This blog post is later than I wanted it to be, mostly because at least for now, my new position at work can be mentally tiring. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind. I’ve always had the personality type where I’d rather be busy at work than bored, and I feel guilty when I don’t feel like I’m earning my pay. But it means that at least until I get more used to my new job, my blog posts might be a bit slower coming out. But in any case, I apologize.
With that said, let’s get into this retrospective review of the 2019 Aladdin remake by Disney. The original Aladdin was always among my favourite animated movies as a kid, and even around the time I was trying to grow up too fast, I would still enjoy seeing bits and pieces of it from time to time (same goes for The Lion King). Even as an adult, I very much enjoy this movie. I like the characters, the music is both fun and kind of epic, and the blend of traditional animation and CGI works very well. This was a technically impressive movie when it first released, and it stands up fairly well.
With the remake, there’s no denying that it’s technically impressive. Any time Disney puts a fair amount of budget into a movie, you know it’ll at least take full advantage of today’s technology. For the most part, the other visual aspects of the movie are well done. The costume work is fairly good, borrowing from the original movie’s style and adding to it. Of course, visuals alone don’t make a movie good. They can enhance an already good movie, but you can also have low budget movies that are still brilliant. For example, Rocky is considered to be a masterpiece, yet its budget totaled at around $1 million.
Production for this movie was announced in 2016, with Guy Ritchie directing. Ritchie has made good movies, including Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, but he’s also made some mega stinkers, including Swept Away (which grossed about a tenth of its budget), and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (also a box office bomb). As much as he is capable of creating good movies, most of his good movies are in the crime genre. Right away he seems like a questionable pick to remake an animated musical.
The first major cast announcement was Will Smith as Genie, which was immediately a controversial pick. Up until the movie’s release, people worried that he would be the worst part of the movie, because it seemed like an attempt to replace Robin Williams’ brilliant comedic performance in the role. More on that later. The movie’s production was delayed by about a month, as they were struggling to find the right actor to play Aladdin. They eventually decided to cast a relative newcomer, Mena Massoud. Other major cast members include Naomi Scott as Jasmine, Marwan Kenzari as Jafar, Navid Negahban as the Sultan, and Nasim Pedrad as a new character, Jasmine’s handmaiden.
The casting ended up being a fairly mixed bag. Massoud is decent as Aladdin, but he often seems to be trying too hard to imitate the animated version. He exaggerates his physical movements, especially during the musical numbers. It makes for an awkward performance, and you don’t want that out of your title character. Scott is pretty good as Jasmine, doing the best she can with her material. Negahban is fine as the Sultan, although he doesn’t have much to work with. He was mostly a bumbling comedic character in the original, while here, he’s kind of boring. Jasmine’s handmaiden is a fine character, and she does help improve Jasmine’s character arc while adding a bit of comedy.
Now let’s look at both the best casting choices, and the worst. First off, Jafar. In the original, Jafar is charismatic, intimidating, clearly loves being evil, but can also be subtle and manipulative. He’s a great villain. In this movie, he’s boring. Even when he tries to be intimidating in the film’s climax, he still comes across as flat. I’m not sure who is responsible for making him a nothing character, but what they did with Jafar is enough to stop this remake from being good. Another fun aspect of Jafar’s character in the original was his relationship with his parrot, Iago, voiced by Gilbert Gottfried. Gottfried is entertaining in the original as a pessimistic whiner who helps keep Jafar focused, and comes up with a lot of great insults. He’s also smart, and is arguably even more evil than Jafar. In the remake, Iago is just a regular parrot. It further emphasizes how boring Jafar is in the remake.
The best casting choice, is ironically, the one everyone was worried would be the worst part of the movie. Smith as the Genie is fantastic. It seems like everyone knew that Smith couldn’t properly replace Williams’ brilliant comedic performance, so they didn’t even try. Sure, Smith does insert some of his own comedic talents, but they instead focused on his natural charm. Not only does his charm work fairly well with the changes in his writing, but it makes him the one genuinely good change in a movie that is otherwise too close to the original.
The musical elements of the original is part of what made it so good. The 1992 classic included the mysterious opening number, “Arabian Nights”, the fun introductory song for Aladdin’s character, “One Jump Ahead”, the very entertaining “Friend Like Me”, the epic anthem song “Prince Ali”, and the Academy Award winning romantic number, “A Whole New World”. Each of those songs has a unique feel, yet they all feel thematically similar with a Broadway feel and a touch of stereotypical Middle Eastern flair.
