Synopsis: A kind-hearted street urchin and a power-hungry Grand Vizier vie for a magic lamp that has the power to make their deepest wishes come true. (IMDB)
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Written by: John August, Guy Ritchie
Starring: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad
My review: It’s been a few weeks now since Aladdin came out, and if you told me a year ago about the relatively nice reception the film has had with the public, I would have been a little surprised. But, as it turns out, there was a lot of ado about Aladdin that turned out to be nothing. On the contrary, the film is fine. Merely fine. I think for many adults watching it, the film isn’t life-changing. But in other ways, it is a change of pace that is on par with Hollywood’s growing interest in representation in entertainment.
So the good stuff regarding the film starts with Mena Massoud. Personally, I think he embodied everything a 21st century version of the ’90s animated character would have. Surprisingly, Massoud’s Aladdin is a bit more relatable than the ’90s character since he’s even bigger goofball. That leads to some of the film’s issues regarding writing. For instance, Aladdin gets stuck on talking about jam for 2 or 3 minutes too long in this film, and while it is meant to be an awkward moment in the film, it’s just a little to awkward to be completely funny. But it was fun seeing Massoud play the role of a young man who is unsure of himself and must learn to believe in himself to gain the hand of Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott).
Also, Massoud’s charming personality in real life makes you want to root for him in the film. If you follow him on social media, you might know that he brings his fans in on his acting journey, from being on the Aladdin set to being backstage at his interviews. His weekly social media updates along with other posts showcase him as a new actor who is excited about the opportunity he’s been given, and that makes him extremely likable. You want the film to be a success for his sake.
Will Smith, believe it or not, isn’t tragic in the role as the Genie. Of course, much of the hoopla surrounding the film came from Smith being cast as the Genie because Robin Williams made it such a signature role in the ’90s. No one will ever be able to compare to Williams, and perhaps we as millennial fans should have made peace with that a long time go so we could give Smith a fair chance.
Overall, Smith did a good job. He did his best to make the Genie his own character. That doesn’t mean there weren’t weird moments with Smith’s performance. For instance, hearing Smith sing isn’t awesome. And there was too much of a reliance on hip-hop dancing as part of the Genie’s “powers.” Why would the Genie make Aladdin dance like he’s part of a breakdancing dance troupe? The dancing moments would remind me of that cringeworthy moment toward the end of the live-action Alice in Wonderland, when Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter starts breakdancing out of nowhere. But on the whole, Smith brought his usual charm and hilarity, and like always, he was extremely likable. So don’t go into the film thinking Smith is a trainwreck in this film; he’s quite competent in the role.
Naomi Scott is also quite competent as Princess Jasmine. To be honest, she had to grow on me in the film, because I have some pretty high hopes when it comes to Jasmine. But like Massoud’s Aladdin, Scott’s Jasmine is a 21st century take on the character. Even though the original animated version of Jasmine was all about women’s empowerment, what with her exclamation, “I am not a prize to be won!”, Scott’s Jasmine takes that sentiment to its fullest expression.
In this film, Jasmine wants to be sultan because she doesn’t want some prince from some other kingdom usurp her power and rule over her people and her country. Spoiler alert, but yes, Jasmine does become Sultan (in between singing a “Me Too”-esque song called “Speechless”) and Aladdin isn’t sultan as he is in the animated franchise, but is a royal consort. If my royalty knowledge is correct, I think that means Aladdin would still be named a prince, but that’s all he could ever be, whereas Jasmine would be Sultana, much like how Queen Elizabeth is the keeper of the British throne and her husband is Prince Philip. I thought that was cool, especially since Aladdin never wanted power in the first place; he just wanted to marry the woman of his dreams because he loved her. Just so happened that woman is a princess who becomes the next in line for the throne.
Marwan Kenzari was okay as Jafar. I feel like I was expecting a lot more from his characterization ever since the internet went wild for his “Hot Jafar” pictures, so maybe I let myself down in some way. But I felt like Kenzari did his best with the role–I just don’t know if he delved as deep as another, more scene-chewing actor would have. He’s no Raul Julia, that’s for sure.
But Kenzari does have his charms in the role. I think he was playing Jafar too much like a character from a real life drama, which blocked him from how hammy he could have taken the role. But I did like how Kenzari’s Jafar draws parallels between himself and Aladdin. The writing shows us a Jafar that recognizes himself in Aladdin–like Aladdin, Jafar was also a streetrat, even down to having an animal sidekick (a much more toned-down Iago is voiced by Alan Tudyk, who seems to be gaining a career as a man of a thousand voices, what with his voice work in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). However, Jafar is the flip side of what Aladdin could have been if he had a dark heart. I thought seeing Jafar as Aladdin’s foil was interesting, and perhaps that idea was also present in the animated film as well.
Nasim Pedrad as Jasmine’s handmaiden Dalia, however, was the acting trainwreck of the film. I didn’t know where Pedrad was going with the character, and most of the time, it felt like she was trying to craft some weird SNL character when all she had to do was act like a nice woman. If we could get an article on Pedrad’s thought process behind crafting Dali’s characterization, I would love to read it.
Despite Pedrad’s abysmal character work, the thing that really brought the film down as a whole is Guy Ritchie’s directorial work. It reminded me of the worst of his Sherlock Holmes directorial decisions, such as slow-mo when it’s not necessary, and just bland presentation overall. The weird choices got even worse when there weren’t only slow-mo parts, but sped-up parts that just made it seem like the editing team were trying to fit a too-short film in a feature-length time frame, even though the film is clearly 2 hours long.
But as a whole, the film still chalks up to being just fine. Would I watch it again? Sure. But I think the film’s real gold comes from how children will receive it, especially children of a Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) background. Let’s think about it–Aladdin has been the most prominent (and frankly, only) positive film about MENA people, and it still is with this live-action version. I’ve been in the mall recently as well as Target, and I’ve seen so many toys, books and dolls from the film, stuff that kids will beg their parents for. For the child of color, having products like this will positively affect them for years to come.
Hopefully, though, this film will spawn more films with MENA actors, especially since the film was extremely lucrative. We need more stories aside from Aladdin out there with a prominently MENA cast. Don’t let Aladdin be the only film, Hollywood!