Disney's latest live action remake was undoubtedly a tall order. The attempt to take a beloved story with one of the most iconic Disney characters ever voiced by Robin Williams and try to recreate the magic... unfortunately might have just missed the mark, but not for the reasons you may expect.
The animated classic came out when I was just 4 years old. I grew up with this movie on a loop which Disney knows is the large part of the draw of these live-action remakes. Nostalgia will take over and you'll be curious to see what they've done to your childhood favorites. To preface this review (and the next Disney live-action remakes to come), I make a concerted effort to go in really attempting to separate the originals because in not doing so, you're bound to be disappointed. *holds breath anticipating my all-time favorite The Lion King* I'll also skip walking through the plot points and only talk about where they ultimately diverge from the original since, I assume, we're all familiar with the story.
Aladdin, in particular, has been facing tough criticism before ever being released which left it climbing an uphill battle from the jump. Upon the release of the first teasers, collective groans were made at the direction taken for the Genie and the musical numbers led by that character. So was the concern about Will Smith not living up to the nearly-impossible standard set by the late Robin Williams? Yes and no.
So, let's address the elephant named Abu in the room before we dive into the rest of the film. Will Smith was never going to meet or exceed the bar set for the Genie we know and love, so let's just set that aside and judge it for what it was. Truthfully, I don't believe most of the issues people will have with this character fall solely on Smith's portrayal, but more in the animation/CGI choices and writing. Don't get me wrong, there were some odd things going on, but I was the most perturbed by the CGI in Smith's face when in full, larger than life, blue Genie-mode. When he was in his human form, I actually found myself appreciating the different take on this character. Unfortunately, the writing for this version of Genie just never knew what it wanted to be... it pulled lines from the original film, but tried to mix those in amongst lines that would naturally come out of Will Smith and the mix didn't really work. The kitschiness needed to pull off the Genie (specifically in blue form) just didn't agree with his style. It felt like they made Will Smith act very out of character at times, where they should've let him lean in to his natural charisma. And I have to say "Arabian Nights" and "Friend Like Me" were just really bad. I found myself seriously questioning the casting of Will Smith in both numbers, but where he was allowed to make the genie his own, it worked.
Our title role, played by Mena Massoud, was perfectly charming. Again, like the Genie, any faults I felt about the character had more to do with the direction and writing rather than the acting. Nothing about this version of Aladdin will jump out at you because there's really nothing unique about it. Massoud very adequately fills the shoes of the character we fell in love with 27 years ago. He does a very solid job on "One Jump Ahead" which is a fairly complex sequence with some pretty interesting choreography. He also had a very believable chemistry with both Genie and Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott). A solid job in a role with high expectations.
This version of the film makes Jasmine to be quite a bit more commanding and strong than the original, which I can appreciate. Strong female characters weren't exactly Disney's forte back in the Renaissance era (or any time before it really). In one of the larger deviations from the 1992 version, Jasmine has ambitions to rule Agrabah as a true voice of the people. Although those motivations were laid out clumsily with some weak writing, it's still a believable departure for her character. I really liked Scott in this role overall.
Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) was quite a bit less intimidating than the original, which won't come as a surprise to anyone. He's another iconic character with the bar set too high to be reached, but probably overlooked because of the conversation surrounding the genie. There are no musical numbers for Jafar and far less character development. Truthfully, for the villain of the film, he's fine, but largely forgettable.
Where the movie excelled was in the beautiful costuming and vibrant colors throughout. The setting, including the wide shots of Agrabah, were appropriately translated for this live action story albeit a bit too "stage" looking at times. The elements of Bollywood brought into the choreography were visually stunning. Where a lot of the shortcomings are with this film, the filmmakers relied heavily on the visual components to offset them. The CGI magic carpet was well-done and captured the personality of the original. The adaptation of our favorite animals Abu, Rajah, and Iago were adequate at best. My soft spot for the tiger, Rajah, probably overrides any objectivity on him.
Now's the time where I'll pick on Guy Ritchie. His directing and screenplay choices are what genuinely confused me as I walked out of theater unsure whether I actually liked it or not. There were parts of the dance/musical sequences that were sped up in a very jarring way for seemingly no reason. It made no sense whatsoever. I found myself wondering whether it was filmed at half time to be able to hit the complex dance moves and then speed it up to tempo with the music. I hate to say it, but "A Whole New World" was frustratingly underwhelming failing to capture any real semblance of the magic we would expect.
The film overall is void of a real emotional punch. The dialogue falls flat in much of the movie. To be fair, there are a few genuine laughs in the movie thanks to some great moments between Aladdin and Genie. The addition of Jasmine's handmaiden, Dalia (Nasim Pedrad of SNL), was a strange diversion from the original as well. I failed to see a real value in the addition of her character aside from a very weird relationship with Genie and a couple of gimmicky giggles.
The new songs in this version didn't wow me. "Speechless" was the closest thing to a real, newly created moment, but I don't find myself wanting to revisit it. Many of the songs felt deflated, keeping the sequences just shy of the grandeur they deserved. And in what might be the most horrifying moment of the entire movie, when the credits start to roll, DJ Khaled starts in on a truly awful version of "Friend Like Me" with Will Smith rapping a la "Wild, Wild West," but so much worse. I couldn't get out of the theater fast enough. It made me long for Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle's "A Whole New World" (which I'm listening to as I write this.)
There were pockets where the movie felt like it was finding its stride and then it would fall apart again due to an odd directing choice, strange CGI or just silly dialogue. It was a wild rollercoaster ride that never quite found its footing. As much as I try to separate it from the original, there was nothing new or interesting enough brought to this film makes me want to watch it over the animated version. It got close at times, but it ultimately relied too heavily on what we already knew of the plot and characters from the original to get any real depth. In the end, there were just too many faults in the direction to make this one a winner. It's just okay, and in these days of remakes, maybe that's okay.
Brit's pro tip: Honestly, I'd skip seeing this in the theater and recommend going to see Booksmart instead. It's the better option. Wait to rent this or stream it on Disney+.