I’m under no illusion that this live-action remake of the 1992 animated classic Aladdin is a film that needed to be made, or that the original needed improving upon in some way. It was made because, as demonstrated by Disney’s previous live-action remakes, people would pay a lot of money to see it, particularly people of my generation who were children when the original came out. As the film Network says, the world is a business. Yet I still paid money to see it myself, despite not expecting to love it as much as the original. Partly, I was interested to see just how it would compare, and partly, I went for the same reason I always go to the cinema – I simply hoped it would be a good experience. So, how was it?
When the film begins, it actually feels like it’s relying on the audience having already seen the original. (Have today’s children been properly versed in classic Disney by their parents? We can only hope.) Even though the whole thing is longer than the original by over half an hour, the beginning still feels rushed: Jafar is shown to have already found the Cave of Wonders – which is apparently a secret despite being out in the open, not that far from Agrabah – and when we are first introduced to Princess Jasmine, she is already out incognito in the marketplace, before we learn anything about her wanting to get out of the palace.
From there, however, things aren’t so bad: there are enough new and reworked scenes to make you feel like you’re not just watching a complete rehash, and the characters are revised a little too. While Mena Massoud’s Aladdin starts out as the classic lovable rogue, he’s initially very unsure of himself when he assumes the identity of Prince Ali, which is perhaps a more realistic approach. Naomi Scott’s Jasmine is given extra motivation for not wanting to pick a suitor – she feels she would be a perfectly good ruler in her own right – and she also has a handmaiden/best friend named Dalia (Nasim Pedrad) so she has someone to talk to besides her CGI tiger. Will Smith, to his credit, brings his own approach to the Genie rather than copying the late Robin Williams – though he does employ some of the same wacky, anachronistic humour – and gives a perfectly fun performance; he is also given a little agency of his own rather than purely having to support Aladdin.
One character who definitely doesn’t work here, however, is Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar: there is simply nothing intimidating about him – in fact, he barely even manages to be sinister. An expansion of his backstory and motivations serves only to make him appear petulant as he complains about his station. There’s also not much to establish his relationship with the Sultan (Navid Negahban), who seems a little more competent than his animated counterpart but doesn’t get much screentime to show it.
Unlike with Beauty and the Beast, the film doesn’t feel the need to fix many plot holes from the original or be especially blatant about it. Occasionally, it does make some scenes a little more logical: for example, Agrabah is turned into a coastal city rather than just sitting in the middle of the desert, and an explanation is given for why Jafar doesn’t immediately recognise Prince Ali as Aladdin. Yet at the same time, there are moments that make less sense. In the Cave of Wonders, for instance, Aladdin and Abu are warned not to touch anything besides the lamp, yet Abu does walk over various items of treasure without anything happening. And when the Cave is triggered and begins to fill with lava, it can’t be bothered to fill up all the way to eliminate the people inside, leaving mounds of treasure still intact by the time Aladdin first rubs the lamp and meets the Genie.
The familiar songs from the Aladdin soundtrack are all here, with the exception of Jafar’s ‘Prince Ali’ reprise (Jafar never sings at all in this film). I really enjoyed the music on its own: for every song, it seems to be given an extra bit of ‘oomph’. The actual singing is more of a mixed bag. Will Smith’s voice and style don’t seem an ideal fit for the likes of ‘Arabian Nights’ and ‘Prince Ali’ when he gets started; I did warm to his take eventually, but it takes a little time. Jasmine, meanwhile, is given a new solo number called ‘Speechless’, which sounds more like a generic pop single than something from a musical. (Remember when Jade Thirlwall from Little Mix was being considered to play Jasmine? Maybe that would have worked after all.)
I suppose nostalgia does form part of the appeal of these films, as I certainly found myself smiling fondly throughout the first act of this one, particularly when the songs started up. Unfortunately, this effect seemed to wear off as time went on and the film’s weaknesses became more apparent: I actually felt a little bored about halfway through, and I wasn’t really feeling some of the characters’ relationships, such as with Aladdin and the Genie. Overall, Aladdin was a nice time at the cinema, as I had hoped, but ‘nice’ is about as good as it got. Rating: 3/5.