We’ve taken this magic carpet ride enough times to know that Disney’s animated originals will often, if not always, be superior. That won’t stop the Mouse House; the once-elusive Disney vault is now open for remakes, an entire generation’s childhood up for (cash) grabs. The question is, which Disney animated classics are untouchable for you, and are you willing to forgo the nostalgia goggles to take their inevitable remakes at face value?
Aladdin is a classic I’m not especially attached to. There are indelible images – the magic carpet ride through the endless diamond sky, Robin Williams’ wildly inventive Genie – but the film itself doesn’t inspire the emotional response in me that The Lion King does. My quick-take reaction to the 2016 announcement of Guy Ritchie’s remake was exhaustion; who asked for or wanted this? As precious-by-proxy as Aladdin was to my childhood, there are no nostalgia goggles here. The film’s trailers had already set my bargain basement-level expectations and lack of urgency to see it; there was no need to compound the disappointment by rewatching the 1992 original and tracking all the ways it was defiled. As long as the magic carpet ride wasn’t a complete failure, I would chalk it up as a win.
Per my admittedly spotty recollection, Guy Ritchie doesn’t stray far from the basics of the original: Agrabah is still a non-descript Middle Eastern kingdom, Aladdin is still a petty thief with a heart of gold that quickly falls in the hands of the beautiful princess Jasmine. Jasmine is still unsatisfied with princess-dom, but has ambition this time around: she wants to be the Sultan. Her father’s closest advisor Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) has his own nefarious plans for the throne and ropes Aladdin in, tricking him into stealing a magical lamp containing an all-powerful Genie (Will Smith) that can grant three wishes. The Genie is still an absolute hoot, and helps Aladdin become a prince worthy of Jasmine’s affections. Aladdin, in turn, promises to reward the Genie by using one of his wishes to freeing him from the lamp.
Resisting a brush up on the original was a good decision, and Disney should hope others make the same choice. Without the towering shadow of Aladdin ’92, Aladdin ’19 surprisingly works well. For starters, the film looks great, with some of the best-designed sets and costumes for a Disney remake so far. Director Guy Ritchie is at his best when he’s staging Agrabah’s rustle and bustle in opulent real-life set pieces. Aladdin’s opening escape through the city crackles with excitement without disorienting, and his arrival as Prince Ali is appropriately and wonderfully cheesy in its grandiosity. There’s a kinetic, analog energy to scenes like these that capture a spirit faithful to the original, even if they aren’t as vibrant as their handdrawn counterparts. That spark weaves itself through the film’s best parts, from a crowd-pleasing Bollywood-inspired dance number that builds on Aladdin and Jasmine’s fledgling romance, to the ebullient magic carpet, the best-adapted inanimate Disney character to date.
As great as that magic carpet is, Aladdin’s three leads shine the brightest with their charming performances. Mena Massoud is perfectly cast as Aladdin, a charismatic presence whose easy physicality and high-wattage smile makes some awkward line readings easy to forgive. Naomi Scott is pure elegance as Jasmine, and she and Massoud have a fluttering chemistry that works best when it’s divorced from the animated expectations. The expectations against Will Smith were even greater, especially with the specter of the late Robin Williams looming above. Smith pays homage to Williams’ legendary portrayal while smartly making the role his own. His Genie is a brilliant delight, reminding us of the irrepressible star power that once made him Hollywood’s blockbuster king. Hilarious and full of warmth, this is Smith’s best performance in years.
Not all of the live-action updates work, largely because Disney can’t help itself. Despite Ritchie’s best efforts, Aladdin stumbles when forced to rehash the original’s marquee moments shot-by-shot. Heavy CGI sequences have been a pain point for the remake canon, and Aladdin isn’t immune; “A Friend Like Me” interrupts a very solid opening run with the film’s first burst of cringe (it’s still enjoyable, which is an improvement on Beauty and the Beast’s garish “Be Our Guest”). “A Whole New World” struggles as a workman-like retread of the original, with stilted dialogue that even its chemistry-laden leads can’t save, and unimaginative shots that mock the magical animated sequence. There are subplots and character beats that only exist to pad the extended runtime, like the Genie’s weird romance with Jasmine’s handmaiden, or Jasmine’s forgettable new ballad “Speechless”, which wastes the opportunity to explore her newfound political interests. The music in general is hit or miss, depending on the singer. Massoud is fine, but lacks the wide-eyed wonder of Brad Kane. Naomi Scott is easily the best vocalist, but the arrangements don’t fully support her range. Smith is not a singer, period.
Those issues are part and parcel for these remakes, and don’t stop Aladdin from being enjoyable. Ritchie does an impressive, admirable job within Disney’s ironclad grip, crafting a spirited experience with its own quirky delights that’ll surely capture a child’s imagination. Adults, especially those who treat the 1992 version as gospel, are a trickier prospect. Disney can’t please everyone, but it can definitely annoy us all with their refusal to step back from the box-checking and allow for more unique interpretations. As long as they insist on remaking their entire catalog this way, our best option is to dissociate from the originals as much as possible. For me, Aladdin was a good case study in that approach. It’s easier said than done, but we’re all going to need to decide case-by-case what we’re willing and unwilling to accept from the Disney remakes. I’m willing to accept Aladdin.
The Lion King? That’s another story.