While not flawless, Guy Ritchie’s tackling of Aladdin respectfully updates and enhances the original, without obliterating its foundations.
Starring Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad and Billy Magnussen
The plot of Disney’s Aladdin should be familiar to most: released in 1992, Aladdin tells the tale of “street rat” Aladdin, who encounters Princess Jasmine in the streets of Agrabah, without realising that she is a princess. This is revealed to Aladdin when he is arrested and Jasmine tries to release him. Aladdin is being used by the Royal Vizier Jafar to procure a genie’s lamp from the Cave of Wonders. Though Jafar believes he has tricked Aladdin, Aladdin uses the Genie to reinvent himself as Prince Ali so that he might marry Jasmine.
The plot of the live-action version is pretty much unchanged, though there have been subtle differences. For example, Jafar never disguises himself to Aladdin as an old man, depriving us of the delightfully creepy transformation of cackling old man to Jafar. Additionally, Jasmine never believes Aladdin to have been killed while captured by Jafar, as she does at the beginning of the animated movie. We also do not encounter Jasmine or Aladdin before they meet each other in the market place. There’s also an abhorrent beginning credits sequence in which Guy Ritchie pisses his name over the screen, in an effort to say “I made this”, robbing Iago and Jafar’s quest to break into the Cave of Wonders to something with less drama and grit than it could have had, considering his nefarious intentions.
These small changes aside, the performances of the actors are wonderful. Mena Massoud is brilliant as leading man Aladdin, who is both awkward and charming in his own way. He highlights his character’s insecurities and more roguish elements and isn’t afraid of making Aladdin appear unlikeable at times. Will Smith is perhaps the talking point of the film, especially considering how wonderfully Robin Williams played the role in the original. Smith is wise here in not attempting to emulate Williams’ performance, but rather put his own spin on things. Smith’s Genie is energetic and unpredictable, performing the role more similar to Aladdin’s equal and buddy instead of servant as in the original. He also receives his own romantic subplot with Jasmine’s handmaiden, Dalia, contributing to many of the comedic moments in the film, as well as making his quandary at betraying Aladdin at the end of the film even more momentous.
Dalia herself, played by Nasim Pedrad, is simply delightful. Her line delivery is spot on, and it’s nice for Jasmine to have a friend in the palace instead of only existing when she talks to Aladdin or her father. On the less-positive side, however, Jafar in the hands of Marwan Kenzari loses all of the sinister edges that his cartoon character possessed. In no ways is he a commanding villain, and his quest to destabilise Agrabah for his own ends is more irksome than evil. The pacing of his evil plan is also damaged in this version, as much of the focus is given to trying to stop Jafar from getting the lamp, which almost makes what happens when he actually gets the lamp (which is limited to one room) have less stakes, especially considering his actions in turning into a giant snake and trapping Jasmine in an hour glass that were present in the original.
The shining light of this film is Jasmine, played by Naomi Scott. Really, this film is more hers than it is Aladdin’s. Benefitting from a cinematic era that seeks to explore the female experience, Jasmine’s story is rewritten from a young girl who does not want to get married to someone she doesn’t love to an indignant response to not being able to rule herself. Jasmine here is presented as headstrong and learned, keen to follow in her father’s footsteps and be Sultan herself. However, she finds that with her father and Jafar in charge, she is frequently ignored and powerless, leading to a delightful new power ballad, “Speechless”. Indeed, the second time she sings this, we see her development to finding her confidence and strength, as well as proving to those around her that she is incredibly able in her own merit, without a husband. Her reinterpretation as a fiercely intelligent and independent Princess is hugely welcome, and it is truly a triumph of this version.
As well as this, the film is visually beautiful, boasting many different colours and many musical numbers full of energy and frenetic movement. The film has also been beautifully cast, featuring many brown-skinned actors, though not all of them hail from the Middle East, where the fictional land of Agrabah is meant to be. Some lyrical changes have also been brought in to make it more culturally appropriate, such as adapting “Sunday salaam” to “Friday salaam” to coincide with the Muslim Holy Day.
While some changes are appropriate, some are somewhat jarring, such as “Heard Your Princess is hot…where is she?”, which is awkward considering it doesn’t fit the meter of the song, as well as being crass towards the female protagonist, whose storyline is meant to have moved significantly past where this line suggests it should be. Additionally, the rhythm of “One Jump Ahead” has been changed, which makes it slightly clunky to listen to. However, all of the new songs have benefitted from great orchestrations, including more oriental instruments involved. One quibble with the direction of the film, however, would be Ritchie’s use of a reduced frame rate to make characters appear to move quicker. I can see what he was trying to do, but it makes these sections not feel lifelike and almost like we’re watching some sort of surreal storytelling, like Grand Budapest Hotel, instead of something meant to be more genuine.
To conclude, Aladdin is a faithful adaptation of what came before, and for the most part it is successful. Much more could have been made of the musical numbers and the camera work had more musical theatre people been involved, perhaps, and not all of the execution was flawless. However, it was a highly diverting and nostalgic ride that will have introduced a new generation to the lore of Aladdin. The largest success and breakaway talent from this movie has to be Jasmine and Naomi Scott. I am holding my breath for Charlie’s Angels now.