Disney’s latest live-action remake is a solid hit, says Film Critic Emma Curzon, refreshingly updating the 1992 original with 21st century flair
Okay, let’s be honest and get the awkward part out of the way: even the least cynical among us are perfectly aware that Disney making live-action remakes of (apparently) each and every one of their beloved animated classics. So far, these have turned out to be little more than a very sparkly cash grab, as the studio have churned out bland recreations that add little to the original magic. With that in mind, cinema-goers can be forgiven for being pessimistic going into Guy Ritchie’s re-imagining of 1992 classic Aladdin, not least because this is the man who made King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
And yet, Aladdin is one sparkly cash grab that I would happily recommend. It is not perfect, even by the standards we set for children’s movies, but it is colourful, well-acted, often funny and at times even genuinely moving, which is impressive given the slight overload of Will Smith. Not to mention it puts an end to over twenty years of slight wincing at the racial insensitivity of the original by giving some desperately-needed quick fixes to the worst parts of it.
Let’s start with those quick fixes. In ‘Arabian Nights’, the racist-even-for-the-nineties lines ‘where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face’ and ‘it’s barbaric but hey, it’s home!’ have been deservedly given the boot and replaced. Throw out, too, the references to hand amputation and slavery, and, besides Jafar, the only downsides to living in Agrabah seem to be the pick-pocketing monkey, the fact that no one (even when blood-related) has a consistent accent, and the men all having the audacity to wear shirts so you can’t check to see if live-action Aladdin has recognisable nipples.
Speaking of the beloved characters’ live-action counterparts, there are good performances all round. Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott are both stellar casting for Aladdin and Jasmine, while Nasim Pedrad is a joy to watch as Jasmine’s maid and wing-woman Dalia. Meanwhile, rather than go down the “creepy old man” route for Jafar, the casting director went with Dutch-Tunisian actor Marwan Kenzari – who turns out to be a perfect choice. Quite apart from fully deserving his new fan-given moniker ‘Hot Jafar’ (yes, really), Kenzari makes the role his own, staying firmly on the side of pure evil but delivering every line with a cold suaveness that makes him quite the charismatic baddie.
But back to the big blue elephant in the room. Robin Williams’ Genie would always be a near-impossible act to follow, but what works hugely in Will Smith’s favour is that he avoids trying this altogether. Instead, he embraces his own brand of comedy and incorporates his hip-hop background into the songs, creating a Genie that’s far closer to his Fresh Prince character than to Williams’ performance. You never quite forget that you’re watching Will Smith playing a character, but it is a strong performance all the same.
With original composer Alan Menken back on side, the soundtrack is skilfully updated to gel better with the live-action format, bringing the 90s favourites joyfully to life along with a couple of new tracks. Ritchie, meanwhile, puts his action/thriller background to good use: some of the dialogue annoyingly predictable and the pacing in ‘One Jump’ feels off at times, but otherwise the action scenes are solid, including a chase sequence that injects a welcome shot of adrenaline into the climax, and even a couple of his trademark slow-motion shots. The costumes and sets are gorgeous, too.
The best part of the film’s welcome makeover, however, is Jasmine. As mentioned above, Scott plays the character excellently, but if Ritchie had followed the original formula, her portrayal would still feel annoyingly regressive. 1992’s Jasmine deserves credit for wanting to marry for love etc., but that’s as far as her ambition goes. Not to mention she goes from the confidence and attitude of her opening scenes to trying to seduce Jafar in a sexy red outfit, a scene made all the more nauseating when you consider that she is supposed to be 15. Naomi Scott’s Jasmine has much bigger dreams: never mind marrying the Sultan, she wants to be the Sultan. And then there is ‘Speechless’, a new song that Menken wrote with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (of La La Land fame). It is a wonderful track, powerful and rousing, an ideal empowerment anthem for the young girls who will be growing up with this film. ‘Let It Go’, eat your heart out…
Through keeping many of the best things about the original, removing its more … backwards parts and throwing in a few refreshingly modern updates, Ritchie and co have given the Disney classic a vibrant, colourful makeover to produce a film that –
thanks in no small part to its much more empowered princess – really does feel like a fairy-tale for the 21st century.