“I can show you the world…” In a world where such classic animated films exist, it’s a relevant question to ask what you get from simply remaking something as beloved and classic and Disney’s 1992 Aladdin. With Director Guy Ritchie on board and Will Smith taking the place as the iconic blue genie, can they deliver something worthwhile?
Yes. Yes they can.
The remake updates the not-so-old film in a lot of ways. In fact, this film is so not-so-old that I can remember seeing it opening weekend at the old Scera Theater in Orem, Utah amid a massive throng of children and hearing those opening words of “Arabian Nights” describing its setting as “where they cut off your ears if they don’t like your face– it’s barbaric, but, hey, it’s home.” This line was almost immediately redubbed and scrubbed from future soundtrack and home video releases to something that didn’t imply that Arabs are barbaric, so it’s not like Aladdin hasn’t needed some brushing up from day 1.
But perhaps what is most refreshing is its elevation of Princess Jasmine to, arguably, the main character of the film. While Aladdin still goes through his growth and character journey, so too does Jasmine grapple with her place in a patriarchal kingdom where she feels she is actually the most qualified person to rule. She’s not wrong, and Jasmine basically is coming for Elsa as the most overtly feminist member of the Disney pantheon. A new song added for the film, “Speechless,” is performed to perfection by Naomi Scott. If this song isn’t nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars, I’ll eat a DVD of Aladdin.
[Minor spoiler ahead, skip to next paragraph if you don’t want to know] One of the most interesting ways they updated this and cranked the feminism up to 11 is a single line delivered by Aladdin in a new scene immediately post the “A Whole New World” magic carpet ride. Looking down at Agrabah, Jasmine talks about wanting to help all of the city’s residents. She wants to be listened to and help rule because she knows she can do a better job than anyone else. She turns to Prince Ali for his opinion, and he delivers one of the most astounding and wonderful lines of any film this year: “Why does it matter what I think?” Her self worth isn’t bound up in his approval, and he knows it. Aladdin: secret feminist ally? You read it here first.
But what so many people actually want to talk about is Genie and Will Smith. He’s actually pretty good, especially when they let him be charming and do his own thing. When he’s going through the motions of trying to deliver on the beloved performance of Robin Williams, it’s just really hard to do that. Smith does his best, and the results are decent. But most of Smith’s best moments are when he is in a human-esque form incognito in the palace. He has (limited) agency, desires, and even a romantic subplot to himself? (With the incredibly charming Nasim Pedrad from SNL who plays one of Jasmine’s handmaids and is almost worth the price of admission herself.)
Ritchie’s directing here is crisp and workmanlike, but eschews so much of the visual style and kineticism some of his other films have. That means “One Jump” becomes a parkour-inspired mini-heist of sorts, but most of the musical numbers can’t quite compete with the originals. The direction is similar to Ritchie’s recent The Man from UNCLE in that he doesn’t leave a lot of fingerprints, but the end result is pretty fun. An added dance scene that is straight out of Bollywood is particularly fun and a great bonus.
Still, there are a few moments that land a little poorly. This seems largely due to wanting to keep Smith caged and closely working on aping Williams. The genius of Robin Williams was they just let him riff in the sound booth and then animated around the fun he brought to the script. So some of the things are a little cringey, but it’s likely to make parents roll their eyes as they fondly remember The Fresh Prince and the animated original Aladdin, but that kids will enjoy.
So why remake a classic? This brings a fresh feminist take to a movie that didn’t need a ton of updating, so it’s just the right touch. And while Will Smith isn’t Robin Williams, he’s still immensely watchable but is outshined by the excellent leads playing Aladdin and especially Jasmine. Take your family and experience a whole new world of what Aladdin can be.
Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars