The 2019 live-action of Aladdin has been walking a fine line with critics the past few days, and continues to hover uncertainly – personally, my own review will be a little more positive than many, but I’m not going to let the film entirely off the hook. It had the chance to truly be “A Whole New World”, but it was too tentative to make the leap – Aladdin’s little pep-talk about “do you trust me?” and all that would have really come in handy when the screenwriters were handling this project.
The film starts out a little shaky, going from a visually-stunning glimpse of the nightlife of Agrabah and the various things that our characters are doing before their part in the story begins, to a somewhat-awkward dance number in the marketplace as Aladdin (Mena Massoud) and a disguised Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) run from armed soldiers. The film then briefly tries to imitate the 2017 mega-hit Beauty And The Beast by having its protagonist sit in a window and talk about his deceased mother, and the melodies she would sing to him when he was a baby – and, of course, Jasmine’s mother used to sing the same lullabies…a lot of bonding over dead parents happens in this scene, and it felt very formulaic and dull.
Then, suddenly, things start moving, and the plot jumps into gear. There’s theft and a daring palace heist, and royal visitors from…Scotland? Aladdin is trying to survive on scraps, while Jasmine enjoys a life of splendor and majesty – but she yearns to go out onto the streets and help her starving people, who are seemingly oppressed by the Vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari). Exactly why Jafar is oppressing the people is, unfortunately, never explained, nor do the starving people of Agrabah really play much of a part in the story, despite the fact that protecting them is Jasmine’s greatest motivation throughout the film. It would have been truly wonderful to see Jasmine’s connection with the citizens continue to develop as she is in turn disenfranchised and robbed of her own privileges. Sadly, it’s only the first of many things that the film suggests in subtext but never explores.
Aladdin himself is okay through the first act of the movie, decent in the second, and good in the third: Massoud is charming and endearing, and his humility and awkwardness makes him especially fun to watch – the movie does strip those traits away from him pretty abruptly at one point, but Massoud’s acting is just good enough that he can get away with it. He’s also undeniably helped by the fact that he is accompanied by the requisite Adorable Animal Sidekick, and the…Adorable Fabric Sidekick? I am, of course, referring to Aladdin’s pet monkey Abu and magical rug, Carpet: both of whom have numerous opportunities to show off their skills.
Massoud’s Aladdin, however, never comes close to approaching the true grandeur that is Naomi Scott’s Jasmine. An elegant and confident character, Jasmine is so unexpectedly fresh that she never actually felt like the original 1992 animated Jasmine…she was better. Scott, in fact, is so good that she could easily warrant an entire sequel or spin-off series about her character: she is a clear thinker and a strategist, with fierce determination; the type of Princess that needs to be – and can be – the new norm from Disney. Unfortunately, the limitations of film require that only a small part of Jasmine’s personality and backstory can be shown onscreen, but I would have gladly learned more about her mother’s native kingdom, the one that Jafar desperately wants to invade (for unexplained reasons), or her attempts to help the city’s inhabitants while disguised. The film wastes very little, but still too much, time on her prospective suitor Prince Anders (Billy Magnussen) of Scotland, an incredibly forced and unfunny character. Jasmine, however, does get to have relatively fleshed-out relationships with her father, The Sultan (Navid Negahban) and her handmaiden Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), both of which lend more facets to her already multi-faceted character and help to make her, without a doubt, the movie’s standout performance.
Naomi Scott is also blessed with a beautiful singing-voice: Jasmine’s new song “Speechless” is a powerful shout-out to all people who have been victimized, and whose stories have been silenced – but especially to women, in this age of #MeToo. This song is too good to be sung only once, and happily we get to see two renditions of it in the film (after which, it can be listened to on repeat for the rest of eternity). Scott also lends her vocals to “A Whole New World”, the film’s defining moment, but Massoud is actually a good singer on his own too.
The dance-numbers and songs are fantastic, and all feel very new and exciting – except, perhaps, “A Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali”, both of which look and feel much like they did in the animated film. The music is a highlight – but how could it go wrong with Alan Menken composing? Costuming and production design are very much Hollywood quality, but with a beautiful and authentic Bollywood flair that lends the film something unique, something that Beauty And The Beast does not possess. But what else does Aladdin have, other than that and Naomi Scott?
It has Will Smith.
Yes, we laughed at his first appearance in the trailers, and we continued to laugh well after that. But hey, first impressions can be deceiving, and Will Smith proves that with his incredible performance as The Genie. To follow in the footsteps of an icon like Robin Williams is probably no small feat, and Smith clearly knows that – rather than trying to imitate Williams, he brings something new, something iconic of his own, to the character. Whether the critics and the general audiences will like that, remains to be seen – because despite the fact that the movie is named for the endearing street-rat Aladdin, and despite the fact that Naomi Scott steals the show with pride, Will Smith is the star. He’s also probably the most heavily-criticized part of the movie, whether people are merely joking about his CGI smoke-cloud, or getting fussy about his decision to add rap to his musical numbers (about that, that whole “issue” was completely overblown: if you’re worried about it, just leave before the credits roll).
Thankfully, the movie has Scott, Smith and the Bollywood vibes going on. Jafar is a bit of boring villain, even with new elements added to his backstory: again, there was a lot of opportunity to make him a sympathetic and relateable villain, but the film doesn’t take the extra step that’s needed to make this work. The script has some flaws, and a bit of the dialogue is cringey, especially in the first thirty minutes of the film. The end of the film might have needed a bit more buildup – I, for one, was completely confused as to how everything was going to work out, and not exactly in a good way.
All in all, Aladdin has all the ingredients to make a great film, but it only nervously tests the waters, trying to play it safe. With two great leads and one good one, plus fantastic songs, the movie manages to be very enjoyable (I can’t stress that enough; I enjoyed myself immensely) – but it’s not quite the Whole New World we were hoping for.
Movie Rating: 7.5/10