The omens weren’t good. The trailer for Aladdin, Disney’s latest live action re-working of an animated classic, wasn’t exactly greeted with overwhelming applause. Will Smith’s career was on a slide that started with After Earth and had plunged deeper into darkness courtesy of Suicide Squad and Bright. And there was the small matter of Guy Ritchie in the director’s chair: best known for action movies and with a much-derided laddish interpretation of King Arthur under his belt, to say he was a surprise choice is putting it mildly.
But sprinkle a little Disney magic on what sounds like a recipe for disaster and what you get is something to confound your expectations. Aladdin is fun. Great fun at times – and great family fodder for the holiday week. Those familiar with the original animation will be reassured to know that the story line is pretty much “as you were”, with street smart Aladdin (Mena Massoud) attracting the attention of Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) as she wanders incognito through the streets of Agrabah, and then being ordered by the Grand Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) to retrieve a much-sought after magic lamp. But the lamp falls into Aladdin’s hands and its resident, Genie (Will Smith), helps him get closer to the Princess as well as putting a stop to Jafar’s plans to take over as Sultan.
Indeed, there’s a lot that’s familiar about this re-boot. The songs from the 1992 animation are there but, while it was A Whole New World that won the Oscar for the original, chances are audiences will come out singing one or other of the two show-stoppers from this version, Friend Like Me or Prince Ali, both of which are fronted by Smith’s Genie. There are a couple of additions, including a solo number for Princess Jasmine to reinforce her credentials as an independent woman, defying the conventions of Agrabah society, but they tend to fade into the background. As do the new characters. Jasmine’s maid, Dalia (Nasim Pedrad) is essentially there in the traditional role of confidente, while would-be suitor Prince Anders (Billy Magnussen) is superfluous as well as stupid, a non-character with nothing to do.
That said, he’s one of few wrong notes sounded in a film that, despite all the odds, gets an awful lot right. Naomi Scott’s Jasmine has a mind of her own and courage to spare, which makes Aladdin himself look comparatively weak, but they do make an appealing couple. Yet it’s Smith’s Genie that everybody wants to know about. Anybody who saw the original animation will never forget the gloriously mercurial creation voiced by Robin Williams. A hard act to follow and Smith doesn’t try to do that, instead creating something that’s very much in his own style – lots of sass and smarts – a decision that may help give his career a much-needed push uphill. True, he never stops being Smith but this return to what he does best, coupled with some neat CGI, makes him the right man for the job.
And the same can be said for Ritchie, who puts his experience with action and crowd scenes to good use here: the chase sequences, especially in the opening moments, have plenty of zip and the big crowd numbers fill the screen with vibrant colour. The addition of new characters and new songs means, however, that the running time is now over 2 hours, compared to the animation’s taut 90 minutes, so there are times when it sags and feels over-stretched. Nonetheless, Aladdin has survived the transition to live action in good shape and, while it may not give us a whole new take on the original, it has more than enough colour and charm to make it an entertaining magic carpet ride.
Freda Cooper | [rating=3]
Comedy, Musical | Cert: PG | UK, 22 May (2019) | Disney | Dir. Guy Ritchie | Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Nasim Pedrad.