After the misfire of turning King Arthur into some kind of cockney hipster in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, director Guy Ritchie returns, helming the live action version of Disney’s 1992 animated hit, Aladdin. Ritchie’s knee-jerk, rapid-fire tone, as seen in capers like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, finds an unlikely home in Disney’s wide-eyed, family-friendly fantastical realm. Your senses almost crack from CGI overload and an overcompensation of delight at times, but Ritchie’s directing also doesn’t feel as rushed or forced here. It’s pacified. There are even moments of wistful romance. Who would’ve thought?
You know the story. One day a wily street kid, Aladdin (Mena Massoud), meets Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) on the streets of Agrabah. Although smitten with each other, Aladdin is pulled away and forced by the scheming henchman, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), to steal a sacred lamp in the Cave of Wonders. After Aladdin discovers the lamp and the Genie inside (Will Smith), he uses his wishes to become a prince and win the love of Jasmine.
Action, elaborate music numbers and merriment ensue. There’s genuine joy in this adaptation, but like a lot of recent live-action adaptations (The Nutcracker, Beauty and the Beast), there are also patches of dead air. This occurs in the middle of the second act of Aladdin, which seems to emotionally flatten for a spell, before freeing itself for a hearty finale. However, unlike Tim Burton’s Dumbo, which is so lifeless you wonder what happened, Ritchie loosens the material with some genuinely instinctive, human moments.
Thankfully, Will Smith isn’t trying to emulate Robin Williams’s Genie from the original. He’s creating a new persona, replete with new pop culture references and exuberant imagery. With ripped muscles (genies work out?) and a goofy earnestness, Smith sings, winks and prances about like a court jester in a blue fog. Sometimes it’s endearing, but at times it’s almost too much, a brash CGI explosion that’ll probably make millions of parents need a cocktail afterward. However, Smith brings a lot of heart to what could’ve been a disaster. He’s right for this role, no doubt about it.
For the most part, the musical numbers in Aladdin are the same as its predecessor, and they come to life in Ritchie’s hands — in particular, the “Prince Ali” number, where Aladdin unmasks his identity as he dances through the streets, with elephants and pageantry leading the way. Ritchie has also crafted a visually immersive experience. The costumes and production design pop with beauty, and you can see every vibrant detail of Agrabah in almost every frame.
But what makes Aladdin truly shine are the performances of its two unknown leads. Mena Massoud as Aladdin is a little shaky at first, but soon we’re on his magic carpet ride, as he finds that right balance of innocence and ambition. Even more beguiling is Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine. With a classic grace and modern strength of spirit, Scott is not merely a sparkling diamond for our hero to gaze upon, but a full-bodied character with ambitions of her own. Her performance grounds material which at times threatens to be pure color and visceral pastiche. A few glitches aside, Aladdin ultimately, is what anyone might wish for in an adaptation. It’s family fun that doesn’t sacrifice its charisma to appease our childhood wonder.