The big question surrounding the new live-action remake of Disney’s 1992 animated classic “Aladdin” is, can the iconic comedic performance that defined the original be replaced and still make the movie marvelously magical? I’m sorry to say that the film doesn’t pull it off. Alan Tudyk tries, but he falls short of Gilbert Gottfried in making Iago the parrot memorable. Fortunately you’ve got Will Smith as an excellent replacement for Robin Williams as the Genie to offset the disappointment.
Disney buffs already know the plot, but for those who don’t: Arabian street-rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) falls in love with Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) after she ventures out of her palace disguised as a commoner. He and his monkey Abu are directed by evil royal vizier Jafar (Marwen Kenzari) to retrieve a magical lamp that can only be taken by a “diamond in the rough.” Jafar betrays Aladdin, so Abu betrays him and steals the lamp, which Aladdin rubs. Out pops a Genie (Smith) who is bound to grant Aladdin three wishes. Aladdin only wants one thing, the love of Jasmine, but she can only marry a prince, so he uses his first wish to become Prince Ali Ababwa and woo Jasmine with his flying carpet. He’s so happy with the arrangement that he promises to use his third wish to set the Genie free from a life of wish-granting, presumably after he figures out what he wants for a second wish. But his new persona is a lie, and Aladdin soon finds himself ensnared in a moral quagmire, one that the suspicious Jasmine and power-hungry Jafar aren’t exactly helping.
Some things are changed from the 1992 movie, some aren’t. Some changes are good, others aren’t, and the same can be said of the non-changes. The samenesses that work can by nature be taken for granted, but the ones that don’t make for some of the weakest parts of this movie. A lot of Aladdin’s early dialogue and song lyrics are unchanged, and Massoud tries to put new inflections into them to “make them his own,” but these lines were clearly not written with his voice in mind.
As for the changes, my favorite is the addition of a new character. Dalia (Nasim Pedrad) is Jasmine’s handmaiden who serves as sort of a big sister. She’s also a scene-stealing romantic interest for the Genie, who in this version disguises himself as Prince Ali’s human manservant, which thankfully means that he’s not a blue CGI blotch the whole time. Also high in the running for my favorite change is a new song for Jasmine called “Speechless,” no doubt added when the filmmakers realized that Naomi Scott’s voice was too good to be limited to half of “A Whole New World.” And I like the decision to have Smith take over “Arabian Nights” at the beginning. He’s not the best singer per se, but his charisma more than carries the song, think Dwayne Johnson’s “You’re Welcome” from “Moana.”
But every time there’s a change I like, it’s cancelled out by one I don’t. The initial Cave of Wonders scene, a great source of suspense in the original, here goes by so fast that new viewers probably won’t know what’s happening. Jafar is supposed to be a miserable old man, but this newer, younger version just sounds like a brat when he’s delivering “I’ve worked for this all my life” dialogue. The less said about a rambling riff about jams, the better. And the movie’s not immune from the CGI ugliness that has plagued a lot of these recent Disney live-action remakes.
The whole thing averages out to a movie that’s, well, average. Smith, Scott, and Pedrad push the movie into “recommended” territory (and sure, Massoud and Kenzari have a few moments as well). This new version of “Aladdin” doesn’t fully capture the magic of the original, but it makes for a decent family viewing experience.
“Aladdin” is rated PG for some action/peril. Its running time is 128 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.