It’s 2019, and it’s no secret that Disney has been remaking all of its classic animated films as live action stories for the new generation of movie-goers. Some of these remakes have been better than others (2017’s Beauty and the Beast being one of my personal favorites out of their offerings so far), and every one so far has given fans things to love and things to, well, complain about on the Internet. Remaking one’s childhood, it would seem, can evoke a wide variety of emotions in fans. When I first heard that Aladdin had made it into Disney’s remake timeline, I immediately had several questions, but I knew that this was one movie I wasn’t going to miss.
Growing up, few Disney movies were watched in my house more than Aladdin (maybe just The Lion King, but that’s debatable). Like many of our readers, I’m sure, my siblings and I grew up quoting Disney movies, and Aladdin was no exception. “Giving you your reward… your eternal reward,” I’d say in my best prepubescent attempt at the classic Jafar voice as I pushed my brothers off various objects in the back yard (sorry guys, by the way). Getting that deep bass going for “Who disturbs my slumber” wasn’t much easier, but it was attempted by brothers big and small. The point is, I’m writing this review as somebody intimately familiar with the original source material.
1992’s Aladdin set the bar high, and this remake does a fantastic job of taking that on. In some ways, it’s a much better movie than the original. In other ways, it falls short. If you’ve seen the original, there will be things about this retelling that bug you. If, somehow, you’ve been living under a rock in the Agrabah desert and haven’t seen the original, you will easily love this movie. As a standalone story, it’s an excellent movie. As a reboot, well, for many of us, myself included, it’s impossible to watch this movie without comparing it to the original. Even so, that’s part of what makes watching this new version so fun. Yes, there are the expected story and pacing changes that just come with the territory of a cartoon to live-action remake, but this movie is still the Aladdin that you loved as a kid. Only now it just looks much better and feels like it got a coat of fresh paint to make it fit well in 2019.
Sets and Locations
It’s good to be back in the fantasy city of Agrabah. It’s colorful, active, and feels very authentic—as in it feels like you would expect a real-life version of Agrabah to be. The production design behind the world and sets in which Aladdin takes place wonderfully pull the viewer into this timeless story. So when we first meet street rat Aladdin, who uses parkour-like skills to evade vendors in the market, we feel like he is running through a very real place—a place where we won’t mind spending the next 2 hours and 8 minutes of our lives. The scenes shot in the Wadi Rum Desert in Jordan worked particularly well for capturing the magical locations of the original.
Watching different actors take over iconic roles can be difficult, especially when the new cast plays such iconic roles in ways that are great in many cases, but so different from what we’re used to seeing. Here’s my breakdown of the main characters and how they stacked up.
Let’s start with the giant blue genie in the room. The late Robin Williams left an incredibly big lamp to fill (or, itty bitty living space as he put it, but I digress). This reboot suffered unfair casting scrutiny from the beginning due to the fact that Williams’ portrayal of Genie was SO iconic and on point, that truly no casting decision on the planet would have ever pleased everyone. That being said, Will Smith absolutely crushed it as Genie. Was he as good as Robin Williams? No, but he also wasn’t trying to play Robin Williams, at least not most of the time.
There were several moments in the film where the scriptwriters shout out to Robin Williams’ performance by giving Will the same lines. Will delivers some of these in more of a classic Robin Williams tone, which works for what it is in the film, but it’s in these moments that it’s crystal clear that Will Smith is no Robin Williams. There are also many new scenes and lines where Will plays Genie strictly as Will, and its in these moments when he shines as a different but in many ways, equally enjoyable Genie. In fact, most of the funniest scenes in the movie are when Will makes Genie his own by giving us Will Smith Classic.
For Genie’s songs, Will brought a fresh approach while maintaining the fun of the original songs. For example, the original “Friend Like Me” song was literally made for Robin Williams, but Will Smith pulls off a fantastic rendition of it without a hitch (be sure to stay during the credits to enjoy his hip-hop remix of the same song).
And don’t even get me started on the whole “blue genie” debate that had driven the Internet bonkers months ago when the Aladdin trailers started to drop. I wasn’t bothered in the least by Genie being blue at times in the movie. I’m sure some were, but for every person who complained about Genie being blue, there would have been just as many people complaining if Disney didn’t make him blue at all. In all honesty, it felt like he was only blue 50% of the time or less, so at least Disney played it safe here instead of making him all blue or never blue. The way they explained it in the story worked for me and I think many viewers will agree. The blue issue is a non-issue. Drop it.
Will Smith as Genie was very fun to watch. All things considered, I can’t think of a better actor with the charisma required to tackle this role. Will Smith’s entire career has prepared him for this role (music, dance, humor, stage presence, etc) and he absolutely nailed it.
Aladdin and Jasmine
Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott were great in the roles of Aladdin and Jasmine respectively. Their on-screen chemistry was on point for most of the film, and we as viewers genuinely want them to find a way to live happily ever after.
There was one particular scene when Aladdin is so taken aback by Jasmine that he stammers and struggles to speak when attempting to court her. In my opinion, Mena takes this scene to a level where it almost became uncomfortable for the viewer. Luckily just when Aladdin and Jasmine’s chemistry hits this purposeful low point, Will Smith is there to save the day with some classic comic relief (it’s a laugh out loud funny scene, thanks to Will). And to emphasize, the scene was supposed to be awkward, but it didn’t do much for Aladdin and Jasmine’s chemistry at all.
Mena played an excellent Aladdin. Not only does he pull off the classic look, but his physical abilities bring a much-needed energy and spunk to the role that not many actors can provide. And did I mention he can sing? Here he is in his solo track “One Jump Ahead”.
