Aladdin (2019) Review
A ROUGH IN THE DIAMOND
In 1992, Disney released its 31st animated feature film titled Aladdin, which was based on the Arabian folktales from One Thousand- and One Nights short story collection, and explored a whimsical tale of adventure, enchantments, and love within its cartoon presentation. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the film, which starred the voice of Scott Weinger, Linda Larkin, Jonathan Freeman, Gilbert Gottfried, and Robin Williams, follows the tale of Aladdin, an Arabian street urchin, who finds a magic lamp containing a genie. In order to hide the lamp from the Grand vizier, he disguises himself as a wealthy prince, and tries to impress the Sultan and his daughter. With dazzling animation, a compelling story, solid voice talents (especially highlighted in Williams performance as Genie), and that classic Disney signature of its musical songs, Aladdin was met with positive reviews from critics and moviegoers alike when it was released back in November 1992 by garnishing over roughly $500 million at the worldwide box office and became the highest grossing animated feature film of all time; holding that position for nearly two before Disney’s 1994 The Lion King took that title. The film was even nominated at both the Academy Awards and Golden Globes that year, winning for Best Original Score and Best Song (i.e. A Whole New World) at both award ceremonies respectfully. Give the success of the film, Disney expanded upon the characters and setting of Aladdin into various spin-off projects, including two sequels (Return of Jafar and Aladdin and the King of Thieves), an episodic cartoon TV series of the same name, and a Broadway show. Now, roughly twenty-seven years since the 1992 was released, Walt Disney Studios and director Guy Ritchie present the latest endeavor from Disney’s reimagining their classic animated features with the 2019 live-action remake Aladdin. Is this live-action adaptation of the Disney classic a cinematic “diamond in the rough” or is it time that Disney puts aside the idea of revisiting its timeless treasures?
In the city of Agrabah, Aladdin (Mena Massoud), a street rat without a home and spends his days as a thief, taking from the rich and sharing with the poor. Without notice, Aladdin’s life gets turned upside; beginning the unexpected entanglement of a disguised Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), who wants to know more about life outside her family’s kingdom, spending her days within the care of her father, The Sultan (Navid Negahban), her handmaiden Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), and her pet tiger, Rajah. While they do eventually part ways, Aladdin falls in love with Jasmine, but The Sultan’s wicked advisor, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), has other plans, using the street rat as his “diamond in the rough” to find a magical lamp in the Cave of Wonders. Discovering the treasure, Aladdin releases the Genie (Will Smith), who offers the boy three wishes as well as helping hand of advice in the ways of life, love, and women. With the potential to try and win the hand of Jasmine’s affection, Aladdin uses one of his wishes to become a prince, arriving in Agrabah as Prince Ali. However, Jafar finds something quite odd about Jasmine’s new suitor, searching for ways to expose the princely figure and reclaim the power of the magic lamp for himself.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
As I mentioned in my cinematic flashback review for Disney original 1992 animated feature, Aladdin delivered on being an instant classic. Of course, the time of its released (during Disney’s Renaissance era of animated movies) also played a strong importance in the ultimate shaping of the film’s likeability; focusing heavily on the style of animation, storytelling motifs (i.e. a “rags to riches” fairy tale nuance), princesses, talking animal sidekicks, and big / catchy musical numbers. Thus, the 31st animated feature from Disney (and the 4th release during this “Renaissance” period) proved to effective by making its mark on both the industry of Hollywood an on the animated tapestry of Disney’s legacy. Much like what I said in review for 1992’s Aladdin, the movie is definitely a favorite of mine. I just watched recently (two priors seeing this new 2019 iteration) and the film still holds up in being a great cartoon feature…. even though it’s almost twenty-seven years old. The animation is still holds up (although I wasn’t too keen on the usage of CGI….but that’s just me), the songs I loved like “A Whole New World” and “Friend Like Me”, and some great voice talents behind the character, especially Robin Williams as Genie, who really made the character his own and truly made Aladdin that much more special…and I think that everyone can agree with that. I could go on my personal taste / reflections about this movie, but much of what I’ve thought about I wrote in my cinematic flashback review for the film (be sure to check it out). In the end, 1992’s Aladdin proved to his memorable endeavor and is clearly that the “like so many things, it is not what is outside, but what is inside that counts”.
