The evolution of the Disney live-action remake of their original animated films has been an interesting development over the past decade or so that they have been doing it. As far back as in 1996 with “101 Dalmatians,” the company has been looking at their Animated Canon properties with an eye for having them done with real actors and necessary CGI. Two variations on these adaptations have also appeared: one that steers away from the original until it is an in-name-only remake (2014’s “Maleficent”), and another that tries to be accurate to its source (2017’s “Beauty and the Beast”). Where then does 2019’s “Aladdin” lie?
Without delving too much into real-life context, Disney definitely was fully confident in releasing a movie with a narrative set in the Middle East in this period of time. Even the expected criticism of many facets of the production did not deter them from making a live-action remake of the 1992 Disney Renaissance masterpiece. Not the absence of any Levantine-Arab actors in the cast to befit the fantasy city of Agrabah; not the unusual directorial choice of British filmmaker Guy Ritchie (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” plus the RDJ-starring “Sherlock Holmes” movies); not even the use of white extras in “brown-face” during shooting, could stop Disney from coming through.
In terms of the necessary changes transitioning from animation, it could be pointed out that the portrayals and setting of the original were too stereotypical, xenophobic, culturally inaccurate, and so on. The movie crew actually had some reasonable explanations for why the main cast looked as they are, and why the aesthetics of Agrabah remain as much of a mishmash location as the 1992 version but for an understandable reason. Whether the audience will buy that or not holds no bearing on what we will discuss next: the adaptation’s story.
The narrative of Aladdin as told by Disney is fairly basic: orphan “street rat” meets the princess, is roped into retrieving a magic lamp, and meets a genie that can grant him three wishes, all while heartwarming hilarity ensues. Now let us consider the alterations to the plot. Aladdin (Mena Massoud, Egyptian-Canadian) first meets Princess Jasmine of Agrabah (Naomi Scott, British with Ugandan mother of Gujarati stock) under changed circumstances here. Instead of escaping the palace to avoid being married off, she instead wants to see her kingdom’s people after being cloistered for so long. Aladdin notices his monkey Abu has stolen her bracelet and sneaks into the Palace to both return it and see Jasmine again. Then evil intervenes.
One significant change in the remake is remolding the sinister vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari, Tunisian-Dutch) into a younger and outwardly non-suspicious personage, but with a greater ambition and barely-concealed anger issues over being “second” to anybody. He would shanghai Aladdin to take a magic lamp from the Cave of Wonders in the desert, only to kill him once he had done so. Aladdin escapes the attempt thanks to Abu and gets stuck in the collapsing cave. Then he rubs the lamp.
Cue perhaps the make-or-break casting choice for the “Aladdin” remake, the Genie of the lamp. Where the original animated version was immortalized by the late comedy great Robin Williams, this time it is rapper-actor Will Smith in the role. And in Disney’s wisdom they had Smith put his own spin on the character, a decision that is one of the highlights of this movie. Where Williams drove his Genie through rapid-fire standup comedy routines, Smith would make his blue giant (with African-American-looking human disguise) something of a mix between his street-smart “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” archetype and his more recent “love doctor” schitck in 2005’s “Hitch,” with magic powers.
He we end up getting quite the awesome lead-wingman tandem of Aladdin and the Genie as they take Agrabah by storm as “Prince Ali” to win the heart of Princess Jasmine, all while Jafar recognizes his second chance at having absolute power and makes his move in the background. A new caveat into the plot progression is tweaking the Agrabah Sultan’s desire for his only child to marry; he wants Jasmine’s prospective husband to be Sultan after him by marriage, while Jasmine wants to prove that she can rule as Sultan in her own right, with her hubby as consort.
That desire is encapsulated in a new song added to the “Aladdin” soundtrack, performed naturally by Naomi Scott thanks to her recording artist background. All the old 1992 standards – “One Jump Ahead,” “Friend Like Me,” and “A Whole New World” – are all lovingly redone by original composer Alan Menken. Animation purists however might point out that the corresponding numbers in the film are a far cry from the original, too “limited by realism” of live action. In this critic’s opinion they have a point; that still comes across as needless nitpicking of an already-great product.
Additional cast members (Iranian-American Nasim Pedrad and Turkish-German Numan Acar) playing new characters that were not around in the animation help to really flesh out not just the interactions of the leads but also to make the cast itself more vibrant compared to the limited personages of 1992. But at the heart of the new embellishments is still the delightful Arabian Night fairy tale that Disney made into a hit once before. While fans might insist that this remake will never top the classic, its potential to be a hit in cinemas is beyond doubt.
Disney’s “Aladdin” is now showing.
Image from Comic Book Resources