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Josh Reviews Disney’s Live-Action Remake of Aladdin

Let me say two things right at the top about Disney’s new live-action remake of their animated classic, Aladdin.  First, I’m just not sure I see much of any creatively interesting rationale behind Disney’s current penchant for remaking so many of their classic animated films in live-action.  (There’s clearly a financial reason, as these films seem like a good way to make money off of pre-existing, beloved properties.)  Two, as an enormous fan of Guy Ritchie’s early films (I hold Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels very close to my heart, and I really love Snatch as well), adapting Disney animated films is really not the type of project I wish he was working on.  But, that all being said, I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this new version of Aladdin when I saw it with my kids recently.  The film is fun and funny and gorgeous to look at.

After the prologue, we’re introduced to Aladdin and most of the main characters in a beautiful extended tracking show that takes us all through the nooks and crannies of Agrabah.  It’s a gorgeous shot that really shows off this new film’s production values: the sets, the costumes, the props, and the CGI artistry.  I was impressed.  It was a cool shot and a great way to bring us into the story.  (I love how well-realized Agrabah is in this new film.)

The cast of the film is strong.  I thought Naomi Scott was the film’s standout as Jasmine.  She was completely convincing and earnest in the role, critical qualities, and she has a stupendous singing voice.  Mena Massoud was also strong as Aladdin.  This is a tough role to play in live-action.  It’s easier for the animated Aladdin to be cute and bumbling while still being believable; that’s a harder balance to strike in live-action.  Then there was Will Smith, ably stepping into the big blue shoes of the late, great Robin Williams.  I was very dubious about Mr. Smith’s casting in the role, and the film’s early photos and trailers did not impress.  But, wow, I was really bowled over by how great Will Smith was!  He channels a lot of what Robin Williams brought to the role, while also easily making it his own.  Mr. Smith has the musical chops to own the songs, he’s able to be very funny and, most importantly, also channel the Genie’s sweetness and sincerity.  I thought he was terrific.  I was also very impressed by the CGI work that enabled the very-human Mr. Smith to have a lot of the fast-moving shape-changing whimsy of the animated version.  I really wasn’t sure the film could pull that off, but I thought they did great.  Bravo to all the talented animation artists and craftspeople who were involved in bringing this character to life.  (Mr. Smith’s rendition of “Friend Like Me,” ably assisted by incredible CGI magic, is a high point of the film.)

Navid Negahban (who’s also been so great on Legion — I just finished watching season two, in which he played the Shadow King, and he was spectacular) is terrific as the Sultan.  In the original animated film, the Sultan is a pudgy joke; but here, Mr. Negahban gives the Sultan a quiet dignity and strength.  It’s a terrific choice.  Alan Tudyk plays Iago, and while it’s impossible to forget Gilbert Gottfried’s iconic performance from the original, Mr. Tudyk is great and very funny.

This new Aladdin follows very closely to the original animated film.  I think that was a wise choice; the original is a classic for a reason.  The story in this live-version is very much the same; in some places, whole scenes have been recreated intact.  Where they’ve adjusted and expanded on the original film, I was, for the most part, impressed by how well-thought-out and executed those changes were.  The film starts differently that the original, but I was tickled when, much later in the film, we got a reason for that change of setting.  That was very cool.  There were lots small touches here and there that I enjoyed, such as Jafar’s talking Aladdin into going into the Cave of Wonders willingly (rather than being forced at sword-point), because at that point Aladdin believed he needed riches to achieve any of his dreams.

The film adjusts Jasmine’s story so that her frustration is not so much that she can’t find a suitable prince to marry, but rather that she feels that she’s been trained her whole life to be a ruler, but the laws of the land say that she cannot be Sultan after her father dies, that instead she must just be a wife.  This is a wise change.  The film gives Jasmine two new songs, in which she sings about not allowing herself to be silenced.  They’re a bit on the nose (and the songs lack the genius at the core of Alan Menken’s original music), but I like the idea at their heart.  I also like how, at the end, Jasmine uses the power of her words to help save the day (convincing the head of the Sultan’s guards to remain loyal to her and to her father after Jafar seizes power).  That’s a nice new arc for her character.

A new character in this film is Jasmine’s handmaiden and confidant, Dalia, played by Nasim Pedrad.  She’s fun and funny, and it’s nice to see Jasmine having a human friend, rather than just her tiger Raja.  They added a silly subplot in which Dalia and the Genie wind up somewhat smitten with one another; it shouldn’t work, but Ms. Pedrad and Mr. Smith sell it, and it winds up being a fun, sweet little story winding through the film.

The original Aladdin is a classic.  The existence of this new film doesn’t change that.  When I want to watch Aladdin, I doubt this live-action version would ever tempt me away from the original.  Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised by how fun and well-made this new live-action version was.  It doesn’t really have much reason to exist; but since it does, I’m pleased that they did such a good job.

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