You know how there's a common complaint with the marketing for a lot of movies that the trailers give away all the best parts? Studios have gotten incredibly good at selling an audience on a few key scenes and lines that actually look really great, when in reality they are the only parts of a movie worth watching. Well, with the new live-action adaptation of Disney's Aladdin, the exact opposite is true. The trailers, TV spots, and clips released over the last few months highlight some of the worst the film has to offer, making it seem as though Aladdin is a boisterous and unruly mess. But that's not actually the case here, as Aladdin turns out to be a fun, charming, and surprisingly thoughtful film.
The story in Aladdin is largely the same as Disney's 1992 animated version: a kind and spirited young man in the streets of Agrabah, Aladdin (Mena Massoud) catches the eye of Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) and tries to win her affection without knowing who she really is. The Sultan's evil adviser Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) uses Aladdin to get a magic lamp from the Cave of Wonders to unlock the power of the Genie (Will Smith) residing inside. Aladdin takes the lamp and uses it for himself, becoming a fake prince in order to win over Jasmine.
If you watched the original movie, you pretty much know what to expect this time around, but somehow this adaptation still finds ways to surprise even the biggest Aladdin fans. There are a few changes made here and there to make the story fun for a live-action format, or even to fix small issues about the animated take (like explaining why Jasmine can't tell that Prince Ali is actually Aladdin, despite having met him before). It's got its flaws, to be sure, but many of them are overshadowed by the mix of Disney nostalgia and exciting new directions.
The biggest, and undoubtedly best of these changes comes in the form of Jasmine herself. Naomi Scott's performance, both as an actor and singer, is far and away the most impressive of the entire cast, which is a difficult feat when you're in a movie with someone as charismatic as Will Smith. Jasmine's transformation goes deeper than just a great performance, though. This truly updated take on the classic tale rights the biggest wrong of the animated film by making Jasmine an actual character, not just the prize of Aladdin's affection. Instead of her narrative simply being, "I want to marry for love, not just because I have to," Jasmine's desires run so much deeper, as she wants to take over and rule the people of Agrabah that she loves so dearly whenever it's time for her father to step down. However, the sultan continues to press that she can never take his place, because women aren't allowed to rule, no matter how intelligent, strategic, or compassionate Jasmine might be.
What makes this turn of the character so great isn't just the slight shift in the story. You actually get to see Jasmine prove time and again that she is the most capable leader in Agrabah, and that no one, not even her father, can make decisions for her. This fantastic and empowered version of Jasmine is on full display during her performance of the film's lone new song, "Speechless," which serves as the most emotional and powerful scene in the film. Akin to Moana's "How Far I'll Go" and Frozen's "Let It Go," "Speechless" is a bona fide anthem, and Scott absolutely nails it.
While Scott is easily the MVP of the Aladdin cast, but she's not the only one that delivers a solid performance. Massoud is a charming and lovable Aladdin, and his chemistry with Scott is so wonderfully authentic. Will Smith is unsurprisingly fantastic in just about every scene he's in, delivering the wit and banter we've come to love from the Fresh Prince, and distancing himself enough from Robin Williams' performance that there's never a real opportunity to try and compare the two. Yes, the CGI in his first appearance as the giant blue Genie is a little off, but it only lasts for a moment. Once he's sized down, the Genie works in all forms.
All of the individual parts that make up Aladdin are wonderful, and they come together to make a good movie, just not a great one. What this adaptation sorely lacks is creativity. Aladdin is all about taking risks, and director Guy Ritchie, a man who has made a career out of risk-taking, plays it incredibly safe for most of this movie. It largely works, but this kind of adventurous-yet-childlike whimsy isn't at all Ritchie's style, and it's easy to see that he struggled translating it to the screen. Many of the shots are straight-up bland, with conversations shifting from one boring close-up to another. In trying to keep his wild style under control, Ritchie didn't really allow himself to take chances, and make this movie everything it could have been. All of the individual pieces were there, it just needed the right push from behind the camera, and sadly Ritchie couldn't provide it.
Aladdin is certainly less than the sum of its parts, but the parts are all so fantastic that it doesn't always matter. This is a fun adventure and a great time at the theater that vastly outperforms expectations. Not exactly a whole new world, but certainly one that I don't mind journeying to again.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Disney's Aladdin hits theaters on May 24th.