In spite of trailers and clips that make it look like a garish slog, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is a surprisingly effective live-action update of the 1992 Disney animated classic. Will Smith, stepping into some mighty big shoes as the wish-granting Genie, anchors the update with peak Fresh Prince silliness while newcomers Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott deliver showstopping musical and acting performances that should make them stars overnight. Meanwhile, a few understated tweaks suitably updates the original film’s gender dynamics while terrifically staged music numbers and a great sense of romance and adventure pay homage to one of animation history’s greatest achievements.
Massoud plays Aladdin, a street urchin who makes his living as a thief on the streets of Agrabah. After a chance encounter in the local bazaar with Princess Jasmine (Scott), who’s disguised as a handmaiden, Aladdin decides to infiltrate the palace to see her again, but instead he’s apprehended by the Sultan’s power-hungry advisor Jafar (Marwan Kenzari). Offered an opportunity for freedom and wealth in exchange for risking his life, Aladdin agrees to venture into a mystical cave to retrieve a magic lamp that Jafar believes will bring him the power to control Agrabah. But when he accidentally rubs the lamp, Aladdin discovers its secret: a Genie (Smith) trapped inside, offering three wishes to its owner.
Eager to reunite with Jasmine but ashamed of his poverty, Aladdin wishes to become Prince Ali, and returns triumphantly to the palace to woo the woman he loves. But despite the Genie’s help, Aladdin learns it takes much more than expensive clothes to live up to the expectations of his newfound stature. Meanwhile, Jasmine hatches plans of her own to ascent the throne of Agrabah as its first queen, despite attempts—and eventually, evil schemes—from Jafar to keep her quiet and obedient while he rules the country with an iron fist.
Aladdin feels like an important reminder to not put too much stock in ads and trailers. The Genie, perhaps appropriately, seemed goofy and over the top in clips, but Smith’s improvisational, reactive style works pretty wonderfully opposite Massoud’s Aladdin, and in general as a very funny counterpoint to the gravitas the young thief aspires to once he’s begun making wishes.
What’s most significant is the way that he makes the character his own, not trying to emulate or top Robin Williams’ creativity from the ’92 film; even on famous numbers like “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali,” Smith’s delivery flows smooth and silly like a single from his multiplatinum 1988 album He’s The DJ, I’m The Rapper, complete with clever voices and digressions that give the character a new and different life.
At the same time, Massoud and Scott are simply revelatory in their roles; not only can both of them sing, but they ooze romantic chemistry, and honestly possess the exact right elements of humor, resolve, intelligence, and sensitivity to be two people temporarily waylaid by love en route to some really important life lessons. Admittedly, Scott’s big number, a new song called “Speechless,” works better as an empowerment message than as a cohesive part of the music that Alan Menken created in 1992, but Scott belts it out with such conviction—and proves such a generally appealing presence—that only a sorcerer with a heart of stone wouldn’t want to see her become Queen afterward. Together, they make an especially convincing case for abandoning a star system that puts only familiar faces in big studio roles.
Ritchie’s biggest shortcoming as director of this spectacle is one that seems recurrent in these live-action updates: namely, opting for a hazy, blue and grey visual tone that mutes the vibrant landscape of this magic, semi-historical world and occasionally undercuts the emotionality of moments, like during “A Whole New World” that should be breathtakingly majestic. But he otherwise beautifully brings the story to life in a way that seems both faithful and forward-thinking, ensuring that Aladdin’s, and Genie’s, and importantly, Princess Jasmine’s needs are given equal weight.
Ultimately, Aladdin transcends the limitations of its source material, creates some truly unique and memorable characterizations, and proves far more successful and sophisticated than everybody expected, or probably anybody really needed; that said, it’s obviously a remake, not a whole new world, but at least it’s a lot of fun to live in while you’re there.
3.5 out of 5