This brings me back to talking about Aladdin, the 2019 live-action adaptation from Disney. Given the current trend of Disney revisiting its animated motion picture classic for live-action endeavors, it seemed clear that the “House of Mouse” would eventually get around to Aladdin and the wonderous tale he shares with the beautiful Princess Jasmine and the all-powerful Genie. I do remember hearing some talk about the movie a few years back with the announcement of director Guy Ritchie and the first photos of the film’s cast. Then the film’s various movie trailers and sneak peeks were released and shed more light on the movie, especially the pre-release “buzz” about actor / musician Will Smith being casted as Genie. Like some people out there, I wasn’t too convinced that Smith would make a good Genie, especially since Williams’s truly made the character his own. Still, even though I had some skepticism about the film, I still looked forward to seeing this 2019 version of Aladdin; hoping that expectations for it would be satisfied and not disappointing one. So, I went to go see the day it got released (Friday) before heading to work on the Memorial Day weekend. What did I think of it? Well, it was just an okay movie. Despite having a dazzling “visual” feast for the eyes within its presentation, Aladdin settles for a “greatest hits” of the 1992’s animated, undercooking a lot of the plot points and gets muddled within its story and characters. The movie isn’t exactly a letdown and plenty to like about it, but there’s definitely many parts of the film that were either underwhelming and / or a misfire with its execution.
Aladdin is directed by Guy Ritchie, whose previous directorial works include such films like Sherlock Holmes (and its sequel…Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows), The Man from U.N.C.L.E, and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. I’ll admit (and I think that many will agree) that Ritchie is somewhat of a “dark horse” / odd-choice to helm such a project endeavor in bringing the classic 1992 animated feature of Aladdin to the live-action realm. Still, Ritchie’s valiant efforts are heavily presented in making his iteration of a live-action endeavor for Disney’s Aladdin is pretty admirable, making the feature fun and energetic throughout the its runtime. Given the fact that 1992’s Aladdin is chock full of lighthearted nuances and comedic charm (wrapping the guise of a fairy tale narrative with Disney’s signature style aspects), Ritchie plays up to those notions within his live-action version, keeping Aladdin very much a kid-friendly affair that’s quite easily to follow with a straight-forward narrative that has all the classic storytelling elements from the original Disney tale. Because of this, Aladdin works in making sure that the film hits all the right moments (story beats), with Richie making the movie fun and entertaining. In addition to directing, Ritchie also pays “double duty” on Aladdin by having a hand in shaping the movie’s script / screenplay, with John August co-writing it with him. While a lot of the classic story is still there, Ritchie / August script expands on several new avenues in Aladdin’s narrative, especially in the character of Princess Jasmine, who does plenty more to do in this live-action version than in the original animated feature.
What’s definitely the absolute highlight of this 2019 live-action remake of Aladdin is in its visual / technical presentation. First, there is the film’s visual effects, which (as to be expected) are heavily utilized to tell some of the more “fantastic” elements that the feature displays. Most of these effect shots are what many would consider standard for a Disney’s caliber blockbuster, but (to be honest) I’ve seen better in some of their past endeavor (i.e. 2017’s Beauty and the Beast). That being said, some of the visual effect shots definitely do work…. most notable in the expansiveness wide-shots of Agrabah, which looks spectacular to see. The city is definitely a different design and layout (even near a body of water) as well as a new exterior look for The Sultan’s palace. Some might cry foul on those changes (even if there are small), but I really do like the new visual design layout of Agrabah, which makes for a realized iteration and makes the live-action stand apart (in a good way) to the 1992 film. In conjunction with that notion, the film’s art direction team deserves praise for creating a “whole new world” within this classic Disney tale, making the feature’s conceptual designs quite compelling (visually speaking) to look at. In addition, the film’s cinematography work, which is done by Alan Stewart, offers up plenty of appealing and cinematically great shots of camera angles that lend credence for dramatic poise.
What’s is the absolute best that I personally love about Aladdin’s visual presentation is in the costume designs and attires that all the various characters (whether major, minor, or background characters). To say that all the costumes in 2019’s Aladdin are absolute breathtakingly color is truly a bit of a understatement as each costume piece is detailed rendering in such vibrant, colorful, and fantastical designs that are wrapped in Middle-Eastern / Indian styles of clothing traditions. Thus, the costume designs by Michael Wilkinson are something that should be highly praised in the clothing attire for Aladdin’s cast of characters. All the other filmmaking technical categories, including production designs by Gemma Jackson and set decorations by Tina Jones, Claire Nia Richards, and Luke Townshend present quality work / efforts in its visibly seeing in how Aladdin’s presentation is displayed.
