Cinematic Releases: A Whole New World: Aladdin (2019) - Reviewed

Disney’s quest to remake all their animated movies into live action continues this week with the release of Aladdin. Based on the trailers, it did not look particularly promising. Though I have not seen the animated version in many years, it was one of my favorites when I was a kid. It seemed unlikely that the same goofy, heartwarming charm that captivated me then would be replicated in a live action adaptation. Surprisingly, it did not take long for Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin to win me over. It did so mostly by remaining faithful and successfully capturing the spirit of the original. It is exciting and amusing. It worked for me, yet it might work even better for someone for whom this is completely new.

The story and major characters have been recreated effectively. Aladdin is still a plucky hero who lives on the streets of Agrabah, stealing food to survive. Unbeknownst to him, he meets Princess Jasmine, pulling him into the path of the scheming vizier Jafar and thrusting him into an adventure involving the magical Genie. In addition to those four, Abu the monkey, Rajah the tiger and Iago the parrot are all brought to life as well. The latter two are not given quite as much importance, but Abu has a few nice moments.

Pull my finger. 

Guy Ritchie, known for his British gangster movies and the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes franchise, was not an obvious choice to direct Aladdin. His stuff is visually flashy, in a gritty way as opposed to Disney’s general sense of wonder. Here, there is little flash, with most of the visual focus put on the sets and special effects. He captures the crowded market of Agrabah and the opulence of the castle, contrasting them against each other to good effect. The wonder comes from the magic of the Genie and scenes of Aladdin flying on a magic carpet, which are suitably beautiful. 

Unfortunately, the Cave of Wonders was a bit of a letdown and there are a few scenes where the Genie, portrayed decently enough by Will Smith, seems out of place next to the human characters, and not in the way he is supposed to. His look is slightly awkward at times, but the cartoonishness of his animation fits his larger than life personality. The movie drags in a couple spots, possibly because of some additions that do not really add a whole lot. However, Ritchie paces things quickly, allowing the things fans like so much about Aladdin to shine through.

One of those things is the music. All of the songs are back. Several of them have received mild makeovers to reflect the style of this specific telling. There is also one new song, a solo for Jasmine that articulates how she feels and attempts to give her a little more agency. A couple of the numbers have large-scale productions, namely Friend Like Me and Prince Ali, both important for setting the plot in motion and establishing the central relationships. Neither come off as spectacle for its own sake. Most of them emphasize character over choreography. The good ones are still very good, well performed by the new cast. They help keep the sense of fun and adventure present.

I knew you'd be impressed by my flying carpet. 

If it seems like much of this review has been spent comparing this Aladdin to its predecessor, these movies mainly exist to remind audiences of something they already love. Nostalgia is an extremely powerful weapon and Disney has learned how to wield it to their great advantage. While the new versions pale in comparison, that does not automatically mean they are bad. On its own, Aladdin is enjoyable and light. It does what it sets out to do fairly well, keeping the original constantly in mind while updating things just enough so it does not feel exactly the same. You may ask why a live action remake was necessary in the first place. Certainly a valid question for all of these adaptations. At least the one we have gotten is pretty good.

-Ben Pivoz