Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the Broadway musical version of Aladdin, and it’s been years since I saw the original 1992 animated movie notably featuring Robin Williams’ indelible performance as the Genie. And honestly, I think that’s for the best, as I’m not sure the live-action version could hold up very well against the original. (And, with the added songs in this version, now I feel like I *have* seen the musical.)
Starring Toronto’s own Mena Massoud in the title role, the film uses a clever framing device, opening on a couple aboard their small sailboat entertaining their young children with a tale from a faraway land. Aside from that device, the movies hews pretty closely to the plot of the original, with a few new musical numbers thrown in the lengthen the running time. Happily, the dialogue and humour feels updated to a 21st century sensibility. There’s even a “girl power” ballad sung by Jasmine (Naomi Scott), although the plot renders her rebellion rather empty.
It’s directed by Guy Ritchie, and you can really feel his frenetic style in Aladdin’s parkour chase through the market early on in the film. After that though, the film reverts to traditional musical staging, with the occasional CGI magic carpet ride.
Speaking of CGI, Aladdin’s monkey companion Abu (voiced by Frank Welker) seems to be a mix of real and visual effects, and it’s distracting. Iago the parrot (voiced by Alan Tudyk) and Rajah the tiger also look to be CGI but the effect isn’t nearly so odd; maybe Abu’s just giving me monkey-from-Raiders vibes, but he seems to have fallen into the uncanny valley for me.
The performances of Massoud and Scott elevate an otherwise fairly ho-hum musical; their singing chops might not be Broadway-level, but they pull through by applying a thick layer of sincerity that animated characters just couldn’t. On the other hand, there’s Jafar. The best villains have an element of obsequiousness that makes them a three-dimensional threat; it could be the way Jafar’s written here, but Marwan Kenzari is all one-dimensional menace. Oh, and Saturday Night Live alum Nasim Pedrad is also here as Jasmine’s maid-slash-friend Dalia, doing a really unnecessary accent.
Okay, let’s talk about the Genie. Skepticism abounded when Will Smith’s casting was announced. Let’s face it: no one could ever come close to emulating Robin Williams’ iconic, frenetic turn in the 1992 animated feature, and to his credit, Smith doesn’t even try. This Genie is purely a Will Smith creation, with his trademark mild family-friendly hipness and touch of warm, dry humour, and leans hard on his singing and sitcom chops.
I mean, Aladdin is fine. It’s certainly not the terrible train wreck everyone feared it would be when the first promo photos appeared in Entertainment Weekly, or as bad as Film Twitter predicted it would be when the “Prince Ali” clip was released online. It’s frothy and fun and a fine way to while away an afternoon. It just doesn’t compare favourably to the original animated movie, and seems like a watered-down, watercolour version of that energetic, vivid film.