Cynics can criticize Disney's recent practice of remaking their most famous animated features into live-action extravaganzas for being the result of corporate decisions over creative onesand they'd probably be rightbut here's a newsflash for the uninformed: studios are in the business of making money. If such films featured a great story in one cinematic medium, chances are they can be pretty good in another. "Aladdin," from writer-director Guy Ritchie (2015's "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
") and co-scribe John August (2012's "Frankenweenie
"), stays true to the 1992 version (best known, perhaps, for Robin Williams' comedically inspired vocal performance as a fast-talking genie) while freshening it up with much-needed modern touches and a tad less cultural insensitivity. Fantasy, comedy, music, adventure, thrills"Aladdin" has got it all, wrapped up in pretty package and topped with a feel-good, class-shattering romantic bow.
Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a parentless street thief with a heart of gold. Jasmine (Naomi Scott) is the princess of Agrabah, fighting off societal pressures to marry a prince while struggling to find her own voice in a country which views women as better seen than heard. They're from vastly different backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses, yet both face similar adversities in a land that devalues and underestimates them. At different times, Aladdin and Jasmine feel the need to shield their true identities: when they first meet on the sandy streets of the city, she claims to be the princess' handmaiden, and after Aladdin finds himself the owner of a magical lamp, his first wish to the Genie (Will Smith) is to be made a prince. They don't wish to be anyone but themselves; indeed, they see their disguises as necessities in the moment, and for Aladdin, his only chance to be with the person he loves. By contrast, the schemes of power-hungry grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) are altogether more nefarious; as chief adviser to Jasmine's father, the Sultan (Navid Negahban), he will do whatever it takes to usurp the throne, and his best chance at achieving this is to steal the powerful lamp in Aladdin's possession.
The story and tone "Aladdin" has to work with is light yet clever, on the goofier side but grandly entertaining. Director Guy Ritchie stays within the lines of the source material while blessing it with a welcome new layer of substance and consequence. Jasmine, especially, has been reimagined as a more dynamic and proactive figure, confronting the sexism she faces in her everyday life and given the film's most show-stopping musical number, an original song from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul called "Speechless." Naomi Scott (2017's "Power Rangers") slays this scene and most of the others; she is a wonderful Jasmine, headstrong yet frustrated by an archaic system, intelligent but sorely underappreciated. For their parts, relative newcomer Mena Massoud is a likable, resourceful Aladdin, and Will Smith (2016's "Suicide Squad
") surprises by jovially and charmingly making the Genie his own rather than a pale imitation of Robin Williams. Initial reservations following early trailers over Smith's blue-skinned appearance prove unfounded; he works just fine in the context of the picture. Special note goes to consummate standout Nasim Pedrad (2015's "Cooties
"), finding warmth and natural humor in Jasmine's confidante, handmaiden Dalia. Of the cast, Marwan Kenzari (2017's "The Mummy
") is the weakest link as the villainous Jafar, only fulfilling the threatening requirements of the role during the genuinely riveting climactic showdown.
Out of the entirety of Disney's catalogue, "Aladdin" and its songs (written by Alan Menken) have never been favorites; they're more solidly workmanlike than sterling breakouts. With that stated, this is a remake to be proud of, a resplendently imagined family feature that lives up toand, in some crucial empowering ways, surpassesthe animated original. The magic carpet-set centerpiece number, "A Whole New World," is an enchanting delight, while the Genie's "Friend Like Me" is adeptly versed and energetically concocted (at the other end of the spectrum, the less said about the tackily revised end-credits version from Will Smith ft. DJ Khaled, the better). This writer's new fantastic point of view: "Aladdin" is brash and wise and just plain fun, appreciably unpretentious yet conscientiously progressive enough to make a deeper lasting mark.