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Think of them as Marvel movies for the younger set. After Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), and Beauty and the Beast (2017) successively pounced on the box office like Shere Khan on poor little Mowgli, Disney executives are now rolling out remakes of their classic animated films nearly once a quarter, to varying results. Before the next two years are out, audiences will reportedly be treated to a live-action Lion King, Lady and the Tramp, Mulan, Sword in the Stone, and Pinocchio.
First, though, they have to decide if they’re up for a magic carpet ride with Aladdin. Let’s save the suspense—they should be. Aladdin the remake strikes just the right balance: It honors the original enough to feel pleasantly nostalgic while still offering enough new scenes, characters, and jokes to make this version worth our time.
Perhaps because of Dumbo’s tepid reception among U.S. audiences (see “Dumbo,” April 13, 2019), far more doubtful media reports have been part of the run-up to Aladdin’s release. Unlike Cinderella’s Lily James and Richard Madden and Beauty and the Beast’s Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, the leads here are virtually unknown. The only marquee name—Will Smith—has drawn skepticism from commentators wondering if he has the chops to fill the late Robin Williams’ shoes as Genie.
That’s the wrong way to look at it. True, Smith’s energy doesn’t match Williams’, but then again, probably no actor working today could match the late comedian’s manic ability to fill a screen. The studio wisely held back from spoiling Smith’s funniest and most creative bits by featuring them in the advertisements. The earnest optimism Smith plays so well is enhanced with the addition of a new character—Princess Jasmine’s handmaid, played hilariously by SNL’s Nasim Pedrad.
But if Smith is quieter, the rest of the movie certainly isn’t. Director Guy Ritchie leans into the setting with bouncy Bollywood flair. The extravagant song-and-dance numbers are so fun, you can’t help wishing he had the space and budget to work in a few more. (Hint: Stay in your seat as the credits roll.)
It also must be said that somebody on Disney’s marketing team owes Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott an apology for criminally underselling them in the trailer. Massoud is the perfect embodiment of Aladdin, charming and cheeky. A million little girls will swoon at the chaste chemistry he has with Scott’s Jasmine (who, incidentally, developed her angelic pipes singing in the evangelical church her father pastors). She brings a likable feistiness to a new storyline, plus an addition to the soundtrack, that is appropriately female-empowering without megaphoning a feminist message. For once, it feels like someone took the time to make the girl power feel organic to the plot rather than tacked-on and pandering.
Perhaps most surprising of all is that a director once known for his raunchy R-rated comedies keeps this film so sweet and innocent. Aladdin’s wholesome humor and message—that to be great, one must be a servant—is far more in line with Cinderella than with the subversive Beauty and the Beast.
That’s not to say there aren’t a few downbeat aspects. Smith’s facial expressions have an uncanny Tom-Hanks-in-The-Polar-Express look whenever he’s in his blue-giant manifestation, and villain Jafar barely registers as a blip on the menace radar.
But these are minor complaints compared with the treasure Aladdin offers. Rather than a whole new world, it feels like a delightfully old one—romantic, exuberant, and entertaining for all ages.