Get past the been there done that feeling that pervades Guy Ritchie’s touched up but essentially familiar remake of Disney’s animated Aladdin and you may well see the diamond for the rough. Whilst fault lines are striking, smart updates do well to justify the extended runtime. With a budget more dazzling than the cave of wonders itself, Ritchie’s production is shining, shimmering, splendid and sure to put a smile on willing faces.
A smash hit in 1992, both at the box office and Oscars alike, Aladdin was always prime picking for a live action remake. Even if then depictions of orientalist Arabia now trouble, at least sharp, empowered Jasmine had modern Disney’s woke sensibilities to a tee. Less predictable, however, was the placing of cinema’s geezer-in-chief Ritchie at the helm. Yet, only rarely does this feel like a film from the maker of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Perhaps Ritchie was swallowed by the machine. Maybe that’s for the best. Fears of a pantomime aesthetic – not unfounded, thanks to a surprisingly weak promotion from the house of mouse – are quickly swept aside by gorgeously embezzled sets and sweeping sandy vistas. Further still, it’s hard not to share in the rush of delight that shines through a series of superbly choreographed dances.
Ditching the original’s dodgy Arabic narrator, Ritchie launches on the high sees with a sailor telling his tots a tale. The kids want it in song form and, hey, why not. So far, so cheesy. As one character will later put it: ‘clumsy but in a charming way’. Hereafter, tweaks to the original are subtler but no less effective in directing us along the old route. Aladdin (Mena Massoud) holds largely unchanged – the street rat with a million dollar smile and a monkey for company – but Jasmine (Naomi Scott) leaps rather in development, peaking with a belter of a new empowerment song, composed for the film by original scorer Alan Menken and La La Land’s Pasek and Paul.
Her father, the Sultan (Navid Negahban), looses his prior bumble to the haunting gaze that accompanies an expansion to the backstory of Jasmine’s mother, whilst a beefier – frankly, sexier – Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) benefits too from an expanded history. Still villainous to the core, here Jafar comes to represent the threat of what Aladdin could well become if he continues to abuse the power of the genie. There are new characters too, in the form of a handmaiden for Jasmine (Nasim Pedrad) and dopey European prince (Billy Magnussen). Controversy surrounding the inclusion of the latter – the sole white actor in the film – comes to nothing. You’ll forget him quickly.
More memorable is Will Smith’s take on the genie. Different and successful enough to null comparisons to Robin Williams’ impeachable take on the character, Smith’s performance replaces mania with an almost too cool for school frisson – ‘In ten thousand years, I have never been so embarrassed’ – but retains the cutsie core. Smith’s genie also benefits from the addition of a romantic subplot and more consistent role in court proceedings, thanks to a human disguise. Paired with sublime visuals, Smith zings to the character’s magical capabilities and recalls his hip hop background to accompany show-stopping numbers like ‘You’ve Never Had a Friend Like Me’. Do you best not to take for granted the skill with which Aladdin’s effects have been realised. Seven years on from Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, it’s all too easy to forget that there is nothing straightforward about the hyper realisation of a Bengal tiger.
For all the fun, there are niggles that feel less sure and pure. Admirable – if rather calculated – that Ritchie’s diverse casting is, the move can’t help but feel undermined by an approach to accents that divides east and west along the lines of bad and good. In this sense, Aladdin remains every bit as orientalist as its forebear and no less guilty of appropriation. Equally Hollywood is the cleanliness of Gemma Jackson’s production design. Background urchins might be touched up with designer dirt but front and centre Aladdin and Jasmine strut with a decidedly polished pop star aesthetic. With his boyband curls and poster perfect teeth, Massoud would struggle to look less like the product of a backstreet upbringing. At least it’s fun – seriously so.