“Aladdin” (Rated B)
Cast: Will Smith, Naomi Scott, Mena Massoud, Marwan Kenzari
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Musical
Disney is up to something!
They must be privy to some critical details eluding the rest of us.
Like, surely the end times must draw nigh; if not at the end of this year, then early in the next?
Or perhaps it’s just the movie industry that’s on the verge of a collapse akin to the 1929 stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression?
Why else would the studio be intent on total domination this year (on the way to its fourth straight year as the number one Hollywood studio by market share), releasing guaranteed blockbusters practically every single month?
For 2019, already we’ve seen “Captain Marvel”, the live-action “Dumbo”, and the biggest movie in years, “Avengers: Endgame”. Still to come, more sequels to and/or remakes of some of their most famous and successful film brands, including “Star Wars: Episode IX” and Disney’s newest animated behemoth, “Frozen 2”. And this summer, there’s “Toy Story 4”, the latest edition of the franchise that helped to make Pixar a household name, as well as dramatically different updates of two of its most well-known animated classics, “The Lion King” in July, and “Aladdin”, in theaters now.
All in one single year?
What’s the deal Disney? What do you know?
While we try to figure out their true “end game”, there’s one thing of which we can be certain: despite the numerous early signs that strongly suggested otherwise, the new “Aladdin” is actually pretty good.
No, it’s not perfect, but contrary to the seemingly years of cheesy-looking promos, commercials and trailers, and the freaky and unsettling images of a very blue Will Smith, this is a fun and extremely colorful escapist summer flick. (One wonders if the negative pre-release buzz was intentionally drummed up to lower expectations. More of Disney’s machinations?)
The film, directed and co-written by Guy Ritchie (“Sherlock Holmes”, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”) follows Disney’s recent philosophy of presenting female characters as strong, independent personalities, and not damsels in distress needing to be rescued by men. With these 21st century sensibilities, there are strong messages of empowerment and equality, with the girls and women just as likely to be the rescuers and the brains behind any operations.
Other than this adjustment, this new “Aladdin” is remarkably similar to the monstrous 1992-animated hit on which it’s based.
Aladdin is still a lovable street urchin who meets Princess Jasmine, the beautiful daughter of the sultan of Agrabah. Following a series of events involving the evil sorcerer Jafar, Aladdin stumbles upon a magic oil lamp that unleashes a powerful, wisecracking, larger-than-life genie (Will Smith). As Aladdin and the genie start to become friends, they must soon embark on a dangerous mission to stop Jafar from overthrowing young Jasmine’s kingdom.
The updates are refreshing, and will make sense to just about everyone except those from (or who should be banished to) the most backward countries, in which women must seek permission to drive or go to school or the like.
The performances from the attractive cast of largely unknowns in this part of the world are some of the real highlights, particularly the two young leads – British actress Naomi Scott as Jasmine, and Canadian actor Mena Massoud as Aladdin.
Smith, who had the biggest shoes to fill, in the role made famous in the animated version by the late Robin Williams, manages to make the genie his own. It’s not as over-the-top a performance as Williams’, which is a good thing. But it also might not be as memorable. However, his genie is enjoyable, and becomes more endearing as the film moves along.
Shockingly, the musical numbers are not corny, and a couple of them are actually quite special.
Yes, at times, particularly as we approach the ending, the film begins to lag a little, and briefly you get the feeling it could use a sprinkle of genie magic. And even with the modern touches, “Aladdin” feels like it plays it a little too close to the animated version.
But there’s no denying there’s a lot to like here for both adults and children. Plus, it can be argued that these updates on Jasmine’s motivations to reflect contemporary thinking are more inspiring than what was served up in 1992.
Perhaps this is what is inspiring most of these Disney reboots: it doesn’t want a legacy of being a purveyor of outdated 19th and 20th century (or even older) thinking.
Let’s hope that’s all that’s afoot. Otherwise, Disney, if the end is near, please let us in on the secret!
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email [email protected] and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.
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