I went into Disney’s live action remake of “Aladdin” feeling skeptical. Convinced it would be nothing but a soulless cash grab that aped a classic animated film, I was prepared to despise it.
I was right about the cash grab. Disney isn’t remaking its library of animated movies for artistic reasons. But I was wrong about it being soulless. It’s actually quite a bit of fun – once it settles into its groove.
The opening scenes are painful. Remember when Aladdin runs through the streets of Agrabah singing “One Jump Ahead” in the 1992 movie? The remake does try to ape that scene, and it doesn’t work.
Mena Massoud, the actor who plays Aladdin, sings, but his voice is too polished for a breathless escape, and the editing is too quick, which gives the brief shots of Massoud lip-syncing a clumsy quality.
Actually, nothing in the first 30 or so minutes of the movie works. Maybe I was adjusting from my memories of the animated film, but Massoud seemed miscast, Marwan Kenzari didn’t seem oily enough as Jafar, and director Guy Ritchie (the “Sherlock Holmes” movies starring Robert Downey Jr.) seemed to be trying too hard.
Then Will Smith showed up as Genie and pumped life into the film. Remember when Smith saved the world in “Independence Day?” Well, here, he saves the movie.
I didn’t think this would be possible. Robin Williams’ voice work as the Genie is iconic, a work of ad-libbing brilliance that ushered in the era of celebrity voiceovers. I was worried Smith would fall flat on this face trying to replace the irreplaceable.
If Smith was worried, it doesn’t show. Not only does he appear to be having a good time playing Genie, he puts his own buoyant spin on the character. He’s energetic, funny and has heart, which couldn’t have been easy under all that CGI.
Before the remake hit theaters, people wondered if Smith would be able to match Williams’ performance as Genie. It turned out he didn’t have to match Williams, even when he was repeating the late actor’s lines; he just had to be himself.
Everything else also seems to spring to life once Smith shows up. Massoud and Kenzari settle into their roles, scenes feel more confident and the movie develops its own vibe.
The 2019 version of “Aladdin” is a true live action spectacle, with spirited musical numbers featuring dozens of dancers draped in colorful, exotic costumes and beautifully designed (and likely CGI enhanced) sets.
For the most part, the CGI is employed effectively, with gorgeous wide shots of Agrabah serving as the film’s best eye candy. Some of the character animation suffers from the stiff, unnatural look that plagues many CGI-enhanced movies these days, but the movie survives these flaws.
“Aladdin” also survives its long running time (two hours and eight minutes). Given the number of children Disney knew would be in the audience, I’m surprised someone didn’t take a firmer hand in the editing bay and trim down a few scenes.
This would have helped the pacing, since a few scenes go on too long, or seem unnecessary.
Audience opinions on the film seemed divided afterward. One young man complained it wasn’t as good as the original. “But you had to know it would be different,” his companion said. Another woman raved to her husband or boyfriend, saying, “That was amazing! Thank you for bringing me.”
Parts of the movie certainly don’t have the classic Disney magic. The scene in which Aladdin and Princess Jasmine (his love interest, in case you’ve forgotten) ride the magic carpet at night and sing “A Whole New World” falls far short of the original sequence scale, emotion and creativity.
But as a whole, the new “Aladdin” holds its own and is a solidly entertaining movie.
Next up from the Disney live action remake factory: “Lion King.” I’m skeptical, but maybe they’ll pull off that one, too.