Film Review: Aladdin (2019)

Few things got me as excited as seeing the 2019 Disney release schedule which consisted of the following: Mary Poppins Returns, Captain Marvel, Dumbo, Avengers: Endgame, Aladdin, Toy Story 4, The Lion King, Artemis Fowl, Maleficent 2, Frozen 2, Star Wars: Episode IX. Excuse me while I go jump up and down á la Laura Linney in Love Actually. For a musical fan and a 90s kid this list is full of gems, but there is one prominent theme. Nothing on this list is original.

But this is Disney, and they’re all about bringing in the big bucks, so are we really surprised? Kids who grew up on 90s Disney animations are now fully-fledged adults (apparently) but we’ve never forgotten the joy that films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King brought us. Will the recent barrage of live-action remakes send a warm nostalgic buzz through our hearts, or will it ruin our childhoods?

The trailer for Aladdin was not promising and expectations were lowered. This may have been for the best because coming out of the film viewers may find themselves pleasantly surprised that it isn’t awful. Does it measure up to the original? Did it need to be done? Well… what’s done is done.

There’s no denying the film is spectacular in its production design and costumes, one obvious improvement on the original. It’s also a relief to find a charming and likeable lead in Mena Massoud as Aladdin. He is funny, sweet, and has just the right amount of theatricality for playing a lead in a movie musical. Naomi Scott as Jasmine is similarly as enjoyable to watch. Unlike in some stage versions of this show, her performance isn’t grotesquely saccharine. She’s a natural talent.

Story-wise, it mostly keeps with the original, with one key difference. Jasmine is afforded more power and there’s a firm message about speaking up when others try to silence you. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul contribute a new song, ‘Speechless’, just for her. Not their best work musically, but it’s an important moment.

Generally the musical numbers (all otherwise from the original film, and written by Alan Menken) are hit and miss. ‘A Whole New World’ is as magical as ever and the lavish nature of many of the other big songs is a joy. But sometimes there’s no escaping that underlying cringe factor that comes when a character bursts into song on film. While it’s often done well it can appear jarring and the transitions into the songs don’t always work here. Guy Ritchie’s lack of experience when it comes to movie musicals is evident. He doesn’t quite have the finesse of Rob Marshall or Bill Condon.

And speaking of not quite having the skills… We come to the giant blue elephant in the room: Will Smith as the genie. Firstly, the CGI used here is shockingly bad. His face has that uncanny valley creepiness, and his eyeline is off approximately half of the time; he’s never quite looking where he should be. When he’s not in the blue haze of crap he’s fine, if not great. Of course no one is ever going to measure up to Robin Williams and the comparison is probably unfair, but there have been wonderful performances of the genie on Broadway by James Monroe Iglehart (who won a Tony for the role) and Michael James Scott (who also starred in the Australian production) which means it is possible to find someone who nails the part. Alas, musical comedy may not be Will Smith’s forte. He’s better off sticking to miming Dreamgirls like he did in The Fresh Prince of Belair (look it up, it’s priceless).

In addition to a subpar genie, Marwan Kenzari as Jafar just isn’t that scary until extremely late on in the piece. That may have been deliberate, given how villains can start off timid and pathetic before they let the power get to their head. If that’s the case, perhaps it wasn’t a bad choice. He’s just a bit dull.

Overall, Aladdin is the film we didn’t need to have. But we do and it’s fine. As for what’s next, do we really need a live-action version of The Lion King which is going to be almost completely CGI? It’s debatable. With Rob Marshall directing and Lin-Manuel Miranda writing new songs for The Little Mermaid, however, there’s still hope yet for a fresh and revitalised Disney miracle. Time will tell.

Aladdin is in cinemas from 23rd May through Disney.

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