FILM REVIEW – ALADDIN. With Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Nasim Pedrad. Written by John August and Guy Ritchie. Directed by Guy Ritchie. Rated PG for some action/peril. 128 minutes.
Let’s face it – it wasn’t supposed to work. Robin Williams’s voicework as the Genie in the 1992 animated “Aladdin” was one of his signature performances. How could anyone presume to take on the role? And the choice of director Guy Ritchie, whose credits include “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Snatch,” and the decidedly muscular “Sherlock Holmes” with Robert Downey, Jr., seemed an unlikely choice for a family-friendly Disney film.
But this ALADDIN does work… and beautifully. Without taking anything away from the earlier film, or simply trying to mimic it, this new “Aladdin” is a colorful and exciting story, with much that is familiar while updating it for contemporary audiences. The result is a movie that should appeal to all ages.
For those coming in late, this is the tale of Aladdin (Mena Massoud), a young and personable thief in the fictional Arabian kingdom of Agrabah. He meets Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) when she sneaks out of the palace, and he is smitten. When he goes to see her, he is captured and put to work by the ambitious Grand Vizier Jafar (Maran Kenzari), to risk his life in claiming a magic lamp.
The lamp is the home of the Genie (Will Smith) who grants Aladdin three wishes, one of which turns him into “Prince Ali,” a production number from the original film that soars. It is the moment when any doubts you may have had about this movie will vanish. Using CGI animation – yes, this “live action” film has a tremendous amount of animation – the movie magically finds its own way to tell the familiar story.
As the Genie, Smith makes the character his own. He doesn’t try to be Robin Williams. Instead he plays to his own not inconsiderable comic talents and turns in his best performance in years. As the romantic leads Massoud and Scott – who have worked mostly on the small screen – are delightful, hitting the right romantic comedy notes as they work their way through to the inevitable finale. For this version, Jasmine is a much more developed character, and not merely a princess who needs to be rescued.
Just as interesting is that Jafar, the villain of the piece, is given a backstory that doesn’t make him sympathetic, but does deepen his motivation beyond being the “bad guy.” Indeed, he makes a point of noting that his early years were similar to Aladdin’s, making a subtle point that it’s not circumstances but the choices one makes that is decisive. As Jafar, Marwan Kenzari isn’t a cartoon villain, but someone whose twisted nature becomes more exposed over the course of the film.
No doubt skeptics will now predict that Disney’s next live-action adaptation, “The Lion King” due out July 18, will be a failure. Sight unseen, we can’t really say. However, there’s no question that “Aladdin” is a triumph.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.