The House of Mouse’s recent wave of live-action adaptations of their classic animated movies have been disappointing, to say the very least, with The Jungle Book standing as the sole reimagining worth a watch. 2019 is a big year for them, with the beloved Dumbo, Aladdin and The Lion King trifecta getting revamps, and considering how the first of these ended up, hopes were not high for the second on their release slate. What a surprise it is to report that, against all odds, Aladdin bucks the trend and actually delivers the goods.
You know the story: sprightly “street rat” Aladdin (Mena Massoud) helps an incognito Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) escape a riled-up trader on the streets of Agrabah. He ends up in the hands of the power-hungry Grand Vizier (Marwan Kenzari), who promises him fame and fortune if he recovers an ancient lamp from an ominous-looking cave in the desert… Guy Ritchie mercifully tones down his trademark directorial tics to better serve the material and the result is a colourful, fast-paced adventure that casts an energetic spell. It never equals the original’s magic but crucially at no point tarnishes its memory – the lack of Ritchie’s trademark voiceover narration, slo-mo antics and cringe-inducing celeb cameos is an almighty relief. New versions of classic songs work, and there’s a new ditty, “Speechless”, written by the La La Land songwriting team and sung by Scott. It’s an admirable bit of creative licence to update the 1992 original and inject some pro-feminist empowerment into the mix, but the song is noticeably weaker than the originals. And we were never going to escape this remake without a rap track: the less said about the end credits “Never Had a Friend Like Me” remix featuring DJ Khaled, the better.
The main fear that the central cast lacked star wattage is quickly alleviated when relative unknowns Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott prove how perfectly cast they are. Their chemistry and enthusiasm are palpable, and the bulked-up role of Jasmine’s handmaiden Dalia, played by the excellent Nasim Pedrad, ensures the humour works. As for Will Smith, he has the daunting task of not only being the main A-lister but also of stepping into the shoes of the late, great Robin Williams. For the last decade, Smith has been stuck in a rut, with such turkeys as Collateral Beauty, Focus, Bright and Suicide Squad; he breaks the curse here and makes the role his own by delivering an entertaining cross between the Fresh Prince and RuPaul.
The one major stumbling block throughout however is Jafar, played by a miscast Marwan Kenzari, who lacks the OTT sinister presence of one of Disney’s best villains. They cast a younger and more handsome version of the character and you’ll likely find yourself contemplating how much better it would have been had the part been given to a more experienced thesp.
So, while far from perfect and with the merit of these live-action remakes remaining in question, raise up those expectations and prepare for a pretty pleasant magic carpet ride. Let’s just hope it doesn’t go to their heads and they hatch plans to remake The Return Of Jafar – that would be a wish too far.
Aladdin | Directed by Guy Ritchie (US, 2019), with Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott. Starts May 23.
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