Maybe it’s just time we admit that no remake, perhaps especially a live-action remake, will live up to the extremely high bar set by the animated films of our youth. Not only were these movies straight out of Disney’s renaissance, they are coated in the glittery gold of nostalgia, elevated by the place they had in our lives at the time, rendered flawless and important in our cherished memories. It’s an impossible standard, is what I’m saying. That said, Aladdin is probably among the better ones.
As you know, Aladdin isn’t really about Aladdin. Oh sure, it’s ostensibly about a boy wooing and trying to be worthy of a princess. And about a greedy man who’ll stop at nothing to gain power. But really it’s about a genie trapped in a lamp, longing to be free. Robin Williams 110% stole the first movie. His ad-libbed sessions in the recording studio had Disney re-writing the script to accommodate all of his beautiful material. These were immense blue shoes to fill, so in a way, I admire the impulse to steer the ship in a different direction, as Will Smith IS a different direction – though not as different as I’d imagined. He makes the character his own, for better or worse, but the fact that this film is such a close remake means inevitably you’ll be comparing movies and this one will be coming up short. It can’t quite recapture the magic, especially when we know every word and anticipate every action. And Will Smith’s Genie is a dull cousin of Williams’. This is not entirely Smith’s fault – who among us could compete with the limitless freedom of a cartoon? Animated Genie is just that – animated. At all freaking times. Will Smith can’t even touch the manic energy of the original, and frankly, his songs leave a little to be desired. I’d heard that his remake of Friend Like Me would be largely hip-hop inspired, but I heard wrong. But it may have been the wiser choice; if you’re going to fail by comparison, then do something to distinguish yourself. The 2019 version is fairly faithful to the original – it has all the basics but none of the colour.
Well, I don’t meant that literally. In fact, that’s one of the things I liked best about the movie: the absolute riot of colour. Jewel tones abound! The colours of spice fill up the screen, sometimes metaphorically but sometimes quite literally. Jasmine’s costumes are the stuff little girls’ dreams are made of. In animation, it’s too expensive to have different outfits for characters, so they mostly wear just on the one thing, a cartoon uniform if you will. And Jasmine’s is no joke. But in the live-action remake, costumers have given themselves permission to create a wardrobe befitting a princess. It’s a feast for the eyes.
I mentioned before that the 2019 film is fairly faithful to the original and that’s true – but there are a few exceptions, and I’m glad that Jasmine is one of them. In the 1992 feature, Jasmine is a passive character. Yes, she’s 15, but she’s very much a damsel in distress. That’s not quite the character the writers meant to portray, but several scenes in which she was to exercise her voice were cut because they were simply too expensive to animate. That decision saved production budget but cost Jasmine something in character. In 2019, she’s a fuller version of herself. Of course, that’s partially because you’ll find her singing a song you don’t recognize (called Speechless – it’s Disney’s bid at an Oscar this year, as only original, written-for-this-movie songs qualify).
Speaking of which: Jasmine and Aladdin. I hereby give you permission to get your Aladdin thirst on. I mean, maybe you’ve always had a certain lustful feeling toward the street rat with the not little nipple-less bod. Now he’s played by the very attractive Mena Massoud, who conveys all of his boyishness and charm. Jasmine, meanwhile, is portrayed by the lovely Naomi Scott. Since cartoon Jasmine is 80% doe eyes, you might think she’d be difficult to replace. In fact, Scott is everything you could ever want in a Jasmine, now with 50% more agency. And unlike Will Smith’s renditions, everything Scott and Massoud sing sounds like the soundtrack of your childhood. You’ll find it difficult not to sing along. Why resist, really? Someone has to be the crazy lady in each and every movie theatre, and it may as well be you.
Director Guy Ritchie brings an energy to the film that’s quite unexpected. I mean, he’s made a career putting hustlers on the big screen, and who is Aladdin if not that? And those were Sean’s favourite scenes: Aladdin deftly avoiding arrest in the streets of Agrabah, streets he knows well, like the back of his hand. He navigates those in the slight elevation above reality – quick, slick, agile. My favourite scenes, however, were the colourful spectacles I didn’t know Ritchie was capable of. Will Smith’s Genie introduces Prince Ali to Agrabah with fanfare that’s nothing short of visually stunning. It’s choreographed to within an inch of its life, with a rainbow of costumes and a riot of feathers and dancing girls and exotic animals.
Aladdin is a lot of fun if you let it be. It is not the Aladdin of your childhood, but there’s enough room for both of them. Now go be the crazy lady in your local cinema.