The string of Disney’s live action remakes serve a two-fold purpose. To today’s kids, these are their Disney movies, bringing all the magic and wonder that special name entails. Meanwhile, to those of us who remember seeing the “originals” in theaters, these serve as a nostalgic trip down memory lane. This formula has meant box office gold in the past for the “House of Mouse” and as a result, Aladdin isn’t the only live action remake audiences will be seeing this summer. Now the question must be asked: is this a Dumbo or a Beauty and the Beast?
Aladdin follows the age old story of the titular “street rat” (Mena Massoud) as he meets the adorably spunky Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), finds the Genie (Will Smith) and works to take out the evil Jafar (Marwan Kenzari). Guy Ritchie directs the film from a script he co-wrote with John August.
There are a lot of pieces at play in Guy Ritchie’s reimagining of the classic story. As with any remake, casting becomes a loaded and interesting discussion. Audiences bring complicated expectations. Performers face the daunting task of incorporating enough of their predecessor’s characterization that the parts feel familiar, while still crafting a character which feels original to the new actor and their skill set. This isn’t too hard, is it?
Like its live action remake predecessor, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin’s casting runs the gamut from well thought out to a bit tricky…
The film struggles in the casting of Will Smith, who has the thankless task of stepping into Robin Williams‘ formidable shoes. This isn’t saying Will Smith doesn’t work in the film. There are sequences when the story steps away from its Disney source material, and when Smith isn’t handcuffed to playing Williams genie, he’s absolutely stellar. For example, he shines in the new “jam” sequence which follows Prince Ali. He’s funny, charismatic and above all, likable. He brings his own persona to the character, and it all at once feels new and fresh. Will Smith is a different performer with a completely different set of skills, Disney could (and should) have tailored the Genie to fit Smith and not attempted to shoe-horn the talented Smith into Williams performance.
These struggles feel particularly noticeable in Genie’s big numbers, “Never Had a Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali”. Most of the movie’s music numbers are taken almost shot for shot from the 1992 version, so there are very few places for performers to hide. This isn’t a problem new to Disney, as they faced the same issues with Emma Watson‘s performance in 2018’s Beauty and the Beast. Unfortunately the studio packed their rosters with tremendous live (and often Broadway caliber) talent during the peak of their 1990s animated era. While the current performers are no less skilled, they excel in different styles and it seems almost unfair to expect them to sell this material with so few changes.
Similarly, the casting of Marwan Kenzari as Jafar is a confused step for the film. This doesn’t even take into account his reputation as “Sexy Jafar” online. While Kenzari puts forward a perfectly respectable performance, his persona does not mesh with Jafar’s reputation of a Disney villain. Jafar… Scar… Gaston… Disney villains of this era are large, brash and almost Shakespearean.
Kenzari’s performance doesn’t gel with this association. As a result, he doesn’t feel particularly villainous. Kenzari feels staggeringly human in his portrayal. Rather, the film seems to be using Jafar more as a plot device than an actual villain. This Jafar is less Rasputin (as he was in 1992) and is instead more relatable. Does this work? In this construction, Aladdin seems to be using Jafar to highlight the conflict inherent in the titular character. If he’s not careful, there’s very little keeping the good-hearted “street rat” from turning into this embittered bad guy. Ultimately, it is this reading which works best with Kenzari’s performance; however, the fact that it’s necessary to dig to this level is a failing on part of the movie.
In fact, it is Massoud who emerges as the standout of the film. The young actor, who has been wetting his feet on Canadian television, launches himself on the international scene with his take on the titular character. As the action opens, Massoud immediately demonstrates a mischievous charisma perfect for the role. In fact, the casting is spot-on down to his vocal skills. In his hands, Aladdin is all at once a fun and sympathetic character. Here’s to seeing more from this talented performer in the future.
Meanwhile, the passage of time does necessitate some changes to the narrative, particularly as it relates to Princess Jasmine. It is around her character that the film crafts most of its changes. In this newer take on the story, Jasmine is pressed through a rather stereotypical Disney feminist filter. Her midriff is covered, Jasmine has a solo, and she wants to be sultan. However, in true Disney fashion, it’s a shallow equality.
Scott absolutely slays the newly written “Speechless” (she is by far and away the best singer of the bunch), but ultimately the feminism barely extends past the song. The feminism of the Disney Princess is constructed largely of buzzwords. She talks a great game, but when it comes to the romantic narrative, the story follows the classic model. Times are changing and ultimately, unless Disney begins to strain against their age old models, things are going to become increasingly challenging with each passing live-action remake.
On the other hand, Aladdin hits screens with a definite note of positive representation. Films like Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther have shown the power of an audience seeing characters who ‘look like them’. When word of the movie broke and even into production, there were questions of white-washing. However, when all is said and done, the production brings together a culturally diverse cast from places like Egypt, Iran and India. When considering Disney’s history of white-washing (just google the vocal talent in the 1992 version), this is most definitely a bright step in a new direction.
Finally, the often dour Ritchie brings a visual flair to Aladdin which makes the family film a complete joy to watch. Mostly at home in British gangster films, this is more the Ritchie we saw at the helm of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. When given the right opportunity and the correct script, he brings a tremendous, dynamic visual flair. The set design, the cinematography and the staging of Aladdin are all an absolute treat.
Ultimately, Disney’s Aladdin is not a perfect movie. However, the film does hit all the right notes when it comes to nostalgia and representation. The film is bubbly and fun, a bright spot in what can often be a dark world. This is what Disney is best at… bringing out the kid in all of us. Fans of the original film should definitely add this one to their list.
Aladdin is playing in theaters around the country now.