The tale of Aladdin, a “street rat” is well known – a chance encounter with a princess in disguise, fuels a desperate desire to become a prince in order to marry her. To make this dream come true, Aladdin takes up a quest to retrieve a magic lamp from the Cave of Wonders, where he befriends a magic carpet and an all-powerful genie along the way. It’s fertile ground for a live action adaptation, and nearly 30 years on from Aladdin (1992), the Disney animation with its legions of fans, it is high time.
Here we’re introduced to Mena Massoud, who embodies the main character Aladdin in every inch of his frame. A superb casting. Charming, cheeky, funny and street smart, what’s not to love? Naomi Scott's Jasmine on the other hand has lost some of the feisty, outspoken personality of the animation, replaced with a more serious, grown-up woman who wants to lead the land for the betterment of her people. All is rather vanilla until the appearance of larger than life, blue-hued Will Smith as the genie of the lamp. Here the film comes alive, with Smith providing a much needed anchor to the film, even more so than Robin Williams in the animation. Smith’s genie is everything you'd expect, but no less fabulous for it. Spending much of the film in human form without the blue makeup is a shrewd move, and makes sense in the context of the plot.
The film has a good sense of fun. There’s lots of bright colours, fanfare, singing, dancing and other acrobatics. A sprightly physical performance from Massoud, is instrumental in creating really exciting sequences, most memorably in “One Step Ahead", with Aladdin running across rooftops and tumbling down and in and around buildings. There’s an inventive new dance sequence in the middle, and a new song for Jasmine too. Although Scott doesn’t necessarily look the part of Jasmine, her acting and singing are solid throughout, and duly showcased in the new female empowerment track “Speechless”. It’s a catchy number that stays with you.
Smith and Massoud have palpable chemistry, making the action more enjoyable and believable. Prince Ali of Ababwa manages to hold his own in the presence of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. There’s less chemistry with Scott. Even the centrepiece song of the 1992 film, “A Whole New World”, doesn’t have quite the same effect here. The magic carpet ride is executed well, however the one you’ll remember is the carpet chase in the finale, which is half car chase, half broomstick chase.
It is noteworthy that some of the more problematic aspects of the animation have been replaced or removed completely, making this version more child-friendly. No longer do we have the land of Agrabah described as “ barbaric”, it’s now a more palatable “chaotic” instead, no mention of beheadings either. A much welcome omission is the highly inappropriate faux seduction scene in the animated version. Much of the dialogue in the original is completely lost on a younger audience. It’s challenging keeping up with Robin Williams’ rapid fire, manic delivery of ad libbed lines, whizzing from embodying characters as varied as Jack Nicholson to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Here Smith’s genie has a more calming, paternal presence.
It must be said however, that the best scenes are those that are almost exact replicas of the animation. From Aladdin entering the cave, the songs “Friend Like Me” to “Prince Ali”. They stay true to the perfection that came before, with only slight variation. Where Guy Ritchie’s direction deviates from the original, it doesn’t all work, and at times some of the shots appear a little rough around the edges, almost staged. Ritchie is more at home with the fast-paced action sequences, the rest of the direction is unadventurous. Quite possibly the most disappointing element is the inelegant handling of Jafar, the villain of the film, played by Marwan Kenzari. Such an important figure in the tale, is only really allowed to revel in his own brand of evil in the last act of the film. Being so much younger than the Sultan, his position as the Royal Vizier doesn’t ring true, and this is reflected in his awkward placement in the first two thirds of the film. When finally afforded free rein to let loose, he is quite terrifying. And what of Iago, Jafar's facetious pet parrot, he is completely underused! Yes, the addition of a love interest for the genie is amusing and adds another dimension to the film, but it’s an example of plot manipulation to shift the focus repeatedly on to Smith’s genie, at the expense of other characters.
Aladdin is somewhat unique in the Disney canon, a princess film named after its male lead. And while the Beast, in Beauty and the Beast, and Flynn Rider in Tangled come close to hijacking those films respectively, neither has a film named after him alone. Thus, Aladdin is special and deserves to be treated with care. Ritchie doesn’t quite present us with a whole new world, but instead respectfully serves us an updated version which will find a place in Disney’s live-action world. Three Fridays after its release, the auditorium was still packed out. Old fans of the animation evidently can’t keep away, but there’s definitely enough here to also entice new viewers on the look out for something shining, shimmering, splendid.