too hard, to be diverse, at times treading into cultural appropriation territories, such as the Bollywood-inspired dancing sequences (which, again, could be accused of being from the wrong region of the world). Disney is a Western company, and despite all its attempts at multiculturalism, maybe they should have farmed out their remake to a co-studio with cultural ties to the region adapted in the film.
These are things we have to take into account with this movie; it's facts that never entirely left my mind while I was watching the film. I recognize these elements which colored my experience. The 2019 Aladdin really is quite good for what it is; it's fun, and flashy, with charismatic leads doing all they can to sell the material. Sometimes the film stumbles on the material and sometimes it stumbles on its own attempts to be more "diverse". I think the animated film is the better movie overall (even if the same cultural issues could be leveled against it), but for a live-action film that Disney just had to make, this version of Aladdin is just about as good as we could have hoped for.
Now, maybe if they make a sequel (which, reportedly, won't just be a remake of Return of Jafar or King of Thieves) they can correct these few issues and make a film that's even better than the original. The elements are there that I think whatever comes next could be really great.