Naomi was fantastic as Princess Jasmine. She honestly didn’t miss a beat. While Jasmine didn’t have as much screen time as Aladdin, Naomi’s performance was powerful and empowering. As Jasmine, she stands tall as a post-Frozen era of Disney princess that young girls like my daughter will be challenged and inspired by. Her performance alongside Mena in “A Whole New World” was on par with the original singing cast, but Jasmine’s powerful surprise new solo “Speechless” is where she truly shines. Here’s a sample:
When I first watched the trailer, I struggled to understand how Marwan Kenzari was going to work as Jafar. Like many fans, I was expecting a darker, deeper performance like the blatantly sinister Jafar from 1992. That being said…
I loved Marwan as Jafar! In live-action, traditional cartoon stereotype voices don’t always translate well. In animated films, so much of the character’s perceived nature hinges on the voice actor’s ability to fully capture who the character is in voice alone. A good character will actually sound good in a cartoon, as will a villain sound bad. In the case of Jafar, he sounded downright evil in the cartoon.
By toning that back in this movie, Jafar is still sinister, but also surprisingly mysterious and perhaps even a little more human. In the cartoon, we get it. He’s bad. With Marwan’s Jafar, we get a Jafar whose true nature is played a little closer to the chest. It’s different and it’s still pretty clear they he’s the bad guy, but again, if you hadn’t seen the original, you wouldn’t think twice when watching Marwan’s performance.
As an unexpected bonus, Jafar also gets a pretty cool backstory that the writers really took advantage of in several story beats. With just a few extra details into who he was and how he got to where he is today, some of his later scenes become extra satisfying—even if he no longer is quoted giving Aladdin his “eternal reward.”
These characters really take a backseat in this movie. Captain Barbosa’s monkey in Pirates of the Caribbean gets more screen time than Abu in the new Aladdin, and that’s not saying much. Abu is there, but he is toned way back compared to his 1992 counterpart.
Carpet is there, but less as a character and more as a prop. This was disappointing, particularly as somebody who actually has a background in 3D character animation. A lot was done with Carpet in the original, despite the fact that it had no lines and made minimal sounds. I would have liked to see much more of this character this time around, but instead Carpet is treated more like a means of transportation, but less like an emotional being.
Iago is easily the most different out of these three characters. He’s much more parrot-like, mostly repeating key phrases said by other characters at one time or another in the movie. At times, he breaks this mold, but still sticks to short phrases. Despite the movie being a magical fantasy, a realistic looking parrot that talked like a gangster probably wouldn’t have felt right, so it’s understandable why he was hit with a bit of a reality check this time. That being said, while they muted him a good deal, depicting him as a more realistic bird also allowed the writers to tweak a few classic scenes to use Iiago in ways not possible in 1992. I won’t spoil it, but you’ll know it when you see it.
Aladdin is a musical at heart, and this telling of the story is no different. Every song from the original movie makes it into this new version, with the exception of Jafar’s reprise of “Prince Ali” during the ending battle. And just like in the original, these songs generally take place during massive on-screen activity. “Friend Like Me” is a spectacle on par with “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast, clearly in its element with 2019’s CGI capabilities. “One Jump Ahead” borrows many shots from the original and the epic arrival of “Prince Ali” is a song and dance charade that looks fantastic when re-imagined for live-action.
And what about that scene everybody was waiting for? “A Whole New World” does not disappoint. As mentioned earlier, Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott perform an excellent duet on par with the original, but it’s the visuals here that make this scene truly magical. Carpet may not be as much of a character in this film as it was in 1992, but it sure looks a lot better in full CGI magic. The fast moving shots of this scene may be too much for some in 3D, but even in 2D, this scene is everything it needed to be and more. It’s truly a whole new world of cinematography that’s just recently been made possible within the past decade.
And again, Jasmine gets her own song now, and it’s powerful! Check out the music video for “Speechless” below.
3D, CGI, Visual Effects
I typically see movies in 3D when it’s available, and Aladdin was no different. I didn’t feel that the 3D stood out to me as much as other recent movies such as Avengers: Endgame, but it was still a fun way to see it. I don’t honestly feel you’d be missing much with 2D, however, as the fast motion of the flying carpet and other action sequences seemed a little off in 3D at times.
When it came to CGI and visual effects, this movie didn’t necessarily raise the bar for me, but I’m also fresh off of seeing Avengers: Endgame, which is arguably going to be “the bar” for many of us through the rest of the summer, if not longer. There were definitely some shots that felt “music video-ish” to me as far as visual effects go, but with so much of the film being shot in green screen studios, even the most obvious CGI shots still fit with the scenes they were a part of.
My biggest gripe visually was that Genie felt just a little too computer generated sometimes when blue. No, this is not a blue complaint, but rather a CGI complaint. Even with this complaint, I’d say Genie’s look still hit an 8 out of 10 for me.
Overall, this is a movie that is filled with visual effects. There’s magic and spectacle throughout and if you grew up on the original, you’ll love seeing classic shots recreated in live-action/CGI.
If you enjoyed the original, you will also enjoy this movie. Plain and simple.
It’s nostalgic, yet fresh.
Similar, yet different.
Familiar, yet surprising.
It’s a whole new world, and yet we’ve been here before—and it’s fun to be back.
Sure, you’ll probably nitpick some directorial decisions, especially where portions of the movie deviate more from the original than you might have been ready for, but if you’re like me, you’ll also feel that several new scenes and lines were actually better in this version.
I loved Aladdin. I laughed out loud many times, smiled throughout, and ultimately, was able to escape to Agrabah for a few hours and find myself fully engaged in this story of an unlikely street rat and princess who fall in love and realize that nothing else matters. What more do you need in a movie?
A solid 3/3 wishes for me, or roughly 8/10 magic lamps if you prefer that rating system.
Go see Aladdin, in theaters everywhere starting today, May 24th.