'Aladdin' (2019) Review: The Fresh Prince of Agrabah

Will Smith is no Robin Williams, but maybe that's a good thing.

Aladdin (1992) represents the Disney Renaissance at its creative peak. A perfect blend of music, humor, and animation, it was also one of the first cartoon movies to score a major star in the lead voiceover role. Turning Robin Williams into the genie was a stroke of genius, but it also kickstarted the trend of combining star power with animation. So it almost seems inevitable that 17-years later, here we are with a live-action Aladdin remake starring one of the most recognizable faces on the planet today.

Will Smith represents everything wrong (and right) with this movie. Directed by Guy Ritchie, Aladdin (2019) is probably the best live-action remake from Disney so far, but if this is the high point we should all be worried. Where Williams was non-stop frantic energy, Smith is a relaxed, half-decent rapper with oodles of charm. His Genie is too chill to get excited (even when he’s hyping up Prince Ali in front of the entire city). He’d rather kick back with a martini or flirt with Jasmine’s handmaiden (played to perfection by SNL alum Nasim Pedrad).

But the Fresh Prince of Agrabah also injects something new into this classic story. Compare the two “Prince Ali” scenes, and Smith’s version is actually more showy and visually stunning than the original, even if it lacks that Disney Renaissance punch. This Genie might not have the same energy, but he’s got the swagger to make up for it.

For every scene that seems ripped directly from the original Aladdin storyboards there’s something totally unexpected. Not all of it works (like Jasmine’s new songs, more on that later), but when it does land it does so with style. One scene where Smith’s Genie uses magic to puppeteer Aladdin through a dance with the princess is particularly clever and enjoyable.

Of course, you can’t talk about Aladdin without mentioning Aladdin himself. Played by the relatively unknown Mena Massoud, this iteration of the beloved street rat is … fine. He lacks the charm and flair that Aladdin is supposed to have in spades, though he’s more than capable of carrying a tune or a scenes (the opening chase/song still works in live-action). Where Massoud really shines, though, is as an awkward prince trying to woo Princess Jasmine. There’s a joke about all the jams he brought her as a gift that not only lands but earns as callback later in the movie.

Meanwhile, Jasmine (Naomi Scott) brings considerable talent to the role of Jasmine, though the character gets muddled a bit in Disney’s attempt to modernize her for the late 2010s. The live-action Jasmine gets even more agency and a slightly more practical wardrobe. She also plays a bigger role in the final showdown with Jafar.

aladdin review 2019
Princess Jasmine

Jasmine even gets a couple new songs, which is a bold choice that doesn’t really work. Adding original music to a movie who’s soundtrack most viewers have already memorized is a risky decision, and these additional tracks just don’t hit the high bar set by Disney’s original songwriters.

To be honest, the only musical moment that truly works here is “A Whole New World.” That’s partially because it’s one scene that Genie isn’t in, but it’s also because this Jasmine really does sell it. As a 7-year-old boy watching Aladdin on repeat, this was never my favorite scene, but it was impossible not to notice the entire theater swooning as Jasmine hopped onto that flying carpet, and it was just as impossible not to get caught up in the moment myself once she started singing.

Speaking of which, the CGI’d carpet is just as expressive as the hand-drawn original. Rounding out the cast is a Sultan (Navid Negahban) who’s weirdly devoid of humor, and Abu, a CGI version of Aladdin’s monkey who gets some good laughs but comes dangerously close to uncanny valley territory. Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) gets a deeper backstory as a former thief just like Aladdin. Oh, and Iago the parrot is just a regular if well-trained parrot in this movie.

aladdin review 2019
Aladdin with Jafar (Marwan Kenzari)

But one of the biggest issues facing Disney’s Aladdin remake may say something more worrisome about this live-action trend in general. The movie’s obsession with a more naturalistic world (except for the blue genie, of course) means cutting out some of the most stunning visual moments of the original.

For example, at the end, when Jafar uses the lamp to become sorcerer and terrorizes our heroes, he’s a lot less creative in his forms of torture. In the cartoon, he traps Jasmine in a giant hourglass and transforms Abu into a windup monkey toy. In the movie, Jafar simply uses his powers to paralyze his enemies in place. The original whimsy is replaced with a bizarre quasi-realism that’s fine in the moment but totally forgettable afterwards.

As Disney pushes on with its string of remakes, I just hope this isn’t a sign of things to come. What made those original cartoons so magical was, well, the magic. And turning an animated film into live-action shouldn’t mean removing what made it special in the first place.

Aladdin hits theaters on May 24, 2019.