Ever since Disney discovered they could essentially print money by making live-action versions of their animated films, these remakes have fallen into two categories. On one hand, there’s the incredibly faithful remakes – Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and The Jungle Book – which just recreate the stories that are already known into a realistic form. On the other, there are the films that try to show a different side to these stories, or at least add a few new layers. Maleficent turned one of Disney’s biggest villains into a sympathetic abuse survivor, and 2016’s Pete’s Dragon was a sorely needed update to a film that already felt obsolete.
Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin remake ends up being a little bit of both. Aladdin knows it has to hit all the beats of the original that it’s audience loved, but Ritchie and co-writer John August also flesh out these characters, craft a more in-depth world, and make some nice changes that makes Aladdin more than just a shot-for-shot remake.
The plot of Aladdin however remains the same. Pickpocket Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets the princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) on the streets of Agrabah and the two form an instant connection. While trying to win the heart of Jasmine, Aladdin is captured by the Sultan’s Grand Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) and thrown into the Cave of Wonders, where he’s tasked with finding a magical lamp. After discovering the lamp contains a magical genie (Will Smith) who grants him three wishes, Aladdin attempts to earn the hand of Jasmine and stop the evil Jafar from taking over Agrabah.
Ritchie and August take these characters and the known story and add small touches that fill in some of the blanks. For example, Jasmine is a much stronger character here, as she wants to become the next sultan of Agrabah, and wants to escape the protective guard her father has put on her since her mother died. Jasmine also has a human character this time named Dalia (Nasim Pedrad) to bounce her thoughts off of. Jafar is explained to have started as a street rat like Aladdin, but unlike the eponymous character, Jafar wasn’t content with just stealing apples and dates, instead, becoming ambitious to the point of trying to steal entire kingdoms. Even the bond between Aladdin and the Genie becomes more pronounced. This time around, there’s a much stronger friendship that naturally occurs between the two, which leads the eventual third wish of Aladdin to feel more like a true act of appreciation, rather than just a sense of obligation. Small additions like this help this feel less like a shot-for-shot remake and more of a welcome revision.
Like every other Disney live-action remake, Aladdin still pales in comparison to the animated original. If the attempt to bring these films into the real world is to make the magic actually feel real, Aladdin is arguably the most magical of all of Disney’s animated films. Yet the magic doesn’t quite translate as well here. Aladdin parkouring through Agrabah, or Aladdin and Jasmine flying through the deserts to “A Whole New World” are done well, but they’re still missing the magic of the original. Ritchie clearly had to stick to the source material and major moments relatively closely, but by trying to recreate these iconic animated moments, Ritchie’s take just comes off as watered down.
This of course brings us to Smith as the Genie. The real problem with this role is the animation, which just never feels right when Smith is in full-on blue genie mode. Yet Smith smartly doesn’t try to simply mimic Robin Williams’ performance and makes the role his own, even when recreating some of Williams’ bits from the original. Especially in the moments where the Genie is trying to guide Aladdin and the two are bonding, Smith is actually quite good. His final moments with Aladdin are handled with more heart than one would expect and again, the fleshing out of the Genie makes these scenes have more heft than anticipated. Williams’ role was possibly one of the most memorable of Disney’s second animation Renaissance, yet with impersonations of people like Carol Channing, Peter Lorre, and William F. Buckley Jr., it’s also strange just how stuck in time that performance seems today – a relative rarity in Disney animation. Smith’s take on the Genie doesn’t have the same electric energy – and random celebrity impressions – but it’s a solid reimagining nonetheless.
As in all of Disney’s recreations of their past work, Aladdin is an attempt to revitalize old franchises in a manner that fans will appreciate and hopefully draw in a new generation to these stories. It is also completely superfluous. No one needs a live-action Aladdin, but since Disney is seemingly going to return to the well until the end of time, it’s a relief when a film like Aladdin comes along and at least adds something to the conversation of these films. Ritchie and August don’t completely present the original story with real actors, they try to improve an already beloved story – which in itself is a gamble. Aladdin isn’t a whole new world, but an interesting revision of an old one.