Aladdin movie review: Will Smith makes the magic happen in Guy Ritchie’s Disney film
Director - Guy Ritchie
Cast - Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Nasim Pedrad
Rating - 3.5/5
Despite being one of the most unambitious tentpole films of the year, the live-action Aladdin is - by far - the oddest movie that director Guy Ritchie has ever made. And remember, he once made a rom-com for his ex-wife Madonna.
If you’ve been wondering, like me, why Disney has been shying away from highlighting Ritchie’s instantly recognisable trademarks in the trailers, it’s because there aren’t any in the film. This is strange, because Ritchie in the past has managed to bring his very distinct brand of cinema - replete with snazzy editing, flamboyant camerawork, and muscular action - even to properties as seemingly ancient as Sherlock Holmes and King Arthur. And on paper, Aladdin’s origins as a ‘street rat’ fall neatly into Ritchie’s wheelhouse, but he directs with little personality, as if, like the Genie, he has been trapped in a prison as well.
Watch the Aladdin trailer here
This isn’t to say that the new Aladdin is a failure - it most certainly isn’t - but I’d imagine this is simply a case of Ritchie trying to get back into Hollywood’s good books after the back-to-back box office failure of his last two movies. That being said, Aladdin is a vibrant adventure, featuring three excellent central performances, and laced with intelligent subtext about class - like Gully Boy meets Han Solo.
Like Ranveer Singh’s aspiring rapper from that film, Aladdin has also been bred on the streets, constantly reminded of his place in the world, confronted by the very real possibility that he will never be allowed to escape it.
Breaking out of the boxes that one is confined to - regardless of where we are born - is the central theme of Ritchie’s film. It’s what draws Aladdin to Princess Jasmine, who is - for all intents and purposes - a prisoner inside her own home, held under the age-old patriarchal excuse of protection, ‘seen but not heard’. The desire to climb the social ladder is what motivates the villainous vizier Jafar, who is given a heftier backstory in this film, one that neatly mirrors Aladdin’s.
And ironically, the only one who can make their dreams come true is a prisoner himself. Will Smith’s Genie is introduced about 45 minutes into the film, and is single-handedly responsible for injecting it with the energy that is sorely missing in the first act. Genie not only brings the humour, but also gives the film an excuse to be more visually inventive. After some solid, if not spectacular sequences set in the narrow gullies of Agrabah (which sadly never ceases to look like a hollow set surrounded by green screen environments), the Genie introduces himself with a grand, visually arresting musical number. And thankfully, he does not look like chewed up bubble gum anymore.
Aladdin is - and depending on your familiarity with the original animated film, this may or may not come as a surprise - an outright musical. Composer Alan Menken returns, joined this time by La La Land’s Pasek & Paul to produce new music for the film. These are some of its best scenes, especially the reprisal of Prince Ali (which Ritchie directs like a homage to Sridevi’s Himmatwala), and the always stirring A Whole New World, performed, thankfully, by stars Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott in the film, and not, as had been threatened, by Zayn Malik or DJ Khaled, or god forbid, Badshah.
It’s no mean feat for any actor to hold their own opposite the majestic screen presence that is Will Smith, but Ritchie has always had an eye for casting. Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott are excellent finds. Had it not been for their effortless chemistry, and their fresh-faced innocence, their scenes together could have been awfully bland - especially with no Genie to elevate them.
There’s a reason why Will Smith has been given top billing in the credits, above even the title character. Legal and political reasons aside, this movie would not have worked without him. It helps that he plays Genie as an exaggerated version of his own public persona, a trick that worked immensely well for the late Robin Williams in the original movie, too.
Like every film in Disney’s recent spate of live-action remakes, Aladdin also reeks of cash-grab cynicism. However well you spin it, it has no other reason to exist than to make the Mouse House millions of dollars. Children are just as likely to discover the old film, and perhaps even better off for it. But, crucially, it isn’t cynically made. There’s an earnestness to it that we’re seeing more often now, perhaps because we, as an audience, seem to have had enough of dark, twisted takes; and arguably because the world seems to be losing sight of what is right and what is wrong.
And so, we turn to the movies, as always - to guide us, morally, to remind us, and to show us a whole new world.