Of all the Disney animated classics to be chosen for the live-action treatment, Aladdin is among the head-scratchiest. With its exoticized Arabian setting, countless action sequences, pinball-manic supernatural creatures, and no less than four animal (or furniture) sidekicks, the 1992 cartoon was among those in its Disney Renaissance cohort to take the greatest advantage of its hand-drawn medium. (At least it doesn’t take place under the sea?) Likewise, no other Disney film is so heavily dependent on—and essentially synonymous with—a single vocal performance (the late Robin Williams as Genie). Then there’s Aladdin’s afterlife as a staple in ethnic studies and race theory classes, where the film is regularly held up as an example of the normalization of Arab stereotyping and Islamophobia in American pop culture. The prospect of remaking the Disney-fied Middle Eastern folk tale into a CG extravaganza may not have provoked the visceral repulsion that, say, Tim Burton’s Dumbo did. But it’s fair to say that the new version, directed by Guy Ritchie and starring a cerulean Will Smith in a digital muscle suit, had many clenching their jaws in dread.
The new Aladdin aims for maximum spectacle, with everything else a secondary priority. Perhaps I’m biased as a ’90s kid who was in the sweet spot for the Disney Renaissance, but Ritchie seems to have targeted older millennials like myself who want to indulge their nostalgia but whose sensibilities have since evolved. Ritchie and John August’s script patches many of the original film’s glaring plot holes, including the question of where exactly lies the kingdom of Ababwa, from which Aladdin’s alter-ego, Prince Ali, hails. Most of the characters are endowed with greater depth and more complicated motivations, while some of the original’s more hyper-sexualized aspects have been thankfully tamped down. (The brothel that Aladdin whisks through in “One Jump Ahead,” for example, has been converted into a girls’ school.) The Orientalist mishmash that Agrabah has become—a mix of South Asian, Middle Eastern, and North African cultural elements, with a heavy sprinkling of Bollywood—certainly won’t please everyone, but Disney has certainly shorn the cartoon of its overt racism (“it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home,” went the movie’s opening number).
Ritchie’s film still feels shackled by its dutiful allegiance to the source material. But when it gets to be its own thing, it’s a spirited romp that—setting aside the uncanny, off-putting look of Smith’s Genie—has no shortage of charms. It’s chockablock with makeovers, chases, crashes, dances, parades, acrobatics, beatboxing, and an all-powerful blue being Ant-Man-ing himself into different sizes, all of which make up for the merely adequate performances and lackluster singing by Smith and newcomer Mena Massoud (Aladdin). Even with Massoud’s dazzling dance moves, the remake still can’t catch up to the frantic pace of the cartoon, but its 128-minute runtime zips by most of the time. The predictable feminist spin on Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott, the cast’s standout belter) gives the worn-out “A Whole New World” an unexpected resonance. And two new characters—a daffy handmaiden played by Nasim Pedrad and a dopey suitor played by Billy Magnussen—play to those veteran comic actors’ impish strengths.
For those of you who haven’t spent the last 27 years randomly finding yourself humming “Prince Ali” or “Friend Like Me”: Aladdin, an orphaned thief with only a pet monkey for family, encounters Jasmine in disguise in the streets of Agrabah when she sneaks out of the palace to walk among her people. They quickly fall for each other, but the relationship seems like a nonstarter: Jasmine is legally bound to marry a prince, while Aladdin is tricked by the sultan’s closest adviser, the grasping Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), into retrieving an oil lamp with a genie inside. Aladdin ends up being owed the genie’s three wishes, the first of which he uses to pose as Prince Ali, who’ll woo the reluctant-to-marry Jasmine. But once he starts pretending to be someone he’s not, he becomes scared to tell Jasmine who he really is.
The old-fashionedly theatrical music—including an emotional climax preceded by the phrase “no sir-ee”—did take a few minutes to gel in my brain with new (human!) faces, parkour stunts in the bazaar, and the neon-rainbow swirls of the costumes and sets. But other than its candy-colored delights, Aladdin counts among its chief pleasures the fleshing out of its characters. Having been forced to do some dastardly things in the past, Smith’s Genie is notably disillusioned, especially when it comes to the ambitions of power-hungry men. Jasmine’s disinclination toward matrimony gains dimensions beyond teenage petulance (though I suspect her new “Let It Go”–esque power ballad, by Dear Evan Hansen composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, will have as about as much staying power as an unattended apple within Abu’s field of vision). The reinvention of Jafar as a fellow “street rat” turned royal confidant—and a starry-eyed visionary who can dream more grandly than the sultan himself—should work better than it does, providing a natural foil to the story’s nimble social climber, but Kenzari fails to find the human tragedy within his character’s backstory. The new Aladdin doesn’t quite add up to a whole new world, but the update derives some small wisdom from having been more places.