May 23, 2019
Starring Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari and Nasim Pedrad. Written by John August and Guy Ritchie. Directed by Ritchie. Opens Friday at theatres everywhere. 128 minutes.
New Aladdin movie is (almost) everything you could wish for
The 1992 animated Aladdin was about the same length as the other classics released during the late ’80s/early ’90s Disney renaissance, but moved at such a high-energy pace it felt quicker than stately relatives such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.
The inevitable live-action remake has added a full 38 minutes to that run time yet feels just as briskly entertaining while also making both the visuals and the story more three-dimensional.
For those who’ve been imprisoned in a cave of wonders, Aladdin is an orphaned “street rat” who gets by on his charm and some light thievery in the chaotic market of the fictional Arabian city of Agrabah. He discovers a magical lamp that grants him three wishes, courtesy of the wise-cracking Genie (Will Smith), and wishes to become a prince so he can marry Princess Jasmine. But the sultan’s adviser Jafar intends to steal the lamp for his own power-hungry ambitions.
As Aladdin, Toronto’s Mena Massoud checks most, if not all, of the boxes. He bottles the charm of the quick-fingered orphan, and the flirtatious chemistry between him and Naomi Scott’s Jasmine is an unexpected pleasure of conjuring these characters in flesh and blood. He also brings a barely contained twitchiness to the role, a palpable anxiety appropriate to a kid who has grown up living by his wits.
While he leaps off rooftops and bounces down pits, that physicality doesn’t translate to the song and dance routines. Though the original film won two Oscars and five Grammys for its music, the 2019 version is more of an accidental musical; it’s really more of an action fantasy with songs. This direction is signalled early as Smith sings the opening number “Arabian Nights” in a surprisingly thin voice for a platinum-selling musician.
That lack of vocal punch is offset by the elaborateness of the production numbers, such as the Genie’s introductory jam “Friend Like Me” and Aladdin’s return to the city disguised as a prince in “Prince Ali.” There is a lot happening onscreen – as the Genie, Smith mirrors the hilarious transformations of Robin Williams’ original with CGI sight gags while “Prince” Ali’s entourage of fan bearers and horn blowers likely cost more than the budgets of several Sundance contenders combined.
After 2017’s remake of Beauty and the Beast so lovingly recreated the golden-age Hollywood musical, it’s disappointing that DNA doesn’t carry over to Aladdin, yet it certainly doesn’t diminish the remake’s entertainment value.
Once Smith is onscreen the film is a rush of pure spectacle that rarely slows down until “A Whole New World” (Scott has the voice of a Disney pop princess and elevates Massoud’s underwhelming pipes to ensure the film’s signature ballad is a showstopper).
The role of the Genie is so associated with Williams’ jubilant performance that it takes a moment to adjust to Smith in the role. But Smith makes it his own with his hilariously smartass performance — begging to be released from the Cave of Wonders, he complains of his skin tone, “This is sky blue. My natural pigmentation is navy!”
Aladdin makes some wise updates, including a new power ballad for Jasmine about taking control called “Speechless,” written by Dear Evan Hansen duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The addition of Saturday Night Live alum Nasim Pedrad, perhaps best known for her Kim Kardashian impression, as Jasmine’s handmaiden is a truly funny performance that deserves to be her breakout role.
But arguably the MVP of this team is Gemma Jackson. The Game of Thrones production designer has created a truly opulent fantasy world rich in royal detail: the Cave of Wonders spills over with treasures, the palace walls are blanketed by intricate golden mosaics and Jafar cooks up schemes flanked by braziers held by coiled cobras.
Kids may not care, but it certainly gives parents something new to discover every time their offspring demand to replay this thrilling adventure.
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