I still remember the first commercial I saw for the animated Aladdin, back in 1992. There was a quote from one critic along the lines of “It would take a miracle to outdo Beauty and the Beast. That miracle is Aladdin.” I was immediately nettled. Ever since I had fallen in love with The Little Mermaid three years previous, I was really into these new Disney animated movies coming out. I didn’t like the quote though, because I thought it was just what critics say to get people to see a movie they’re paid to like. Ugh. My 17-yr old self went to the movie theater fully ready to dislike Aladdin for the ridiculous and often-wrong one-upmanship this critic seemed to be engaging in. I was wrong. I loved Aladdin even more than Beauty and the Beast. To this day I consider the four-film spread from The Little Mermaid through The Lion King to be the second golden age of Disney animated films, and Aladdin shines as brightly as any.
I saw the new Aladdin movie just a couple of weeks ago, and I decided to review it and to give some commentary on the Disney plan to remake a bunch of their animated films as live action. I will tell you my bias right away–I’ve been against this whole thing. In general I don’t see the point of telling the same story, with the same songs in live action. Why would I want to see Disney copying itself when I could see the original, which is already a classic? How many classics have ever been remade and been good?
This review will really be more of a comparison between the original and the new. To my mind, any remake either needs to be superior to the original, or just as good but different enough to stand on its own merits (being live instead of animated is insufficient). Guy Ritchie directed the new Aladdin. He first made his name directing a couple of heist pictures such as the excellent Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; but he also made junk like Madonna’s film Swept Away. He’s kind of an odd choice for a movie like Aladdin.
Overall, my chief complaint about this new film is that it gives us almost no original moments. Any good moments the film has are because the original did them well, and they’re just copying it. When Disney gives you $180+ million to work with, this should not be that difficult. The “Prince Ali” song is a good example of this. It was very good in the live version, but they were standing on the shoulders of the writers and animators of the original song, which was also excellent. It’s the song that is great, not Ritchie’s ability to use a ton of money in doing a close version of the original. Menken and Ashman/Rice are the heroes here, and the animators, they originally wrote and drew “Prince Ali.” There are a couple of moments the new Aladdin have that stand on their own, which I will come to. Let’s compare specific elements in some more detail.
The Genie. Let’s be honest, the Genie is the main character in the movies. This is not close, in my view. I’ve liked Will Smith and followed his career ever since I watched him on Fresh Prince, but Will Smith is no Robin Williams. Robin is a one-of-a-kind, supremely talented performer. The ad-libs, the impersonations, the grabbing of Aladdin’s lips at one point to pantomime “Genie, I set you free” in the original version–it’s unequivocal! Original Genie was better.
Aladdin. I think this is something of a wash–I liked Scott Weinger who voiced the animated Aladdin, and I liked Mena Massoud playing the live action Aladdin about the same. You and I might debate we liked one a bit more than the other, and that’s fine, but I don’t think either blows the other out of the water. Tie.
Jafar. Every good Disney movie needs a good villain. The original Jafar was a great villain, and I thought Jonathan Freeman did a great job voicing him. I don’t think Marwan Kenzari’s performance was that great, and I also have a problem with his age. The animated Jafar was drawn in his late 40s/early 50s, which makes sense given his high position and power. Kenzari is in his 30’s, which is just too young, and he seems two-dimensional, less fleshed out compared to the animated Jafar. The fact that Iago was greatly reduced contributed to this. Original Jafar was better.
Jasmine. Linda Larkin played the original Jasmine and did a very good job. Naomi Scott, however, is so good she almost steals the movie from everyone else. She gives what I consider to be a star-making performance, especially singing her song “Speechless.” I can’t say enough about that song, which comes toward the end of the film. It affected me on an emotional level, to my complete surprise and delight. She is amazing in this movie, and I plan on following her career because of what she does here. The character of Jasmine is also more fleshed out, and three-dimensional. The Jasmine in the 1992 film was trapped by her circumstances and culture, and the new one is too, but she does try harder. New Jasmine is better.
Iago. Gilbert Gottfried did a terrific job with him in the original movie; he’s one of best henchmen in the history of Disney! In the live version he’s more of an afterthought, and barely qualifies as a character at all–there really is no comparison here. Original Iago was better.
Abu and the Magic Carpet. There is just so much more personality in both of these characters in the animated film, don’t you agree? This is an area in which animation does things better than real life. These characters were wonderfully anthropomorphized when they were cartoons, and, while still enjoyable in live action, are somewhat reduced. Original Abu and Carpet were better.
The Sultan. Douglas Seale voiced the original Sultan, and gave a delightful performance, with a few moments that he really made his own. Kicking Jafar’s staff and inadvertently knocking Iago off it to fly around his palace on the carpet was funny and charming, for example. He was a also a very loving father. Again, for no good reason in 2019, he seems like just a place holder. Original Sultan was better.
Dalia. Dalia, Jasmine’s handmaid, only exists in the 2019 version. Nasim Pedrad I think does a good job with what she’s given, and helps flesh out what kind of life Jasmine has and how she is with other people. The fact she is the love interest for the Genie is unexpected, but not unwelcome.
Overall the set pieces are terrific in both versions. There is a sense in the live action that we’re not really in ancient Persia, but rather the Disney version of it. Take a close look at the costumes, which look a lot like costumes instead of clothing. This is a bit nitpicky of me, but I am still mentioning it. It could have been better.
The Cave of Wonder suffers compared to the animated version. The massive treasure trove of gold and jewels just jumps out at the audience, and I was far more impressed with the temptation involved than in the live version.
There’s a bit at the end of the animated film when Jafar has the lamp and he makes a wish to “rule on high, as Sultan!” The Genie grows to colossal proportions, rips up the entire palace and places it on what looks like a mountain. It’s great. It’s absent in the live version, and I missed it, because I liked some of his more spectacular powers.
Songs are an important part of any Disney animated film, and they are mostly faithfully recreated in the live version. We are missing Jafar’s reprise of “Prince Ali” at the end, which I liked, but we do get “Speechless”, which I loved. I didn’t really care for the modern dancing in the film, but a lot of people did like it I suppose. Overall my thoughts about the music are summarized by my earlier comments about “Prince Ali.”
The plot is largely unchanged, as one would expect, even though the film is 30 minutes longer. We do get a different ending for the Genie, which I was okay with. I think both endings for the Genie are equally valid, speaking overall. One significant change is Jasmine’s desire to succeed her father and actually be the next Sultan, which I think is pretty ridiculous. While I’m glad we see her character be more of an actual character, and generally benefited from an update, this is going too far. Women can’t be sultans today in the middle East, let alone 600-1000 years ago, and it’s very much tied to a religion she herself would believe in! If her father were dumb enough to try make her Sultan, the people of her own nation would hate it and she’d be assassinated within a month. I suppose girls up through the age of adolescence will like it, but the adult audience simply has to say “well whatever, it’s a Disney movie.”
As I said to begin with, while this movie is overall pretty enjoyable, but it is not enjoyable on its own merits. The is a continuing issue I have with Disney. Disney at its best is able to make timeless classics that can be enjoyed for decades. At their worst they are out to make money, which is why they make endless sequels, and now live versions of animated projects instead of making new original content! I think in 20 years the original Aladdin will be still be watched and considered a classic, while the live version will be largely forgotten.