In addition, the film’s score is once again composed by Alan Menken, who did the scoring for the original 1992 feature, and continues to play an instrumental component in the likeability of the feature. Menken’s score for this 2019 version offers up plenty of melodies from the original animated movie and definitely feels like a compliment to the 1992 cartoon picture; harmonizing to the two features within its musical motifs and scores. Speaking of music, 2019’s Aladdin does showcase all the original film’s musical numbers, presenting each one with a sense of dazzling vibrancy and jubilation energy of which made the quite memorable way back in 1992. Songs like “Agrabah Nights”, “A Whole New World”, and “Prince Ali” are all well-presented in the lyrical tones and visual appeal, so it all works out in the live-action translation. What does work the best for this 2019 iteration of Disney’s Aladdin is in the song “Friend Like Me”, which almost duplicates completely the imaginative / energetic presentation to the original song. The only one that doesn’t quite work is in the film’s second song “One Step Ahead”. It’s a bit of a misfire and doesn’t have the same fun and energetic tone / charm as the Disney classic was able to achieve. Maybe that’s because of the film’s heavy emphasis on chasing action scenes through the streets Agrabah or maybe because of the song solely relies on Massoud’s singing talents (more on that below), but “One Step Ahead” seems a bit weak. However, what does this 2019’s version offers up is a new original song that definitely is a crowd please. The song, which is titled “Speechless”, was made for the character of Jasmine to sing (presenting insight into her character’s frustration) is definitely a sort of rallying battle cry for her plight in the movie and definitely is empowering for character. In addition, the song was written by Pasek & Paul (Benji Pasek and Justin Paul), the duo songwriters behind the various songs from La La Land and The Greatest Showman, so you definitely know that the lyrics of “Speechless” are gonna be powerful and… well rather good. Thus, this new original song is definitely a win for the movie.
Unfortunately, Aladdin does have some missteps within its theatrical proceedings and cinematic execution, which makes the film not quite exactly a “whole new world” for this live-action reimagining. How so? Well, the original 1992 cartoon movie was truly spectacular and definitely a timeless classic in its narrative. Thus, the translation of that memorable 1992 tale to the 2019 live-action realm gets muddled in its presentation. To be sure, the story that many of us out there know (and love) from the original Disney film is still very much there, but the script handling of it all and even some directorial execution decisions from Ritchie is what causes the film to falter. For those who don’t know, the Disney’s 1992 Aladdin was 90 minutes (i.e. an hour and half) long and was able to tell a lot within that timeframe (both in laughs, drama, and songs). The 2019’s Aladdin is 128 minutes long (i.e. two hours and eight minutes), so that’s an additionally 38 minutes added. However, the longer runtime for this live-action remake doesn’t work or rather only works sometimes as Richie sacrifices certain scenes and sequences in favor of new plot lines roots. This most apparent in the feature’s first act, which seems rather rushed in introducing us (the viewer) to this cinematic world and the character therein. To me, it all just feels slightly disjointed as the film struggles to create momentum within the feature’s main cast of characters. This is also even prevalent in the movie’s final third act, where the climatic battle against Jafar takes place. It just feels underwhelming and rushed and disappointingly lackluster to a certain degree.
In truth, Ritchie was play all of Aladdin’s “greatest hits” within his live-action retelling motion picture and, while that’s exactly a terrible idea, but the film needs to be executed in a way (both in presentation and in script handling) that flows correctly and well-developed; walking a fine line between memorable nostalgia and original creative fun. However, that idea backfires a lot more than succeeding, with several of the story / plot points being vaguely “undercooked” and just feeling mediocre, lacking the dramatic punch the narrative needs in being both familiar and original. Thus, in the end, Aladdin has all the story elements that we (the viewers) can expect, but it’s bit a underwhelming and feels lacks in various sequences in this 2019 iteration.
Additionally, while the movie tries to expand upon certain ideas in order to flesh out certain character builds (more so than the 1992 movie did), several of them fall flat. This is most apparent in the character of Jafar as Ritchie / August’s script tries to delve into the mind of The Sultan’s wicked royal vizier in showcasing “why” he’s evil. Unfortunately, beyond the vague notion of tired of being “second best”, the script doesn’t really do much to flesh him out. In addition, the movie keeps on hinting about Jafar wanting to invade Jasmine’s mother’s kingdom, but the story never explains why Jafar wants to attack that particular kingdom? It just seems like that idea was left on the cutting room floor. Personally, the characterization of Jafar was better handled (and better written) in the Disney animated feature than in this 2019 live-action version. Also, the other two areas that are expanded upon in Jasmine and Genie, while quite compelling and are quite favorable addition, seem to distract away from the actually plot of Aladdin storyline. What do I mean? Well, there are several sequences (most involving Jasmine’s personal storyline) that don’t have the character of Aladdin in that scene….and for great length periods. Thus, the new expansion storyline for James, while palpable and justly so updates the character, gets away from itself as Ritchie seems more interested in Jasmine than Aladdin, who (again) is suppose to be the main character of the movie.
