Anyone who is still struggling to come to grips with the fact that the entire Disney animated canon is going to be remade in slightly less charming live action will have the same gripes with “Aladdin” as with similar movies that have come down the pipe in the past few years. The story is extremely similar to the ’90s original, the songs are almost what you remember but a little less special and the execution feels at times like a missed opportunity. But this new “Aladdin” makes one decision that immediately propels it past the likes of 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast” and 2015’s “Cinderella”: It plays the entire enterprise extremely straight.
“Aladdin” never aspires to be much more than a 21st-century take on the old classic. The plot is practically a beat-for-beat remake of the 1992 original. The biggest update here is in the character of Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott, “Power Rangers”), who has a larger role than in the animation and has clearly been rethought to be a more active player in both her own story and the narrative at large. The script is funny and the actors’ performances resemble those of the “Aladdin” stage production more than they do traditional film-acting.
All of this works very well. The heightened reality established from the opening scene of the film brings the audience in on the joke and allows them to laugh along with the characters at how preposterous certain aspects of the story are (e.g. Aladdin looking exactly the same as Prince Ali without being noticed by anyone is hand waved away in one of the Genie’s funnier gags).
The cast, for the most part, does an admirable job. As the Genie, Will Smith (“Bright”) has perhaps the toughest task, having to live up to the iconic performance by the late Robin Williams (“Good Will Hunting”) in the original film. With such high expectations, it would be easy to say that he couldn’t possibly live up to Williams’s performance, but Smith truly makes the role his own. Outside of the start of his two big songs, it’s easy enough to forget about that other Genie and just take Smith’s interpretation on its own terms. Far from paling in comparison to Robin Williams, Will Smith is one of the highlights of this new “Aladdin.”
The same cannot be said for Aladdin himself. Relative newcomer Mena Massoud (“Jack Ryan”) tackles the diamond in the rough, and while some of the blame can surely be pinned on the screenwriters for the strangely underwritten nature of the part, Massoud’s portrayal just feels like it’s missing something. After the first act, Aladdin never quite comes off as confident enough to capture the attention of Princess Jasmine, who in this interpretation has absolutely no time for clowns — which to some extent is how Aladdin is portrayed.
The most bizarre part of “Aladdin” is the occasional moment when the movie remembers it’s a Guy Ritchie (“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”) film. Ritchie is known for his love of temporal high jinks, and while “Aladdin” mostly shies away from that, in a few of the dance numbers, Ritchie’s love of slow mo creeps back in. With how few scenes utilize this technique, it would have been better for Ritchie to either refuse the urge entirely or to add more so that the ones that are there could feel more organic to the way the rest of the film is shot.
“Aladdin” will not surpass the original movie in the eyes of anyone. But it’s also far from a disaster. The love story between Jasmine and Aladdin is arguably more engaging than in the original, the actors all do their best to ham it up and the costumes and sets are all wonderfully designed. “Aladdin” is fun enough.