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Will Smith Gets the Blues

Will Smith
Will Smith
Walt Disney Pictures
 128 Minutes
Rated: PG
Directed ByGuy Ritchie
Starring: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott    

It’s a whole new world since the highly successful release of Disney’s traditionally animated box office hit Aladdin in 1992. Since then, computer animation has replaced the exquisite hand drawings in the 1992 film, certain notions of the roles of the sexes have gone by the boards, and, sadly, Robin Williams, who brilliantly voiced the Genie in the animated film, is no longer with us. But some things don’t change, especially Disney’s desire to milk every last dollar from its various properties in any medium it can. So, as with other Disney animated films of the same vintage such as Beauty and the Beast, the animated movie begets the Broadway musical which, in turn, begets a new, live-action version. And, while it may be a whole new world, Aladdin works best when it sticks to what worked before, lively musical numbers and an entertaining Genie.


In this new version of Aladdin, Disney wisely sticks relatively close to the storyline of the earlier film. Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a petty thief working the streets of Agrabah. He meets and charms a slumming Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), the sultan’s daughter, and even breaks into the palace to see the princess again. His journey is interrupted when he gets clunked on the head and captured by the palace guards loyal to the sultan’s evil vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari). Jafar wants a magic lamp buried deep inside the Cave of Wonders, but the cave won’t allow him to enter. Instead, only a “diamond in the rough,” a person pure of heart, can enter.


Jafar figures out that Aladdin is that diamond and takes his prisoner out in the desert to the cave’s location. Once inside the cave, Aladdin first finds a magic carpet and, second, the lamp. Third, he finds out that Jafar can’t be trusted when the vizier takes the lamp and throws Aladdin back in the cave. Fortunately, Aladdin’s pet monkey steals the lamp back, before the cave collapses trapping them. Jafar assumes that Aladdin is dead and the lamp is gone. However, Aladdin is still alive and manages to rub the lamp, letting loose the Genie (a blue Will Smith).


With the Genie’s help, Aladdin gets out of the cave and re-enters Agrabah in luxurious style (see scene below), having assumed the appearance of a visiting prince, and with a full entourage (all at the cost of only one of the three wishes the Genie grants him). Aladdin arrives in the middle of some royal intrigue, as the sultan is pressuring Jasmine to marry a prince so he can have an heir to his throne. Jasmine realizes that she is most qualified to rule after her father but realizes that he won’t accept her as his heir in the traditionally male-dominated society. In the meantime, Jafar has his own designs on the throne, which are considerably less benevolent than those of Jasmine or her father. He doesn’t have the lamp, but he does have the ability to hypnotize people to do his bidding by using his snake’s head staff.


This new version of Aladdin is a full half hour longer than the animated one, and the main addition to the storyline has been to change Jasmine from a rather sweet but simple girl, just wanting to marry the man who charms her, into an early feminist. While it’s not historically accurate, it is a welcome attempt by Disney to remove some of the stereotypes from the earlier version. Armed with a stronger storyline and a good singing voice, Naomi Scott makes for a very impressive Jasmine.


Besides expanding Princess Jasmine’s storyline, the new version of Aladdin gives the Genie a life outside of the bottle as well. As played by Will Smith, the Genie appears human in most of the scenes at the palace and assumes the identity of Aladdin’s manservant. As such, he winds up with a romance of his own, with the princess’s maid (Nasim Pedrad). This plot development is rather unnecessary from a plot standpoint, but it does serve to humanize the character of the Genie (and take advantage of Will Smith’s charms).


The strength of the new Aladdin lies in the musical numbers and an early action sequence in which Aladdin manages to dodge a host of the sultan’s guards with a combination of acrobatics and parkour techniques. The film was directed by Guy Ritchie, whose stock in trade is such action sequences but who has a tendency to go overboard with overly edited artistic flourishes. I have a feeling that the powers-that-be at Disney kept a tight leash on Ritchie because he is more restrained that he has been in a long time (his King Arthur, in which he let himself go wild, is a terrible mess). Frankly, the musical numbers work better in live action than in an animated film, especially a couple of big production numbers, like the one in the clip, which are more dazzling with human performers.


On the other hand, the CGI-enhanced magical sequences don’t work nearly as well. The big set piece involves a chase through (and mostly over) the streets of Agrabah as Jafar’s parrot Iago, now transformed into a pterodactyl-like creature tries to steal the lamp and get away from Aladdin on his magic carpet. The scene may qualify as live action, but it shares the same problem as such set pieces in totally animated films do; namely, it goes on way too long. By the same token, other scenes involving the Genie as he initially appears don’t seem to work well. The CGI here is not as high a quality as you would expect in a movie with this big a budget, and the obvious insertion of CGI moments into the live action is a distraction. The longer these action scenes go on, the more boring the film gets, despite the constant noise and motion.


The other big disappointment in this version of the movie is the character of Jafar. As portrayed in the animated film and on stage, Jafar is a powerful, menacing force of nature (if this movie had been made in 1992, Christopher Lee would have been perfect for the role). Unfortunately, Marwan Kenzari does not have that degree of screen presence. Instead, he resembles a middle school student in a production of Aladdin, Jr. He’s certainly not pleasant, but he’s more of a sniveling brat than an awe-inspiring menace. Mena Massoud’s Aladdin also disappoints, but to a lesser degree. He doesn’t have nearly the same appeal and charisma as Naomi Scott does. This is a case in which he appears too much like the character in the animated film and not as the sort of likable rogue who could charm a princess.


This version of Aladdin tries to substitute spectacle and computer effects for the dynamic energy that Robin Williams provided in 1992. Will Smith, for all his likability, can’t duplicate Williams’ energy. In fairness, I don’t think any actor, even Williams himself could quite harness the Genie’s magic when bound by the limitations resulting from being played by a flesh-and-blood actor. Without that magic and when sidled with a couple of poor casting decisions, Aladdin is enjoyable enough but more for its various parts than as an at times slow-moving whole. The best thing this movie accomplishes is to stir up interest to see the stage version of the show. But, instead of pure magic, all this film produces are occasional moments of light. 

In this clip, Will Smith leads a musical procession for Mena Massoud.

Read other reviews of Aladdin: 

Aladdin (2019) on IMDb