ALADDIN review by Mark Walters – Disney goes live action again with Will Smith as the genie

ALADDIN review by Mark Walters – Disney goes live action again with Will Smith as the genie

Disney is really raking it in with these live action versions of their animated films, garnering big box office with updates like BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and CINDERELLA, and there’s plenty more on the way. The next one to hit theaters is ALADDIN this weekend, updating the 1992 version which was led by the late Robin Williams. The live action version is helmed by director Guy Ritchie (SHERLOCK HOLMES). This time Will Smith is taking on the Genie role, with Mena Massoud playing Aladdin, Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine, Marwan Kenzari as Jafar, and there’s even a new character played by the great Billy Magnussen. And like the original movie, Alan Menkin is writing the music again. But the trailers for the film have met with great criticism, leading many to believe this would be a major misfire for the studio… making the end result that much more surprising.

Set in the fictional city of Agrabah, the story follows a street thief with a heart of gold named Aladdin (Massoud), who meets an intoxicating girl in the streets, one who seems greatly out of place in the dusty alleyways. While running away from angry street merchants, they find an instant chemistry despite their very different backgrounds. Aladdin believe his new friend is a servant to the Princess of Agrabah’s castle. He soon learns she was actually Princess Jasmine (Scott) in disguise, only pretending to be a common person. The King’s advisor, Jafar (Kenzari) has been spending his evenings trying to obtain a magic lamp from the intimidating cave of wonders in the desert, but he must find a “diamond in the rough” to do so. That diamond may just be Aladdin, so he forces the young man to attempt retrieval, but upon finding and rubbing the lamp, Aladdin meets a magical genie (Smith) who helps him escape from Jafar. Since Aladdin released him, the Genie agrees to grant him three wishes. Wanting to reunite with Princess Jasmine and potentially marry her, Aladdin asks to be a prince, and the Genie makes him into “Prince Ali”, a ostentatious dancing pretty boy who isn’t recognized by anyone as his former self. But Jafar knows he’s not what he pretends to be, and may just ruin his charade before Aladdin can find true love with Jasmine.

The story of the live action ALADDIN follows the animated version pretty closely, but there are some differences and changes that help make things a bit more interesting, and also bring it a little more toward current sensibilities. The biggest difference, of course, is The Genie. Robin Williams’ vocal performance was so memorable and iconic that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. This has become the biggest point of contention among those who viewed the trailers, as people seemed almost offended at the idea of Will Smith trying to play the same role. It didn’t help that some of the CGI in those trailers looked a little… off. But I’m happy to say this is a clear case where the trailer really didn’t do the final product any justice. This live action version is actually quite entertaining, and very well done in the hands of Guy Ritchie as director. It borrows heavily from the world of Bollywood cinema, and that’s one of the reasons why it works. I honestly don’t envy Smith trying to step into such an established role and make it his own. But you know what? He does, and it works. Where Williams played his Genie as over-the-top and pun-filled, Smith goes for more of a silly Fresh Prince of Bel-Air style reading, sort of a wacky friend that’s also a voice of reason. He also gives the character a bit more humanity in various ways, and does an interesting bookend for the film that really gives depth to the role. You can never top Robin, but what Will does is admirable and satisfying, and that’s what matters.

Both Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott have terrific chemistry as Aladdin and Jasmine, and both come across very likable to the audience. Massoud is so charming and commands the screen, there are even moments where he seems to be the most interesting thing on the screen, even when Smith is doing his thing. Scott is excellent and strong as Jasmine, and really elevates the character in a way that makes her more impressive and admirable that what we saw in the animated version. Nasim Pedrad adds some great comedic moments in a supporting role, and becomes a much more important character than you might expect, and Billy Magnussen makes his brief screen time quite hilarious and memorable. Marwan Kenzari as Jafar is much darker than the animated version, less over-the-top and more sinister. Even Yago the parrot (voiced by Alan Tudyk) is played more realistic and creepy, giving the proceedings more weight and urgency for our hero characters. There are plenty of songs and dance numbers in the film, much like the original, only here it’s played up even more being live action. There are also a few new songs which are strong and well-performed, but might stretch the run time out a little more than it needed to be. At two hours and 8 minutes, the movie is a little bloated, but never annoyingly so. That said, repeat viewings might be a bit more challenging.

After the surprisingly disappointing DUMBO update, ALADDIN is a welcome and sometimes surprising treat. The animated movie is one of my favorite Disney films, so I went into this not knowing what to expect, and was very pleasantly surprised. I should have known Guy Ritchie could find a way to make the material work, and in some scenes the camerawork is masterful, especially the action sequences. The impressive cast is a big part of what makes the movie flow well, and while Smith does a good job in the spotlight role, the strength of Massoud and Scott shouldn’t be overlooked. As one of Disney’s live action updates, this is definitely one of the better attempts, and sets the bar that much higher for what comes next. Don’t let the trailers fool you, this is actually quite enjoyable.

ALADDIN opens May 24, 2019

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About the Author

Born and raised in Dallas, Mark has been a movie critic since 1994, with reviews featured in print, radio and National TV. In 2001 he started the Entertainment section of the Herorealm website, where he contributed film reviews and celebrity interviews until 2004. After three years of service there, he started, which has become one of the Dallas film community's leading information websites. Bigfanboy hosts several movie screenings in the Texas area, and works closely with film and TV studios and promotional partners to host exciting events and contests. The site also features a variety of rare celebrity and filmmaker interviews, and regularly covers the film festival circuit as well. In addition to Hollywood reporting, Mark has worked for many years as an advertising and sci-fi/comic book artist. Clients have included Lucasfilm Ltd., Topps Trading Cards, The Dallas Mavericks and The Dallas Stars. From 2002 until 2015 he managed the Dallas Comic Con, Sci-Fi Expo and Fan Days events in the DFW area. He currently catalogs rare comic books and movie memorabilia for Heritage Auctions, and runs the Dallas Comic Show conventions, but remains an avid moviegoer and cinema buff.