For many, Disney’s 1992 film “Aladdin” is lovingly remembered alongside classics like “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast”. The larger-than-life Genie carried the production through glaring plot holes and won audiences over despite its racial controversy. The 2019 live-action remake version of “Aladdin” makes some attempts to rectify past issues, but the film is still problematic. While the still catchy soundtrack and action sequences may keep younger audiences entertained, I found it hard to see any Disney magic in this film as an adult.
The bulk of the plot remains true to the original version: street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) while she is in disguise in the busy streets of Agrabah. Meanwhile, the Sultan’s vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), plots to acquire a magic lamp from the fabled Cave of Wonders. Jafar lures Aladdin to the cave to retrieve the lamp, and it’s Aladdin who activates the Genie (Will Smith) first. He uses his wishes to try and get closer to Jasmine, and the duo ultimately works together to prevent Jafar from realizing his evil plot for ultimate power over the existing Sultan (Navid Negahban). All this is mixed in with a liberal dose of singing, dancing, and attempts at inspiring the audience to be true to who they really are.
For the most part, the casting and character development are spot-on. Massoud, Scott, Kenzari, and Negahban were all phenomenal in their roles, and I appreciated the slight tweaks to their characters. For example, Massoud offered a refined and sensitive version of Aladdin, and Jasmine was a more well-rounded and less sexualized character with her own ambitions of becoming Sultan and a strong voice for change. Additionally, the remake offered an opportunity to refine the back stories of key characters including Jafar, who reveals he grew up on the streets as a thief just like Aladdin.
Unfortunately, I was left missing Robin Williams’s 1992 Genie. Key memorable quotes from the original were omitted, and the special effects to turn Will Smith into a genie were creepy. To be fair, the original defies imitation. The best chance for success here was to do a complete 180 and reimagine the Genie entirely. With Smith, the obvious option would have been to leverage his smart-aleck quips and family-friendly, storytelling rap style.
Guy Ritchie’s (“Snatch”) directorial style was a good fit for the action sequences, and the escape from the Cave of Wonders was particularly harrowing, even though I knew exactly how it was going to end. When it came to the musical numbers, however, Ritchie fell short: the CGI and strobe effects were downright distracting from the choreography. I can’t help but wonder what someone like Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge” and “The Great Gatsby”) might have done to recreate the energy and charm of the original and maintain the film’s feel as a musical.
Those who loved to sing along to the original soundtrack will be relieved to find it mostly intact. Unsurprisingly, after the backlash to some lyrics in the original film, additional tweaks have been made to remove racist language (references to “barbaric” practices and “slaves” in “Arabian Nights”, for example). The duet between Aladdin and Jasmine for “A Whole New World” was a bright spot in the film and clearly highlighted the actors’ chemistry and talent. But as with other aspects of the film, the music also had a huge miss. New to the set list is “Speechless”, Jasmine’s anthem for using her voice. It is clearly trying too hard to be like power ballad “Let it Go” from “Frozen”, and pales in comparison. At the same time, it is stylistically too different from the rest of the soundtrack to fit.
Another glaring flaw was the loss of humour throughout the film. Not only did it lack the hijinks from Robin Williams, but the sidekicks (usually a stronghold for Disney) were sidelined. Jafar’s Iago, the parrot originally voiced by Gilbert Gottfried, and Abu the capuchin monkey (Aladdin’s partner-in-crime) were mere shadows of their former selves.
Finally, we must remember that the original “Aladdin” suffered serious backlash for its Orientalism and racist depictions of Middle Eastern culture. While there are signs of progress in this offering by showcasing a diverse cast that more accurately represents the characters’ backgrounds, the foundational story is problematic for its roots in mystifying and romanticizing the Middle East from a Western perspective.
While the Disney live-action remakes are making money at the box office, they are fundamentally flawed and fail to capture the magic and wonder expected of Disney. With remakes to both “The Lion King” and “Mulan” on the way, I wonder if Disney will look for their own Genie to bring some originality and inspiration to the box office.
Amy Kellestine is an educator, engineer, Arati life coach and entrepreneur living in Edmonton, Alberta. She spends her free time camping, gardening, and volunteering for causes such as Cystic Fibrosis and nature conservation. She is a devoted mother and is passionate about helping others and writing.