The cast in Aladdin is a diverse one, with a mixture of recognizable / unknowns that make up the feature’s various characters (both major and minor ones). However, some of them shine better than others, with some being underwhelming in their performances Of course, who actually shines the best (and brightest) of the entire film is (much like the original 1992 movie) is the character of Genie, who is played musician / actor Will Smith. Of course, the casting of Will Smith, known for his musical talents (back when he was during his “Fresh Prince” days) as well as his acting roles in Men in Black, I am Legend, and Bad Boys, in the role of Aladdin’s Genie was definitely a point of discussion, criticism, and speculation, especially since the late actor Robin Williams made the character truly iconic in the original animated film What made Williams’s performance as Genie so timelessly fun is the way the comedian actor infused his energetic sense of style and humor in the role as well as his wildly fun idea of riffing / mimicking of famous celebrities. Luckily, Smith doesn’t do that in this version of Aladdin, making Genie more of his own with likeable charm and screen presence. Of course, the character of Genie is still very much a “larger-than-life” character with a multi-façade charismatic personality as Smith’s theatrical bravado and swagger is felt very much within his performance in the movie, which makes the character quite endearing and easy likeable. Plus, given musical background talents, Smith’s singing parts are rather really good, especially in “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali”. In the end, the likeability of Smith’s Genie depends on your personal likeability of Will Smith in general. Some might like him, some might not, but I personally liked him in the role and definitely made the character the best part of the story…. much like what Williams did in the 1992 version.
Behind Smith’s Genie is actress Naomi Scott, who plays the role of the Princess Jasmine, Aladdin’s love interest and the princess of Agrabah. Scott, known for her roles in The 33, Terra Nova, and Power Rangers, is simply terrific in the role, playing Jasmine with a sense of regal confidence as well as hopeful and determined young female rather than a stereotypical princess archetype. Of course, 1992’s character build for Jasmine was also quite good (with actress Linda Larkin providing the voice), but 2019’s Aladdin sees the Princess of Agrabah’s storyline expanded upon and updating her involvement in the narrative, which (again) makes for compelling roundness to her character arc, with Scott playing up the role in great fashion in a way that makes her quite easy to root for throughout the movie. As mentioned above, the film’s new original song “Speechless” is quite an impactful song for the character of Jasmine and Scott definitely proves that her vocal pipes are truly great and definitely owns the song from start to finish. Plus, her parts in “A Whole New World” are equally impressive as well. In the end, Scott’s Jasmine definitely works in the film’s favor and definitely acts and looks part (and that’s a really good thing).
If Smith’s Genie and Scott’s Jasmine provide the very best of the film’s cast, then actors Mena Massoud and Marwan Kenzari are the very worst, filling the titular roles of hero and villain with Aladdin and the Jafar respectfully. Massoud, known for his roles in Run This Town, Power, and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, doesn’t really leave any impactful presence with the feature’s title character. Sure, he definitely looks the part and is up for the task (both acting and singing), but he just doesn’t fit the bill. In truth, he seems more of unsure / sheepish iteration of the character rather than a more cunning / confidence street rat thief. This is most apparent when he’s paired up against Smith’s Genie on-screen and just ends up being uninteresting and underwhelming, despite the fact that he’s the true hero of the story. In addition, Massoud’s singing talents are mediocre as it isn’t earsplitting painful, but it’s not exactly the best and could’ve been (or rather should’ve been) overdubbed with another person’s singing voice. His chemistry with Jasmine is somewhat there, but isn’t quite “electrifying” as it should’ve been. Thus, Massoud’s Aladdin ends up being less than favorable choice for the role and probably could’ve played by someone else (and get a better final theatrical result for it).
