The live action Aladdin is lively and active for the eye and ear.
By Nora Lee Mandel
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Produced by Dan Lin and Jonathan Eirich
Written by John August and Guy Ritchie, based on Disney’s Aladdin (1992) screenplay by Ron Clements & John Musker and Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio.
Released by Disney
USA. 2 hrs 8 mins. Rated PG
With: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott , Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen and Numan Acar
Released: May 24, 2019
Guy Ritchie’s live action Aladdin frenetically whizzes around mostly bland, PC-actors with flattened American accents kept busy singing and dancing the terrific old and new songs through VFX, CGI, and other effects that will probably keep a child’s attention during the over-long run-time when many scenes go on a bit too long. Will Smith’s jive blue Genie has to be blown-up to giant size with smoky entrails to stand out.
Anxious in the press notes to portray this as the “most diversely cast Disney film in history… with positive portrayals of Middle Eastern culture grounded in an authentic Arab context”, the company has made much of their geographically wide casting net for “people who were culturally true to the part, either someone of Arab descent or from the Middle East and the surrounding region”. By which they mean South Asia, as Ritchie’s first musical in his 20-year directing career is more Bollywood than a classic Hollywood musical. Rather than adapting the still-running Broadway version, this is an updated and expanded version of the animated film, with lyrics adapted to the visuals and personalities.
The setting for this eye-popping interpretation of the classic story from One Thousand and One Nights folk tales is first seen like a tribute to Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Baghdad (1924). But to the “Arabian Nights” song adapted for Will Smith, this Agrabah is imagined as a trading city on the Silk Road with many cultural influences from across the continent, like Bollywood.
The Aladdin of Mena Massoud, a Cairo-born Canadian, is at his best when he’s moving fast, which is Ritchie’s forte. He even appears to do parkour-type moves around the busy souk in the “One Jump Ahead” sequence. Some of the footage comes from a GoPro camera on Massoud’s waist as he runs and jumps with his digital VFX monkey Abu.
The biggest, and most welcome change, is in Princess Jasmine, the Sultan’s daughter, who was much criticized in the animated film as then-Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg’s fantasy female profile. As portrayed by Naomi Scott (described as raised in London of South Asian descent), she now has a back story. The why-not assumption that her Disney-required deceased mother came from the South Asian kingdom of Shehrabad justifies costume designer Michael Wilkinson’s nine low-cut, tight-bodice Bollywood outfits (including a bright orange ensemble, a formal magenta gown with turquoise accents down its 10 foot train, and danceable turquoise harem pants decorated with gold coins, modeled from the original film).
In addition to her CGI tiger Rajah, she gets one wholly original song, “Speechless”, as a new Disney princess anthem a la Elsa, whose early revealed snippets include the lines “I won’t be silent! You can’t keep me speechless!”:
Scott’s forceful delivery gives her considerable more punch than those around her to convince everyone she’s worthy of being the next Sultan. This new number could have gone on longer, like all the other scenes do to their detriment. (The relationship-building “Whole New World” is almost lost amidst the pyrotechnic adventures of the CGI Magic Carpet.) The updated lyrics throughout and of this new song are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (of La La Land and The Greatest Showman), to Alan Menken’s tune; Menken penned the old-fashioned score throughout.
Jasmine gets her own humorous sidekick, her handmaiden, Dalia (Iranian-American Nasim Pedrad, known from Saturday Night Live), who figures in a Wizard of Oz-like framing device. Dalia also gets to flirt with Will Smith’s Genie.
Like all kings in Disney fairy tales, The Sultan (Iranian-American Navid Negahban) is mostly busy trying to marry off his daughter for a diplomatic alliance, and to be manipulated by his ambitious vizier. But the glowering Jafar (Dutch-Tunisian Marwan Kenzari, who, in contrast, was so good in Wolf) with the hypnotic snake-headed sceptor, too, gets his own complicated motivational back-story of anger, not just simply evil. Even the head of the Palace Guard Hakim (Turkish-German actor Numan Acar) is given a Do The Right Thing opportunity.
There’s a concluding Bollywood dance number that plays on Smith’s hip hop days as DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, leading into a DJ Khaled-produced reprise of “Friend Like Me” (which won’t eliminate memories of Robin Williams’ version).
So much for the people. This is primarily a feast of quick-moving spectacles, from the Cave of Wonders holding The Lamp aloft to the introductory procession of “Prince Ali” into the city, thanks to production designer Gemma Jackson (known for the first three seasons of Game of Thrones). She, like most of the crew, has worked with Ritchie before, some as long-time collaborators. Director of Photography Alan Stewart and editor James Herbert are clearly used to his frantic style and roving camera where visual movement outraces substance.
But not much thinking is needed here anyway, so kids and parents can just enjoy and hum away.
NB: This review is in fulfillment of Disney’s requirement that I post a review in order to be kept on their invitation list for press screenings.
Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.