Where were you in 1992? I suspect a vast amount of you weren’t even born yet, others maybe too young to remember much, maybe some of you were too old to go to the cinema to see Disney’s latest animated affair, Aladdin, a westernized mishmash of middle eastern tales about a plucky street urchin, a sassy genie and an evil old vizier with a parrot that sounded suspiciously like Gilbert Gottfried. I remember going to see it with my dad and my brother, I must have been about eight years old or so. It was a very good movie, one of Disney’s finest, the frankly genius casting decision that led to Robin Williams playing the aforementioned genie propping it up in no small way.
Fast forward twenty seven years and the House of Mouse is full steam ahead on its latest money making craze, remaking all of its most beloved movies as live action affairs. We’ve had Beauty and the Beast, the Jungle Book and, more recently, the Lion King and, yes, Aladdin even had the remake treatment too. Pre-announcement there was a huge amount of trepidation for this one, mainly around the prickly issue of who would step into the genies’ lamp. Robin Williams sadly passed away a few years ago and his comedy style was pretty unique to him, so having some other “zany” actor try to ape his style would not go down well with Aladdin fans.
But we shall discuss this in depth a little further into the article, for only those worthy may enter the Cave of Wonders…
Aladdin: Mena Massoud
Genie: Will Smith
Jasmine: Naomi Scott
Jafar: Marwan Kenzari
Dalia: Nasim Pedrad
Sultan: Navid Negahban
Iago: Alan Tudyk
Director: Guy Ritchie
The titular Aladdin is a “street rat”, a poor boy living on the streets of the fictional Arabic city of Agrabah who survives by stealing, hustling and generally being a bit of a dick with a heart of gold (you’d better believe he shares his stolen food with little orphan kids). Aiding in his criminal endeavors is Abu, his pet monkey who, delightfully, maintains the fez/waistcoat combo of his animated counterpart. One day, whilst out performing acts of brigandry, he comes across a disguised Princess Jasmine, whom he helps to escape local justice after she, rather clumsily, just decides to casually steal a loaf of bread to feed some grotty orphans. After a hustle involving her golden bracelet, the two outrun the guards and hang out at Aladdins’ rooftop crib (read, rooftop ruin) for a bit, with the street rat being led to believe that Jasmine is, in fact, the Princess’s handmaiden.
After what can only be described as “a series of hi-jinks”, in which our hero sneaks into the palace to return the bracelet, learns of the Princess’s real identity and gets arrested by the guards on the exfiltration, Aladdin finds himself in the grip of the incredibly shifty Jafar, the Sultan’s vizier and trusted adviser. Jafar sends Aladdin into the mysterious Cave of Wonders to pick up a plain old oil lamp (he’s also told not to touch anything else, else he will incur the Cave’s terrible wrath. Things inevitably go wrong thanks to Abu the monkey and Aladdin nearly dies trying to get the lamp to Jafar as the cave fills with lava around him, only for the viziers totally shocking betrayal, stealing the lamp and sending our hero tumbling down to his death.
Shame then that Abu manages to steal the lamp back again and both he and Aladdin are rescued by a Magical Carpet that they freed earlier. Once the dust has settled, Aladdin is told to rub the lamp by Carpet (through some top charades) and, lo and behold, a rather funky genie is summoned!
Aladdin has three wishes, a Cave of Wonders to get out of and a Princess to win over, what could possibly go wrong, eh?
It is also worth mentioning, for fans of the original and those who distrust these remakes, that there are a good few new scenes included in this version that flesh out the plot and certain characters (looking at you, Jasmine). There’s even a new song! (looking at you again, Jasmine!)
Set Design & Effects
Right off the bat, Aladdin is a good looking movie. From the opening shot of a European man-o-war sailing through the mist and the little dhow bobbing in its wake, through the sweeping panoramas of Agrabah during Will Smith’s rendition of Arabian Nights and straight into the colourful, authentically Arabic looking marketplace scene, it really does give a strong first impression. I admit I went into this movie with some cynicism, indeed my wife pretty much had to put it on without telling me first, else I’d have hemmed and hawed about it. Those first few minutes, I’ll admit, helped to put my mind to rest.
Yep, Agrabah has been extremely well realized this time around. Interestingly it has been made to look and feel more authentically Middle Eastern than its 1992, animated counterpart. One case in point would be the palace itself, which looks more like a realistic fortress from this part of the world than the shiny white Taj Mahal looking version from the original. Also of note is the fact that the city is a coastal one now, some of the scenes showing ships coming and going under the shadow of the palace kind of made me want to go on holiday there. Also looking good is the magical and lethal Cave of Wonders, those dusty piles of gold and jewels shine with a very real luster, the lion headed entrance looks as cool as it did when I was a kid (I’m pretty sure that was some very early CGI right there) and, when the lava starts flowing, it looks convincingly deadly. (It reminded me of the corresponding level from the Sega Mega Drive game, which was virtually bloody impossible!)
The special effects and CGI are, unsurprisingly for Disney, absolutely stellar. Special props do, of course, go to the magical effects used by Genie. The visuals during the songs Never Had a Friend Like Me and Prince Ali were an absolute joy which surely the most hardened anti-remake viewer couldn’t ignore. In short, Guy Ritchie and his team did a truly excellent job in bringing Agrabah alive, filling it with plenty of excellent effects and, perhaps most importantly, giving it a real Arabian Nights feel, with all kinds of colour and such solid authenticity that I could almost smell the spices in the souk.
