Robin Williams once famously described 1992’s Aladdin as a “Warner Brothers cartoon in Disney drag,” speaking of course about how his role as the Genie was one of Disney’s more explicitly cartoonish of their animated creations, playing off the improvisational energy that Williams provided and serving as the centerpiece around which the entire rest of the film was developed and produced. Particularly after Williams’ passing, adapting Aladdin as a live-action remake seems particularly misguided for just this reason. Despite their fantastical elements, stories like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Beauty and the Beast are centered around relatively grounded protagonists, with the exaggerated expressionism of cartoons taking second fiddle to the plot machinations of Disney’s fairy tale universalism. Aladdin’s a bit of a different animal than that as one of the few Disney animated properties that explicitly exists as a star vehicle, so any adaptation would necessarily need to find a new foundation upon which to build itself.
The results are understandably mixed in this remake as Williams is succeeded by Will Smith and the film developed with that supplantation of very different '90s pop energy is a chimerical amalgamation of Smith’s personality, director Guy Ritchie’s particular predilections and failings as a director, enhanced roles for female characters that play like gangbusters, and the same sorts of tired nostalgia-baiting we’ve come to expect from these Disney live-action remakes.
It’s that last point which will probably detract the most from a lot of people’s enjoyment, and if you’re one of those folks who just want to see your cartoons acted out by real people, then sure, the recreation is serviceable. The problem this time isn’t so much that these scenes don’t work in isolation so much as they don’t really gel with the additions made in the process of adapting to live action and updating to modernity. There are many moments where lines of dialogue are lifted directly from the animated film, but not only does Mena Massoud play Aladdin with much less swagger and more dorkly charm than his cartoon counterpart, Will Smith’s too-cool-for-this attitude really doesn’t jive with the over-the-top eccentricities of Williams’ take on the character. When the actors are allowed to live in their versions of the character, they’re great – though Massoud seems much more comfortable with physical performance than comedic dialogue – but every reference back to the cartoon feels jarring in how it clearly feels written with different actors and performances in mind.
This extends also to Ritchie’s direction, particularly in the musical sequences, which lean so heavily on production design, costuming, and dance choreography - all excellent, for the record - so as to replicate the feeling of the cartoon that there’s relatively little effort put into adding a third dimension to the cinematography or making sure the singing at least feels appropriately naturalistic, even to the heightened reality the film exists within. The musical moments occasionally drop to the level of amateur stage production, as singing is also not among Massoud’s talents despite his best efforts, and all that charisma can’t really disguise how immobile Smith is when his face isn’t zipping around on a big blue cartoon. (And yes, it looks much less uncanny in the finished product than the initial marketing would lead you to believe.) Ritchie’s style fares much better in the action beats, which aren’t extensive but at least allow Massoud to play around with parkour athleticism and within adequate digital spectacle.
However, for as much as I’ve been dragging Aladdin to this point, I think this is one of the better attempts to realize one of Disney’s animated features in live action, at least in terms of performance. Massoud and Smith have great on-screen chemistry, and though Smith has to do a lot of the heavy lifting on the comedy, when he’s allowed to essentially be the Fresh Dad of Agrabah, he makes the character his own. Billy Magnussen gets a couple of scenes as Jasmine’s clueless potential suitor from another kingdom and is a laugh riot. Marwan Kenzari’s turn as Jafar is afforded a level of nuance that’s actually pretty clever, framing his pursuit of power as a means of feeding his own megalomaniacal insecurities. Nasim Pedrad portrays a new character in Jasmine’s handmaiden, and we desperately need to see this woman in more comedies, because she completely steals the show with her hopeless flirting with the Genie.
The film’s real MVP, though, is Naomi Scott as Jasmine. Given a meaty subplot that directly combats the question of why Jasmine necessarily needs to marry a prince to ascend to the throne in a merely secondary capacity, Scott plays the role with the screen presence of a movie star. Her Jasmine is clever, funny, and continually one step ahead of everyone around her, and she belts out original songs written specifically for this remake with an engrossing intensity. After a performance this good, Naomi Scott deserves to be a household name, no question.
Aladdin is definitely cheesy and messy, as cynically produced as the other live-action Disney fare and even more nakedly pandering at times, but where that cheese is allowed to manifest into a distinct work of art driven by a great collection of performances, it’s actually a pretty fun time. It never quite gets out from underneath Robin Williams’ shadow, but Disney clearly doesn’t want it to. Hopefully whatever the next batch of these live-action remakes turns out to be will lean into the lessons of this film, which works best when it’s trying something new and playing to the strengths of the current cast and crew, rather than trying to retrofit everything into a nostalgic mold.