Each of these songs are redone for the 2019 version, however none of them feel right. Pretty much all of them are auto tuned, which immediately takes away from the Broadway feel. Even Smith is auto tuned, despite the fact that he’s a talented singer/rapper. The visuals feel off during these numbers, especially for “One Jump Ahead”. In Aladdin’s introductory number, they frequently speed up or slow down the visuals to match the beat. It makes the whole thing feel awkward, and puts even further emphasis on Massoud’s exaggerated movements. The timing in “A Whole New World” feels completely off. That may be because I’m used to the original, but the change in the timing ruins the romantic feel of the song for me.
The worst offender for the remade songs are the Geenie’s numbers though. As much as Smith does a great job with inserting his own charm into the role, the remake’s songs still keep the style and lyrics from the original. In those songs, Williams is clearly not a talented singer, but he puts so much passion into his performance, and so much of his comedic talents, that they’re fun to listen to anyway.
Smith actually tries to emulate Williams’ style in these songs, and it just doesn’t work. I’m pretty sure that’s a directorial choice, because the end credits have a rap version of “Friend Like Me” that works so much better. That should have put that version they into the main film. And no, I don’t think it would have clashed with the rest of the songs in the movie. If anything, it would have complimented them.
2019’s Aladdin also features a new song. Scott sings a Jasmine focused solo called “Speechless”, which is supposed to emphasize how she feels like she’s being silenced by both her father and Jafar, but she won’t let that happen. On paper, it’s a good concept, and it does help forward her own story (which is greatly expanded on in the remake). The problem is, while the rest of the songs are big musical style numbers, Speechless is a pure modern pop number. It feels completely out of place, and it also grinds the movie to a halt, when a couple of seconds of either facial expressions or whispering to herself could have accomplished the same thing.
Overall, I like what they did with Jasmine’s own expansions in the story, and that she was declared the new ruler of Agrabah by the end of the movie after she showed genuine leadership and wisdom. It gives her more agency in the story. Even if she was already a great character in the original, most of her agency was robbed in the third act. This movie doesn’t completely eliminate that problem, but it does reduce it. But if anything, her song holds her character arc back. It’s not a bad song by any means, but it feels like it’s in the wrong movie.
On top of all these complaints, there are also weird dialogue changes and minor mythos changes here and there. Instead of the simple “I wish for your freedom”, Aladdins’ final wish is “I wish to set you free”. But you’ve also got the genie interrupting Aladdin a couple of times, dragging out the scene longer. These aren’t necessarily bad lines, but when you’ve stuck with the original version so closely, these slight changes in wording feel kind of pointless. This is a bit of a nitpick, but it still bugs me.
By no means is this remake bad. Despite all of my complaints, it’s still a mildly entertaining watch. But it’s clearly inferior to the original in a number of ways. Most of the performances range from awkward to boring. The best parts of the movie are the Genie and Jasmine, and almost everyone else is either mediocre or completely forgettable. The increased runtime, while adding little more than Jasmine’s expanded character arc, makes the movie feel stretched thin. If you’re a fan of the original, nothing in this movie will hurt you, nor will it ruin the original. It’s at least good enough to watch out of curiosity, and out of the three Renaissance era remakes we have so far, it is the best. But the 1992 animated version is better in almost every way.
(Jafar is so boring in this remake, this is the only gif I could find of him)
Regardless of how one feels about this remake, and despite its mixed reviews (57% on Rotten Tomatoes), it performed very well. It earned $1.051 billion on a $183 million budget.
We’ll conclude this blogathon with The Lion King, hopefully by next weekend. After that, I think I’m going to avoid theme months at least until I’m more used to my job and don’t feel as mentally fatigued. I’ll post retrospective movie reviews whenever I can, but for the next while they might be a bit more scattered. I’ll probably be looking at a bunch of movies that don’t really fit into any specific theme. That and I’ll look at any new entries related to a blog series I’ve done in the past when they come around, including the upcoming Mulan remake, which is scheduled to release straight to Disney + in September after cancelling its theatrical release.
Needless to say, it’s been a weird 2020, and it feels like it’s only going to get weirder. That’s putting it gently.