And now for part that really pleasantly surprised me: apart from Genie, most of the cast are actually of Arabic descent! It doesn’t sound like much, I know, but for authenticity it doesn’t get any better than this. Mena Massoud plays the role of Aladdin really well. He’s fast talking, moves like an absolute pro and, to be fair, holds far more charm than his 1992 counterpart. Once he becomes Prince Ali the actor clearly has a lot of fun, aiming for dapper and regal but coming off as super awkward and cringey in his attempts to woo Princess Jasmine.
The heir to the throne is played by Naomi Scott, a British actress with Indian heritage. She plays the role with verve and, with the extra scenes added to flesh out her character, she totally steals the role from her 1992 version, showing Jasmine as a strong, determined young woman who is aiming for Sultan, as opposed to the sort of empty, trophy role that the character was in the animated version. She gets some really powerful scenes this time around and it’s great to see Jasmine as a more empowered and independent character this time around.
The big bad is Jafar, played by Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari. This character also gets a little more to do this time around, and Kenzari elevates the role from scenery chewing pantomime villain to a more subtle, manipulative bad guy who is obsessed with being the most powerful man in the room, bar none. His plot is to take the throne for himself and he needs a magic lamp to pull it off.
There are plenty of other excellent characters in this movie. Alan Tudyk gives a good vocal turn as Jafars’ nasty parrot Iago (who talks a lot more like a parrot this time around), Nasim Pedrad is hilarious as Jasmine’s handmaiden Dalia and Navid Negahban brings a strong dignity to Agrabah’s Sultan that just wasn’t there before (indeed the 1992 version was, in my opinion, a whiny little pushover). But, let’s face it, you probably don’t want to hear too much about them, no, you want to know what all that pre-release controversy was about, don’t you?
Well, it’s Will Smith. The Fresh Prince himself, who plays the iconic Genie role in this movie. 1992’s Genie was, as I said earlier, made famous by the pure comedic acting chops of Robin Williams, surely and attempt to ape him would end in career destroying disaster?
I am glad, and surprised I must admit, to report that it did not. Smith has clearly been allowed to reinvent the character a little and bring his own brand of comedy to the fore and it actually worked! Yes, those two iconic songs are still there, albeit a little messed with and, well, Will Smith-ified (wicki-wicki-wah-wah-west!), but they actually still sound really good for these changes. Outside of the songs Smith plays Genie similarly to the 1992 version, just submitting the more uniquely madcap Williams jokes for a more modern, somewhat hip hop angle. His banter with Massoud is also incredibly natural sounding and believable, which really makes the pair of them so much more likable.
Aladdin has an excellent cast, all of which clearly enjoyed taking part in this movie. Even Will Smith overcame the initial memes and complaining to deliver an excellent performance which is very respectful to Robin Williams’s version.
Wa-wa-waaaah! Wa-waaah! Wa-wa-waaaah!
Ahem, sorry about that. Yeah, Aladdin’s soundtrack holds up nicely.he soundtrack between musical numbers conveys the mood nicely and has a nice Arabic hook to it and the songs themselves are as great as they ever were, there are even new ones! Aladdins’ opening song, as he guides Jasmine through the souks and alleyways of Agrabah to escape the guards, is catchy as hell and helps to set the main character up as the quick witted muppet that he is. Never Had a Friend Like Me introduces not only Genie (and how his whole shtick works) but also introduces the viewer to how Will Smith intends to do things going forward, adding a huge injection of Fresh Prince attitude into the role that’s a delight to see after all these years Prince Ali introduces the people of Agrabah to the disguised Aladdin in a massively catchy number, even more so than its original counterpart, again almost true to the original but being brave enough to add some cheeky rap and modern sensibility to the proceedings. For love fans we still have the truly iconic A Whole New World, sang perfectly by Naomi Scott and Mena Massoud as they glide across the world on the Magic Carpet (I see you, Pridelands!). The new addtions are also brilliant, Princess Jasmine really shows her inner strength and ambition here, refusing to smply be silent whilst her father continues to be steered toward disaster by Jafar.
My only regret is that Jafar himself didn’t get a song. Marwan Kenzari brought so much charisma to the role that I was virtually begging for a sneering Jafar number, backed by Iago’s shrill vocals for maximum effect. But, alas, twas not to be.
If you enjoyed that music the first time around, you’ll love this version too. Perhaps even more so, due to some great new songs and Will Smith’s full on Fresh Prince reworking of some of the classics. It even has a Will Smith & DJ Khaled rap at the end, as close as we will get to the classic post-credits songs from Men in Black and Wild Wild West as we’ll ever get in 2019!
Having seen most of Disney’s remakes by now (I’m yet to see The Jungle Book) I can honestly say that this is, far and away, the cream of the crop. The visuals and music are excellent, the cast do a fantastic job and, despite the haters, I really believe that Will Smith not only makes for a great Genie, but also pays respect to Robin Williams and his previous performance of the character. If you like the 1992 version, or haven’t seen it but like cool musicals, then good lord, give it a watch!
Overall Score: 9.5