The centrepiece number of Disney’s Aladdin extols the wonders of discovering ‘A Whole New World’. But, even with a director so usually stylistically distinctive as Guy Ritchie, this (mostly) live-action do-over feels very much the same old world.
Not that we were expecting speed-ramped bare-knuckle fights, geezers from Giza, or Princess Jasmine telling her ineffectual sultan dad to grow a pair. But, beyond a slick, single-take opening whiz around the city of Agrabah and a Ritchie-esque recalibration of the villainous Jafar’s background (he co-writes with John August), you can’t detect the filmmaker’s hand behind the camera.
It’s Disney remake business as usual, this entry skimming closest to 2017’s Beauty And The Beast: expand it but keep the same story beats, the same set-pieces and the same songs (aside from a fresh belter Alan Menken penned for Jasmine, which with all its Frozen-style emotive heft feels a bit misplaced here).
The original left you craving more Genie. This version weirdly makes you wish he was in it less.
Maybe that’s all anyone wants from Disney’s second rub of the lamp. After all, it worked for Beauty. But it’s uniquely problematic when it comes to the Genie. Arguably Disney’s greatest character, he elevated Aladdin ’92 through the star casting of Robin Williams, who was given free rein to riff and improvise, with that striking Al Hirschfeld-inspired animation built closely around his showstopping performance. Will Smith was by no means a crazy choice. He’s been known to stop a few shows himself. But to funnel his Big Willie Style into what is largely a rinse-and-repeat of Williams’ performance was the wrong move.
There are a few notable differences. This version plays to Smith’s looks, and gives the Genie a second-tier romance with Jasmine’s handmaiden Dalia, gamely played by Saturday Night Live’s Nasim Pedrad. Plus, when he’s in regular human form, his natural charms vibe well with Mena Massoud’s Aladdin. This is especially true during the Prince Ali scenes, where the pair together earn the film’s biggest laughs with Aladdin’s inept attempts to woo Jasmine, primarily by listing different types of jam. But Smith’s renditions of ‘Friend Like Me’ and ‘Prince Ali’ feel oddly strained and hollow and, even worse, every moment he’s in blue CGI form, it’s uncomfortable to watch. With a forced smile and uncanny-valley eyes perched atop a puffed up, wobbling torso with nothing but gas below the waist, it’s not a good look for Smith.
Thankfully, Massoud and former Pink Power Ranger Naomi Scott compensate with their easy chemistry, and Disney’s big-dollar production value gives the ‘toon version a luxurious studio-set make-over, from the palace’s gilt-trimmed opulence, to the bustling city streets, to Aladdin’s shabby-gorgeous tower-top hideout. As a remake, then, it brings the ‘toon to vivid life, but where the original left you craving more Genie action, this version weirdly makes you wish he was in it less.