In a very similar fashion, Kenzari, known for his roles in Ben-Hur, What Happened to Monday, and Murder on the Orient Express, is straight up miscast from the very start. Of course, I’m not discrediting Kenzari’s acting talents, but he clearly is not the best actor to be play Jafar, a character made wickedly fun and downright evil (definitely one of the better Disney villains) by Jonathan Freeman in the original Aladdin film as well as several spin-off projects. Much like Massoud, Kenzari definitely looks the part of Jafar, but isn’t exactly an evil villain for this classic story and ends up just as a meekly adversary for the film’s main characters. As said above, Ritchie / August’s script tries to lay the ground as to why Jafar is evil, but the result is quite flimsy, with Kenzari trying his best to make the character work with what material he’s given. Unfortunately, what’s given and what he shapes with it isn’t exactly the best and just ends up being the absolute worst thing about this 2019’s Aladdin; making the character of Jafar more a cartoonish caricature than the actually cartoon iteration.
In a more supporting is the character of The Sultan, the ruler of Agrabah and Princess Jasmine’s father, who is played by actor Navid Negahban (Homeland and 12 Strong). While the character of the Sultan was made for a slightly more “comical relief” in the original animated feature, this particular film makes the character a little bit more mature; acting a bit more wise and noble ruler. Thus, the change in character is perfectly fine with Negahban fitting the bill quite masterfully in his physical appearance and somewhat gruff-sounding voice. With the movie following the original animated film as a blueprint, 2019’s Aladdin does make room for a one or two new additions to the already established list of characters. The one that clearly stands out is in the character of Dalia, Princess Jasmine’s personal handmaiden. Played by actress Nasim Pedrad (Saturday Night Live and Despicable Me 2), Dalia is, more or less, a side character, but offers a sort of “breath of fresh air” to the very familiar tale and does offer a little bit more humor to the film as well as in Genie’s minor expansion narrative. Thus, the character works and is a welcomed addition.
Rounding out the cast are several minor characters, including actor Robby Haynes (Dirk Gently and A Thousand Kisses Deep) as the captain of the city guard, Razoul, and actor Billy Magnussen (Into the Woods and Game Night) as Prince Anders, a new character for the film as a princely suitor from the kingdom of Skånland for Jasmine. While Hayne’s Razoul is perfectly fine (as a minor character), I kind of was expecting Magnussen’s Prince Anders to play a large part, especially since the media / internet made a such a big deal about the casting announcement of him. As a side-note, actor Alan Tuxy (Firefly and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) provides the voice for Iago, Jafar’s scarlet macaw companion (marking the first time that comedian actor Gilbert Gottfried didn’t voice the character), and famed voice actor Frank Welker, who provided the voiceover work for 1992’s Aladdin (i.e. Abu, Rajah, and the Cave of Wonders), provides the voicework for the Cave of Wonders in this new version.
It’s time that I told you the story of Aladdin, the princess, and the lamp in the movie Aladdin. Director Guy Ritchie’s latest feature sees the reimagine of Disney’s 1992 classic for a new live-action storytelling medium; bringing a certain visual pomp and circumstance to the film’s proceedings. Unfortunately, while the movie is impressive in its colorful presentation, it’s still catchy musical numbers, and a surpassingly great performance with Smith’s Genie and Scott’s Jasmine, the film does stumble in translating the narrative’s story beats with a rushed “greatest hits” flow and an underwhelming misfire representation within the characters of the story’s hero and villain (i.e. Aladdin and Jafar). To me, I thought that this was movie was somewhere between okay and good. Much like 2019’s Dumbo, it held my interest and was quite entertaining, but I wasn’t completely “wowed” by this live-action treatment at one of my personal favorite Disney animated classics. In truth, I still prefer the 1992 animated version versus the 2019 one (and I think that many will agree with that). Thus, my recommendation for the movie is a solid “iffy-choice” as it will undoubtedly have mixed thoughts, views, and opinions amongst moviegoers out there. It’s still fun and entertaining, but not quite as fun and entertaining as its original film was. In truth, Aladdin, despite the positives that actually do work, falls to being one of the weaker entries in Disney’s live-action cinematic endeavors; proving once again not every Disney classic needs to be revisited and translated into a new theatrical form. In the end, the character of Aladdin is to be considered a “diamond in the rough”, but this 2019 live-action version acts more like a “rough in the diamond”.
Also, a personal side note, Aladdin is my 425th movie review since I’ve started blogging. It’s another personal milestone for me and for Jason’s Movie Blog. Anyway…thank you to my readers, followers, and fellow bloggers. I couldn’t have done it without you!!!
3.4 Out of 5 (Iffy-Choice)
Released On: May 24th, 2019
Reviewed On: May 26th, 2019
Aladdin is 128 minutes and is rated PG for some action / peril