Disney’s live-action Aladdin review: Remake or a whole new world?

Will Smith and Mena Massoud in Disney's Aladdin / Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Will Smith and Mena Massoud in Disney's Aladdin / Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures /

Now that Disney’s live-action Aladdin has finally released into theaters, should the film be viewed as a remake or a new story for a new generation?

Since 2010, Hollywood has been on the fast track to bringing classic Disney films to life in a new way. Alice in Wonderland was the first live-action remake to hit the big screen, then came Maleficent, then Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Beauty and The Beast, Dumbo and now Aladdin.

Thanks to CGI and the creative mind of director Guy Ritchie, Disney fans are getting the chance to fall in love all over again with the flamboyant genie, the strong-willed princess and the handsome street-rat. But should this “remake” be viewed as a live-action copy of the original, or a new story for a whole new world?

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Disney’s live-action Aladdin released into theaters this Friday and the movie has already been bombarded with negative reviews comparing the actors to their original animated characters. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise since the role of Genie has always been associated with the late, great Robin Williams. But the roles Jasmine, Aladdin, and Jafar are also in the hot seat. While the general consensus is that the re-imagining of Agraba is eye-poppingly gorgeous–and it is–critics seem keen on scrutinizing characters for their lack of likeness to the original creations.

But perhaps comparing a Disney-animated film from 1992 to a 2019 live-action version of the same story is unfair. Sure, it’s got the same title, the same troupe of core characters, and the same narrative landmarks, but there are new themes, new lines, and new twists in this story to fit a new era of fairy tales.

It’s important to remember that Aladdin, and all the other Disney live-action films, are not just being created for those who grew up with the originals. They are also made for a new generation and should be looked at with fresh eyes.

Aladdin via WB Media Pass
Aladdin via WB Media Pass /

So what does Aladdin, the 2019 edition, look like with a pair of unbiased peepers? First off, this film is unbelievably gorgeous!

Granted, the filmmakers did have a great setting to work with. Agraba was one of Disney’s more glamorous creations with glittering palaces of gold and ivory, culture-rich street markets along a Mediterranean coast and vibrant, fantasy versions of saris and dastars of every color. The new live-action and CGI enriched Agraba is truly a breath-taking site, even more so than the original. Still, it wasn’t the scene that stole the show.

Aladdin via WB Media Pass
Aladdin via WB Media Pass /

The Cave of Wonders was, of course, the scene that everyone was waiting for. It’s not only the first time viewers meet Genie, but it’s the setting for one of the showiest musical numbers in the whole film. “Friend Like Me” was a stunning number, with nearly all the same magical tricks and treats from the original. But there were some small, yet noticeable, changes made that did the new version a lot of favors.

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“Friend Like Me” is not just another song and dance, it’s where Genie introduces himself and gives the rules of wish-making. It’s really a platform for which the character says, “This is who I am.” It’s a personality piece and Will Smith made it his own, adding rap segments and beat-boxing notes that contrasted to Genie’s original 1920s-style show tune.

There’s no question that Ritchie knew this would be an emotional and touchy character introduction, but Smith nailed the contrast perfectly, keeping Genie’s personality intact while also being careful to not imitate Williams’ signature style. A copy-cat image was not an option.

On an even more personal note, not once does Smith’s Genie call Aladdin’s character, “Al.” This was William’s iconic nickname for his unconventional master. Smith doesn’t even go there, calling Aladdin “kid” instead. It seemed like a sincere gesture from the cast and a way to tell audiences they understood that parts of Genie would only ever belong to Williams.

Aladdin via WB Media Pass
Aladdin via WB Media Pass /

Of course, Genie’s character was not the only role audiences anticipated for change. Jasmine was also a character that would require a bit of modern-day fine-tuning.

What most fans loved about Disney’s original heroine was her iron will and stubbornness to adhere to societal norms in the palace. She refused to marry someone she didn’t love, she refused to listen to commands from people she didn’t trust, and she was aggressive in her believe that honesty is the best policy. Jasmine was one of the most apologetically out-spoken princesses in the Disney franchise and Naomi Scott took that one step further.

While nothing changes in Jasmine’s personality for the live-action Aladdin, the execution of the values this character holds dear is much more “in your face.” It’s a tactic the original Jasmine would have probably been all for. Scott has her very own, brand new musical number “Speechless” that’s powerful, soul-shaking and illustrates Jasmine’s desire to not only have her voice heard, but her potential realized as the next future Sultan. Scott’s portrayal of this ambitious princess is spunky, unrelenting and the reason we’re falling for Jasmine all over again.

Aladdin via WB Media Pass
Aladdin via WB Media Pass /

There are some wonderfully nostalgic moments in Disney’s new Aladdin, such as Mena Massoud’s charmingly boyish portrayal of the story’s protagonist and the familiar notes of everyone’s favorite love song, “A Whole New World.” But this new take on an old tale is also saturated with fresh changes, like Aladdin’s witty one-liners, a more serious leadership portrayal of Jasmine’s father and a far-less humorous (and talkative) parrot.

There’s a mix of old a new in Ritchie’s colorful, charismatic and contemporary Aladdin. It might not be all that viewers were expecting, but that’s what keeps these films interesting. Simply remaking a classic, copying every line word for word and replicating every scene shot for shot, does not enrich the experience of seeing a favorite movie come to live-action life. If we want nostalgia, we can always see the original. If we want to see a story told with a fresh angle, that requires fresh and trusting eyes.

Aladdin via WB Media Pass
Aladdin via WB Media Pass /

Films like Christopher Robin, Maleficent, and Snow White and the Huntsman had an advantage. Viewers didn’t expect them to have the same story, they expected change and a new angle. With films like Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, and Aladdin, it’s much harder to get audiences to look at the same story from a new angle.

It’s not an easy task, but Aladdin does it well. It’s a film that honors the vision of the original, keeps the nonnegotiable songs and adds new flavor to characters that will serve as role models for a new generation. If viewers take the opportunity to be surprised by a new story, rather than spending an hour and a half comparing the old with the new, Aladdin has the chance to be just as magical of an experience as it was 27 years ago.

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Have you seen Disney’s new live-action Aladdin yet? What did you think? What other Disney remakes are you most looking forward to seeing? Comment below!

Aladdin is now in theaters nationwide.