Let’s get this out of the way right from the beginning: as the exuberant magic wielder in Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin, Will Smith is perfectly fine. Sure, he’ll never surpass the chaotic comedy that Robin Williams brought to the role of the Genie in the 1992 animated classic — let’s be honest, no one could — but he’s not really trying to, either. With a mix of charm and silliness and a healthy dose of Smith’s innate charisma, he makes the role his own while occasionally dropping a wink and a nod to the work that Williams did more than two decades ago.
But before we meet the big blue guy, there’s some business to take care of, and after an opening sequence that occurs not on the sand, but on the ocean, the film quickly falls into step with the same beats as the original animated film. As played by Mena Massoud, this Aladdin is impossibly handsome and even more acrobatic than his hand-drawn counterpart, parkouring his way through the crowded streets of Agrabah and stealing whatever he can to survive. Interceding on behalf of a mysterious young woman (Naomi Scott) unable to pay for a loaf of bread, Aladdin leads the palace guards on a lengthy chase through the marketplace, with director Guy Ritchie pulling out his usual bag of tricks. Thankfully, most of these techniques — including Ritchie’s affection for speed ramping — remain confined to the early moments of the film.
While the overall plot structure mirrors this film’s predecessor, there are a few twists along the way: Aladdin doesn’t discover Jasmine’s identity right away, and spends most of the first act under the impression that she’s actually a handmaiden to the real princess. This film’s version of Jasmine is also more compelling, as her ambition is not solely to marry someone she loves — she wants to succeed her father (Navid Negahban) as Sultan, and is frustrated with the existing laws that prohibit a woman from sitting on the throne. Her dissatisfaction boils over in “Speechless,” a new musical number conceived for the film, and Scott’s performance here is dynamite.
Elsewhere, the scheming vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) seems to be operating from the modern day GOP playbook, ranting about the need to maintain strong borders to guard against threats from foreign adversaries and goading the Sultan to assert the strength of Agrabah’s military by invading a neighboring ally. Jafar’s motto is simple: “you’re either the most powerful man in the room, or you’re nothing,” and with his lust for power and seething disdain for the princess’s outspoken attitude, I half expected him to march into the throne room and demand to know what happened to Jasmine’s emails.
Ritchie and his production team clearly spared no expense bringing the world of Agrabah to life, and there’s an uncanny amount of detail in every frame. The marketplace scenes are particularly stunning, with an array of colored fabrics and shimmering jewels, and the lavish decorations of the Sultan’s palace are jaw-dropping. Of course, nowhere is opulence on display more than the film’s two biggest musical numbers: “Friend Like Me,” with Smith showcasing the Genie’s wide-ranging abilities, and “Prince Ali,” where the newly transformed Aladdin parades through the crowded streets with drummers, dancers and his “world class menagerie,” surveying it all from the back of an elephant. If nothing else, Ritchie has made an absolutely gorgeous film, taking full advantage of a vivid and vibrant color palette and ensuring there’s always something eye-catching on display.
As mentioned above, Smith acquits himself well in the role of the Genie, and despite the bulk of his performance being realized through motion-capture, his infectious energy shines through the CG facade. But no matter how many laughs the Genie serves up, he can’t quite steal the film away from its two leads. Massoud’s striking features, carefree demeanor and world-class grin are a perfect match for the “street rat” who dreams of bigger and better things, and the fierce determination Scott brings to the role of Jasmine is a welcome change from the usual damsel in distress archetype that often plagues films of this sort.
Much like 2017’s Beauty and the Beast update, Ritchie has crafted a film that pays loving tribute to its animated source material while attempting to forge its own identity. There are stumbles along the way, such as a third-act chase through the Agrabah marketplace that devolves into blurry computer-generated chaos, but the cast is so great and the production design so spectacular that these shortcomings are easy to forgive. Aladdin may not usurp the original film — nor should we expect it to — but it’s a vast improvement over the last offering from Ritchie himself, and worlds away from the colossal misfire of this year’s ill-conceived Dumbo.