Disney retools its 1992 Arabian Nights-style animated classic into a live-action remake, as a cunning thief again romances a princess and confronts an evil courtier, with the help of a wise-cracking genie released from his lamp.
In the original movie, Robin Williams’s hilarious vocal contribution was the big news, and here Will Smith works hard to bring something of the same pizzazz. As always, he’s an amiable screen presence, though his game attempt to find an equivalent to Williams’s shape-shifting whirlwind of fun does come over as a tad effortful. And, of course, seeing his face superimposed on an otherwise buff and weirdly blue body, whether it’s true to the original character design or not, is undeniably unsettling.
As well as trying to live up to Williams’s unrepeatable turn, the redo also wrestles with how social values and indeed Western responses to the Arab world have changed in the years since 1992. Hence, Naomi Scott’s strong-willed Princess Jasmine gets her feminist status enhanced yet further, while the gags about traditional methods of punishment (hand-chopping etc) have now been removed, as the film takes a very cautious approach to representations of Islamic culture.
The transition from animation to live-action presents its challenges, too, so the previously entertainingly anthropomorphic qualities of Aladdin’s cheeky monkey sidekick, the Princess’s loyal pet tiger and baddie Jafar’s comic parrot accomplice are all significantly dialled-down in their revised CGI incarnations.
Instead, there’s more room for human character development, especially in the set-up, where Aladdin, unhappy at having to steal food just to survive, and the Princess, trapped in the palace and facing the prospect of an arranged dynastic marriage, both yearn to escape from their lives.
That said, stretching the very same story out from 90 to 128 minutes does make for slow going at times. Under Guy Ritchie’s direction, there’s plenty of digitally assisted spectacle in the bustling olde worlde settings, though the film often seems burdened by the need to show off its $200 million budget. It occasionally lumbers under its own weight, before the pace thankfully picks up in a zesty final half hour, as sorcery and jeopardy bring a much-needed adrenaline burst.
The performances are also of a variable standard. As the strong-willed Jasmine, Naomi Scott definitely outshines Mena Massoud’s slightly bland Aladdin, while Marwan Kenzari proves a one-note villain as the scheming Jafar. The central thrust of the storyline and its message about being true to yourself remain timelessly potent however, even if the emotional impact of Alan Menken’s much-loved original songs (here given an occasional lyrical makeover) gets slightly lost in the midst of Ritchie’s swirling camerawork.
Overall, the new Aladdin is glittery, energetic and positively determined to wow us – and ultimately gets the job done. But while its digital wizardry makes the animated version look basic by comparison, it lacks the wit and magic that makes the original so irresistible.