“Aladdin’’ has so much hypnotic magic, that it’s no mystery why Disney decided to make a live-action version. And while Guy Ritchie’s adaptation is not a whole new world, it does have its charms. Of course it does. It’s a tried-and-true Disney story full of action, romance and relatable themes about power, love, and having the courage to “do you,” as the kids say. And Disney is certainly doing Disney. The Mouse House rolls along, converting another of its beloved animated titles into a live-action cash grab. “Aladdin” is the second of three remakes this year. “Dumbo” was a dud, and “The Lion King” arrives in July.
The animated version of “Aladdin” was the highest-grossing movie of 1992, earning $504 million and two Academy Awards for Alan Menken’s unforgettable music. To say the film has a built-in audience is an understatement. But, I hate to say it: There’s absolutely no need for these movies, even though this one offers delights. As the blue genie who grants Aladdin three wishes, Will Smith doesn’t make you forget Robin Williams outsized performance, but he does succeed in making the character his own, adding hip-hop flair and attitude. Ditto for Naomi Scott, a breath of fresh air as Princess Jasmine, proving more progressive, politically charged and “born to do more than marry a useless prince.”
“Aladdin” also benefits from Ritchie, best known for his stylized British gangster flicks, “Rock N Rolla” and “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.” He contributes an edge and verve, especially in the fast-paced action sequences showing Aladdin in full parkour mode, tumbling, jumping and crashing through the twisty alleys, corridors and rooftops of the busy fictitious port city of Agrabah. Smartly, Ritchie, working from a script he co-wrote with John August (“Dark Shadows,” “Big Fish”), does not stray far from the original material. Their script adds some girl power, which is fine by me. It also adds an empowering new song for Jasmine, “Speechless,” which was written by “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman” songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The incredible songs (“Friend Like Me”) by Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice are still well intact, too. You’ll again experience the warm fuzzies when Jasmine and the roguish Aladdin (Mena Massoud, with dimples that don’t quit) take off on their magic carpet ride, set to the Oscar-winning ballad, “A Whole New World.”
“Aladdin” is based on the “Arabian Nights’’ tale about a thieving “street rat” who finds a magic lamp containing a genie with the power to grant three wishes. Aladdin’s first wish is pretty predictable: To become a prince so he can woo Princess Jasmine, the young woman he meets-cute in the marketplace after she flees the palace to escape potential suitors (Billy Magnussen, arrogant and hysterical). Aladdin doesn’t know who she is, but recognizes a kindred spirit, longing to “escape what they are.” Freedom, in fact, is a recurring theme, with the most trapped character being the genie, locked away for centuries inside the lamp, only released to fulfill someone’s selfish desires. In the end, Aladdin will have an important choice to make.
Every fairy tale has a villain, and Jafar (Marwan Kenzari, “Murder on the Orient Express”) is the story’s weak link because he’s not scary. The second-in-command, he’s on a mission to get the lamp and overthrow the sultan (Navid Negahban). Jafar’s wicked sidekick, a parrot named Iago, is far more amusing than his boss. Aladdin’s pal, the mischievous monkey, Abu, is equally a hoot, often responsible for getting Aladdin in and out of trouble. Nasim Pedrad (“Saturday Night Live”) as Dalia, Princess Jasmine’s free-spirited handmaiden, adds another boost of comedy to balance Aladdin and Jasmine’s more serious aspect, which grows tedious.
Though I was pleasantly distracted by Michael Wilkinson’s divine jewel-toned costumes, the movie still runs out of steam. Except for Genie. The big blue guy steals the show. In sticking with the wish fulfillment theme, my first command, is for a reinvigorated Smith to keep the swagger going.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Nasim Pedrad, Navid Negahban.
(PG for some action/peril).